Business and Labor

Duryea Bros. Build 1st US Motorcar, Despite Themselves

Frank Duryea and his brother Charles somehow managed to overcome their sibling rivalry to build the first gasoline-powered motorcar in America. Charles came up with the designs, while Frank turned them into reality. Then Charles got mad and went home.

Charles and Frank Duryea and their motorcar

Charles and Frank Duryea and their motorcar

They were born in Illinois, Charles in 1861, Frank in 1869. Charles moved to Washington, D.C., to work on bicycles and his brother followed him. Two moves in two years brought them to Springfield, Mass., where they studied the internal combustion engine at the Springfield public library.

Their first automobile was a buggy with an engine. Charles drew up the designs, found an investor and then stormed back to Illinois. Frank built the motorcar in an old machine shop. Along the way, he contracted typhoid fever, got married and spent much time begging investors for money. The result of his work was crude, but it ran. Frank successfully drove it down the streets of Springfield on Sept. 21, 1893.

The Springfield Morning Union was there to record the moment: Residents in the vicinity of Florence street flocked to the windows yesterday afternoon astonished to see gliding by in the roadway a common top carriage with no shafts and no horse attached. The vehicle is operated by gasoline and is the invention of Erwin Markham and J. F. Duryea… The vehicle, which was operated by Mr. Bemis, started from the corner of Hancock avenue and Spruce street and went up the avenue, up Hancock street and started down Florence street, working finely, but when about half-way down the latter street it stopped short, refusing to move. Investigation showed that the bearing had been worn smooth by the friction and a little water sprinkled upon it put it in running condition again. The rest of the trip was made down Florence and down Spruce street, to the residence of the inventors. They hope to have the vehicle in good working condition soon.

Frank built a second car, and in 1895 entered it in the Thanksgiving Day Chicago-to-Evanston-and-Back race sponsored by The Chicago Times-Herald. He entered the car against three Benzes and two electric cars. Charles helped, taking shortcuts in a horse-drawn sleigh to bring parts for repairs to the car. A snowstorm caused the cars to slide into snow banks and each other. Frank was the only one to finish the 54-mile race, averaging a speed of 5-1/4 miles per hour.

Two months before the race, Charles and Frank formed the first automobile manufacturing company in Chicopee, Mass., and called it the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. They sold 13 of their hand-built motor wagons, but the brothers argued and Charles went home again after three years. It was the first mass-produced car in America, if you could call it that.

Frank joined the Stevens Arms and Tool Company in Chicopee Falls, Mass. In 1904 he organized the Stevens-Duryea company and produced the first six-cylinder car in the U.S. The Stevens-Duryea Model Y and Big Six were popular cars manufactured until 1927. Charles tried various automobile ventures, never made much money at them and ended up as the editor of Automobile Trade Journal. He died Sept. 28, 1938 in Philadelphia.

Unlike his brother, Frank became rich from car making. He retired in 1915, spending his last 54 years semi-retired in Greenwich, Conn. He died in Saybrook, Conn., on Feb. 15, 1967.

With thanks to American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries by Charles W. Carey.


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