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The Forgotten Car That Won America’s First Auto Race

The zippy roadster won America’s first automobile race in 1895 with an average speed of 5 mph

J. Frank Duryea, left, and race umpire Arthur W. White, right, in the 1895 Duryea during the Chicago Times-Herald race, the first automobile race in the U.S. (Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library)
smithsonian.com

On a cold, windy Thanksgiving Day exactly 121 years ago, six cars set out from Chicago. Only two of them made it back, but they all made history.

The winner of the 1895 race was Frank Duryea, driving a car he and his brother designed and manufactured, the Saturday Evening Post wrote. He drove 52.4 miles in 10 hours and 23 minutes. To put that number into perspective, Lewis Hamilton, the winner of the Monaco Grand Prix this year, travelled a total of 161.9 miles in less than two hours.

You may not have heard of the Duryeas, but they’re among the founding fathers of the American auto industry, and the Chicago Times-Herald “motocycle” race is a big part of their history. After the race, they established the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896 and mass produced their car (well, 13 copies of it)—the first company to do so. A Duryea vehicle was also in the first car crash in the United States, according to Keith Barry writing for Wired.

When the Monaco Grand Prix was first run in 1929, car ownership was becoming more commonplace and many manufacturers were innovating ways of making many identical copies of the same car—in other words, the mass automobile production that characterizes today’s auto industry.

In 1895, the automobile market was still open. The innovations of Henry Ford—the Model T and the assembly line—were over a decade away. Cars were hand-built works of craftsmanship free for individual innovation. H.H. Kolsaat, the publisher of the Times-Herald who came up with the idea to hold the race after hearing about the world’s first automobile race in France, wrote that he was besieged with pitches from fledgling “horseless carriage” makers who had the idea but not the means to fund a vehicle.

In the end, only six vehicles made it to the starting line. The Duryea Wagon was the only gas-powered American car to arrive. The three other gas-powered contenders were all built by Karl Benz, according to the Post. They raced for the De La Verne Refrigerator Machine Company, Macy’s Department Store and a private family, with the son of American manufacturer Hieronymous Mueller at the wheel. The other two cars were electric, and failed quickly in the cold.

If the race had taken place on July 4, as Kolsaat originally intended, maybe the Chicago-Waukegan-Chicago would be an annual tradition. But it was run on Thanksgiving that year, November 28. The weather was 30 degrees and windy by the lake—a crummy atmosphere for cheering on cars, never mind driving them.

The Duryeas didn’t become a big name in the post-war car boom, but their moment of victory helped usher in the American auto age by giving the United States a race to rival the Paris-Rouen race of 1894 and proving that cars could race in bad weather. As for Hieronymus Mueller, his company still exists, but his interest in cars was just a fad. His lasting invention was the Mueller Water Tapper, a device used in urban plumbing systems. The concepts behind that technology are used by his company today.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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