It is difficult, and a bit foolhardy, to identify any one car as being the most significant in the history of the American automobile industry. That said, the 1896 Duryea Runabout has a better claim to that title than most. It is the first series-produced automobile made in the United States. While just 13 copies were built, they were just that—identical copies as opposed to singular prototypes or custom orders. Only one of these pioneering vehicles survives today—and it is part of The Henry Ford’s collections.
Brothers Charles E. and J. Frank Duryea typified the mechanically-minded experimenters who built the first American automobiles. Charles entered the bicycle business in 1888, initially in St. Louis before moving to Peoria, Illinois, and then Washington, DC. The younger Frank joined his brother not long after graduating high school in 1888. The brothers were bitten by the auto bug after reading an 1889 article inScientific American on the pioneering work done in Germany by Karl Benz. After relocating to Springfield, Massachusetts, the Duryea brothers set out to build their own automobile.
Their first prototype, completed in 1892, was a failure, prompting Charles to return to Peoria and bicycles. Frank remained in Massachusetts and continued tinkering with the car. After reworking the engine and transmission, he had it up and running. Frank immediately started work on a second vehicle while the reinvigorated Charles contributed ideas by mail. The second car, surprisingly advanced for the 1890s, was equipped with an electric starter, a water pump for engine cooling, and pneumatic tires. Frank drove it to victory in the 1895 Chicago Times-Herald race, where he covered a grueling 54-mile round trip between Chicago and Evanston in late November cold and snow.
Capitalizing on the publicity from their win, Charles and Frank established the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in Springfield. At a time when their contemporaries were still testing home-built contraptions the Duryea brothers initiated commercial production. Their 1896 Runabout was closely based on the Chicago racer. The horizontally-mounted two-cylinder engine produced six horsepower and the car topped out at a speed of about 20 miles per hour. Leather belts transferred power from the engine to the rear wheels. The clever tiller combined the functions of a steering wheel, gearshift and throttle. The tiller even telescoped in and out to ease the driver’s entry—an early version of today’s tilt steering wheel.
The 1896 Duryea, a decided “first” for the automobile industry, proved to be the last major contribution from the Duryea brothers. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company closed in 1898 and the brothers went their separate ways. Charles experimented with three-wheeled vehicles while Frank had some success with the up-market Stevens-Duryea automobile company. Sadly, the brothers’ long-simmering business quarrels boiled into a feud that never quite healed. Charles claimed full credit for building their first automobile until his death in 1938. Frank reestablished his claim to history starting in 1942, and he traded a few intergenerational barbs with Charles’s son. When he died in 1967 at the ripe age of 97, J. Frank Duryea was the last survivor of America’s pioneer automakers.
The 1896 Duryea Runabout is an icon for the industry it established. Indeed, the Runabout is the very symbol of the Antique Automobile Club of America. Meanwhile, the sole-surviving car itself occupies its rightful place alongside the other ground-breaking vehicles in the collections of The Henry Ford. Many visitors are surprised to learn that the industry began not with Olds, Buick or Ford in Michigan, but with a pair of inventive brothers in Massachusetts.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This story originally appeared as part of our archived Pic of the Month series.