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Duryea Motors – The 1st Commercial Car Manufacturer in America

Charles (left) and Frank Duryea in their 1893 Duryea gasoline car. From Outing magazine Vol 51 Pub. 1908

Charles (left) and Frank Duryea in their 1893 Duryea gasoline car. From Outing magazine Vol 51 Pub. 1908

Charles Duryea was born on this day (Dec 15) in 1861. Charles and his brother Frank were bicycle makers who in 1896 would go on to be the first to commercially serial produce vehicles in America. They did so under the name of the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in what was the largest automobile factory in the United States at the time.

In 1886 Charles became interested in the operation of a gasoline engine which he observed at the Ohio State Fair and began designing an engine of his own. Over the next 7 years Charles and Frank designed a prototype of an automobile which utilized that engine.

In 1893 Frank Duryea publicly road-tested their first gasoline powered automobile known as the Buggyaut in Springfield MA.  The automobile was a wagon with a 4 HP single cylinder gasoline engine. There was much fanfare and the vehicle was deemed to be promising despite traveling less than 600 feet before a belt failed and ending the maiden voyage.

On Thanksgiving 1895 Frank won first place and $2,000 in prize money in the first motor car race in America driving an 1895 Duryea, which was their 2nd car produced. It was a 50 mile race that went from Chicago to Evanston and back that took about 9 hours at average speeds of just under 6 MPH.

Encouraged by their successes, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, MA produced 13 identical cars known as ‘The Duryea Motor Wagon’ by hand in 1896, 10 of which were sold in the United States. Their cars were the first commercial produced automobile available for purchase in America.

In May 1896 one of the Duryea Motor Wagons was involved in the first recorded automobile accident in American. In New York City motorist Henry Wells hit a bicyclist with his new Duryea. The rider suffers a broken leg, Wells spent the night in jail in the nation’s first traffic accident.

In 1898 the Duryea brothers went their separate ways and the Duryea Motor Wagon Company was closed over personal and business disputes.

Charles Duryea

Charles Duryea

Charles, eight years older than Frank had been known to take advantage of Frank in publicity and patents.

Charles was a visionary with more than 50 patents, and a shameless self-promoter whose ideas were brought to life by his younger brother, Frank, a master mechanical engineer with 20 patents of his own. (Vogrin, B)

Frank went out on his own and eventually joined with Stevens Arms and Tool Company to form the Stevens-Duryea Company which was sold to Westinghouse in 1915.

Frank Duryea

Frank Duryea

Charles tried to produce some of his own designs with various companies until 1916. Thereafter he limited himself to writing technical book and articles. He died in 1938.

Frank received $500,000 in the Westinghouse deal and lived in comfort on the Connecticut shoreline in Madison and then later in Old Saybrook until his death in 1967,  just seven months shy of his 98th birthday.

While not a commercially successful venture; The Duryea Motor Wagon Company did pave the way for mass production in the automobile industry by being the first to serially produce (and reproduce) identical cars for sale.

 

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