Early auto history

1894 Haynes Pioneer
Elwood Haynes in the 1894 Pioneer

Copyright Elwood Haynes Museum

In 1896 there were but five gasoline automobiles in the United States; the Duryea, Ford, Haynes, Lambert, and an imported Benz. All five were purely experimental machines, although considerable effort was made to sell duplicates of the Duryea and Haynes. There was absolutely no market and it was not until March 24, 1898, that the first bonafide sale was consummated. Alexander Winton, who ranked with the pioneers, Duryea, Ford and Haynes, from the view point of experimentation, sold a one-cylinder Winton automobile to Robert Allison, of Port Carbon, PA; received payment for it and shipped the car to Allison April 1, 1898.

The Waverley Company, of Indianapolis, built its first electric carriage in 1897.
note: the first Studebaker automobiles were electric 1902.

The National Road, built early in the nineteenth century, from Cumberland, MD, through PA, OH, IN and IL, was the first and only attempt of the Federal Government to stand sponsor for a highway project. The road was approximately 1,000 miles long and was used extensively until the day when railroads paralleled it. It fell into disuse and disrepair, and about 1840 was abandoned as one entire road. From the time it was built until the present, parts of it have been in constant use. In 1910, when interest in long permanent roads for automobiles use was kindled, the route of the old National Road was rediscovered, and since then it has been repaired and still is in use today.

The first super speedway to be built in the United States was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, over which annually a 500 mile contest was staged. The moving spirits of the track were Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby, and Frank H. Wheeler. The Indianapolis course was built of brick and was constructed for a theoretical speed of 61 miles per hour. The theoretical speed limit is point where the car begins to skid. On the brick turns at Indianapolis, the slewing and slipping of the driving wheels begin after a speed of 61 miles an hour was attained. That, however, is not the practical and actual limit of speed that could be attained on the track. The 2.5 mile oval is capable of accommodating a much higher rate as has been shown in the races since 1911 and in numerous public and private trials.

Celebrating Louis Chevrolet

If you are in Indianapolis for an auto event like the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, Bloomington Gold Corvettes USA Show, Performance Racing Industry Trade Show, or another automotive enthusiast event, I would like to share two must see sights celebrating Louis Chevrolet.

Louis Chevrolet Memorial
Louis Chevrolet Memorial

Your first stop should be the Louis Chevrolet Memorial just west of the main entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. This memorial, erected in spring 1975, celebrates Chevrolet’s exploits as an early racer, the designer of the first of the more than 125 million cars that bear his name built in 1911, and the first car builder to win two Indianapolis 500 mile races.

The four bronze panels depict Chevrolet and W. C. Durant, founder of General Motors, with the first Chevrolet passenger car in 1911; Chevrolet’s first winning car at Indianapolis, driven to victory in 1920 by brother Gaston; Chevrolet’s second Indianapolis winner, driven by Tommy Milton in 1921; and Chevrolet’s 1923 Barber-Warnock Fronty Ford at the Speedway with Henry Ford at the wheel. Most any time I visit the Hall of Fame Museum I stop by the memorial to think about these early days at the Speedway.

Chevrolet brothers memorial
Chevrolet brothers memorial

Next, head south to the Chevrolet brothers’ memorial at Holy Cross & St. Joseph Cemeteries at 2446 S. Meridian St. At the intersection with Pleasant Run Parkway N. Dr., turn west and go about two blocks. Then turn north at the cemetery entrance and proceed to the flag pole to find their gravesites at the fork in the road. Gaston was buried here in November 25, 1920, six months after winning the Indianapolis 500. Louis was buried here June 6, 1941, after complications from a leg amputation. Louis’ sons Charlot and Charles L. are buried just north of the bench. Arthur’s son also named Arthur, was also buried here in 1931 in the grave miss-marked as Arthur 1884-1946 (senior). Arthur senior is buried in Slidell, Louisiana. Sometimes when you visit the gravesites, they may be marked with a checkered flag or toy Chevrolet Camaro.

Close associates and fellow workers described Louis Chevrolet as fearless and daring, but never reckless; persevering, but quick-tempered and impetuous at times; a perfectionist who took pride in his work, with very little patience for the mistakes of others; and a dedicated innovator who deplored any and all social amenities which interfered with his customary 16-hour work day.

The next time you are visiting Indianapolis on an auto-enthusiast adventure I encourage you to visit the Louis Chevrolet Memorial and the Chevrolet brothers’ memorial to celebrate our car culture.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet, follow this link.

Auto travel in the early twentieth century

1906 Maxwell on an early highway
1906 Maxwell on an early highway

By the turn of the twentieth century, representatives of the fledgling automotive industry began to realize that the only way to prove their products’ worth and marketability as a serious means of transportation was to have a competitive contest. Gradually, the idea emerged for a tour through different parts of the country where a variety of road conditions would be encountered.

In 1904, the American Automobile Association developed and sponsored the first run from New York City to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo. Seventy-seven cars officially participated, but many hundreds more took part along the way. Thirty-six different makes were represented.

The 1,350-mile run from New York to St. Louis took 18 days and culminated on August 12 with a grand parade featuring the 66 finishers and 200 local cars. Historically, the car tour was probably the most highly publicized and significant tour the world would ever see.

One of the many obstacles the tourist had to deal with along the way was the absence of highway signs and markings to guide them. To compensate for this, local AAA clubs would send out a pilot car to mark the route with confetti. One time this practice caused near pandemonium when the driver of a pilot ran out of confetti midway between South Bend and Chicago. For a substitute, he brought a supply of corn and beans from a nearby farm. But the resulting road markings drew hundreds of chickens into the path of surprised tourists. The tour’s chairman remarked: “I followed the clearest trail that I have found since leaving home, and it wasn’t corn and beans either. It was chicken feathers: white, russet, speckled and black.”

After 1913, it was felt that the purposes which gave rise to this type of tour had been fulfilled and the activity ended.

Occasionally, I think of these tours while I am traveling on two-lane highways, and back roads.

Two Duesenberg Short-Wheelbase Roadsters

Clark Gable and Gary Cooper each owned a Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadster during the mid-1930’s.

Clark Gable's Duesenberg
Clark Gable’s Duesenberg

Both Gable and Cooper were passionate about their motor cars and had the ambition to custom order a Duesenberg Short-Wheelbase Roadster. These custom-built Hoosier-made Duesenbergs were the nation’s most expensive in the range of $15,000 to $18,000. At the time, Duesenberg was the nation’s best engineered and fastest prestige automobile.

Only two of these exotic 1935 Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters were built by Duesenberg, Incorporated in Indianapolis. Each automobile was built on a 125-inch wheelbase chassis and equipped with a special, dual-carburetor, dual overhead camshaft, supercharged engine, producing 320 horsepower. Top speed was a claimed 130 in high gear and 104 in second.

Gary Cooper's Duesenberg
Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg

Gable’s car was red and silver, while Cooper’s car was a more restrained medium gray and pale gray. The lightweight open-roadster custom bodies were designed by the legendary Duesenberg stylist J. Herbert Newport and built by LaGrande at Central Manufacturing Company in Connersville, Indiana.

Both these Duesenberg roadsters were on view at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in 1998. This was the only time both had appeared together.

These Duesenberg Model SSJ Roadsters are celebrated in the collector car hobby.

Indianapolis-built Waverley Electrics

1911 Waverley Electric
1911 Waverley Electric

Electric automobiles are not new inventions. For instance, Indianapolis-built Waverley Electrics were built from 1898 to 1916. Here are some comments from their 1911 catalog.

Among the inventions of recent years, the place of the electric automobile is unquestionably in the vein of progress. Whatever convenience or popularity attaches temporarily to the expansive force of steam of the explosive energy of gasoline, every thinking person is convinced that the motive power of the future is the silent, subtle, irresistible turning power of the electric motor. The force is everywhere and in everything, requiring only to be harnessed, set in motion and properly directed to do the work of the world.

It is equally certain that the place of the electric automobile is in the first rank of society. In the twentieth century America, the phrase “Electric carriage company” is beginning to take a similar place as denoting the special class of citizens who appreciate and observe good form in carriages well as in clothes, in dwellings, in manners and in everything else.

Again, the place of the Electric is in the center of family life. It is a carriage of ready service and equal convenience for every member of the family, for the office, the church, the theater, the neighborhood call, the shopping excursion, the drive on the boulevard, the trip to the park, or the country club. It dispenses with chauffer or driver, presents no mechanical difficulties and causes no trouble. Even the children may operate it with safety.

The place of the Waverley Electric is all of this and more. It is the place of leadership, of constant advance along its own individual lines, of steady progress in all those minor details that make for perfection. It is the place of rank and influence, the place of recognized superiority in point of excellence, in beauty and fitness of design, in mechanical efficiency and durability. The ownership of a Waverley suggests no invidious (causing envy) comparison, invites no criticisms. It is the accepted standard of its class. The purchaser of a Waverley is never called upon to explain or apologize for his choice.

Different models of Waverley’s have special points of convenience and excellence. All are alike in the essentials of Waverley efficiency, workmanship, and style.

Some of these points may be valid today. That’s how electric vehicles were marketed over 100 years ago.