Tag Archives: Charles H. Black

Mileposts in Indiana automotive history-Part One

Hardly a week goes by without someone remarking to me about a milepost in Indiana automotive history. Indianapolis once had more automobile manufacturers than Detroit. Movie stars and kings once clamored for specific models made only in Indiana. The state was also home to several innovations such as tilt steering, cruise control, and front-wheel drive.

In this series of posts, I’ll share some of my list of Indiana’s mileposts in automotive history. I wish to share this automotive heritage to energize and excite auto enthusiasts to get involved with collectible cars.

Early 19th century Construction of the Indiana section of the National Road from Richmond to West Terre Haute took place between 1827 and 1839. It was the road that led wagons and coaches westward.

1885 The world’s first gas pump is invented by Sylvanus F. Bowser of Fort Wayne.

1911 Auburn
1911 Auburn
with Bowser pump

1891 Charles H. Black of Indianapolis garners the dubious distinction of having Indiana’s first auto accident when he ran a German-manufactured Benz automobile into downtown store windows.

1894 Elwood Haynes demonstrates one of the earliest American automobiles along Pumpkinvine Pike on the outskirts of Kokomo.

1894 Haynes Pioneer
Elwood Haynes
with 1894 Haynes Pioneer

1895 Elwood Haynes introduces the first use of aluminum alloy in an automobile in the Haynes-Apperson crankcase.

1896 The corrugated metal pipe culvert is invented by two Crawfordsville men Stanley Simpson, the town engineer, and James H. Watson, a sheet metal worker. Their patented pipe culvert has now become a common sight on highway construction projects around the world.

1900 Tom and Harry Warner, Abbott and J.C. Johnson, Col. William Hitchcock, and Thomas Morgan found Warner Gear Company of Muncie. Warner Gear’s first major contribution to the industry was the differential.

1902 The Marmon motorcar, designed by Indianapolis automaker Howard C. Marmon, has an air-cooled overhead valve V-twin engine and a revolutionary lubrication system that uses a drilled crankshaft to keep its engine bearings lubricated with oil-fed under pressure by a gear pump. This is the earliest automotive application of a system that has long since become universal to internal combustion piston engine design.

1902 The first Studebaker motorcar, introduced in South Bend, is an electric car. Studebaker Bros. had produced more than 750,000 wagons, buggies, and carriages since 1852.

1902 Studebaker Stanhope
1902 Studebaker Stanhope

1903 The Overland has its engine in the front, and rear-seat entrances are through the sides rather than the rear.

1903 The Auburn motorcar, introduced by Auburn Automobile Co. of Auburn, is a single-cylinder runabout with solid tires and a steering tiller. Charles, Frank and Morris Eckhart of Eckhart Carriage Co. started the firm with $7,500 in capital.

1903 The Haynes-Apperson is designed with a tilting steering column to allow low easy access for the driver or passenger upon entering or leaving the vehicle.

1903 Premier claims that the oak leaf on its radiator badge is the first use of an emblem as an automobile trademark.

Marmon 1904 Model A
Marmon 1904 Model A

1905 The Haynes Model L has a semi-automatic transmission.

For more information on Indiana automotive heritage check out our book Indiana Cars: A History of the Automobile in Indiana

Perilous Drives

Charles H. Black of Indianapolis was one of the early automotive pioneers. He probably was also one of the first Americans to actually drive an automobile, a German-made Benz in 1891.

Black 10-passenger Wagonette
Black 10-passenger Wagonette

This historic journey in Indianapolis resulted in another automotive first, according to an account related by Black’s mechanic. During this six-block drive, Black crashed into a surrey when the horses became frightened – the first automobile accident. At the next turn, the car drove into the Occidental Hotel shop window, thereby, creating the second automobile accident. The third happened when the auto destroyed another shop window a few feet away.

Acting in accordance with the suggestions from the police, Black and his passengers drove back to his carriage factory, ending one of the first automobile journeys in America.


Joseph J. and Nellie Cole in first car
Joseph J. and Nellie Cole in first car

In 1908, Joseph J. Cole entered the newly established automobile manufacturing field in Indianapolis. He was so excited about the prospect of driving his first automobile that he forgot that one important accessory was missing – the brakes. He spend most of the afternoon on this initial test drive driving around and around Monument Circle in downtown until the car ran out of gas, providing the necessary means to stop the car. He then had the car towed back to his shop.


Carl G. Fisher w 1913 Packard Runabout
Carl G. Fisher w 1913 Packard Runabout

A story about Carl G. Fisher, one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Lincoln Highway, illustrates the lack of adequate facilities for traveling any distance in the early days of the automobile. Around 1912, Fisher and a few friends were driving in unfamiliar territory nine miles outside the city limits of Indianapolis. Night fell along with a torrent of rain. In an open – top car, Fisher and his friends were drenched is seconds and miserably lost. There were no street lights to guide them in the pitch black night or road signs marking the way.

They did, however, feel comfortable that they had guessed the way back home until they came to a three-way fork in the road. No one was sure which fork to take, but someone thought he saw a sign at the top of a pole. Fisher lost the competition as to who would have to climb the pole to read the sign. So, he shinnied up the pole and attempted to light a match so that he could read the sign. One match after another was extinguished by the rain. Finally, one lit so that Fisher could read the sign-“Chew Battle-Ax Plug.”

This experience may have been one reason that Fisher became one of the automotive pioneers responsible for making night travel and long distance drives a reality. Fisher was instrumental in developing head lights and building modern highway systems.

For more information on Indiana rides & drives follow this link.

Who built Indiana’s first automobile-Charles H. Black?

Working as an Indianapolis carriage builder, Charles H. Black helped to herald the entry of the self-propelled motor wagon into Indiana. It has even been speculated that he may have built Indiana’s first automobile in 1891. Unfortunately, no contemporary newspaper accounts of the time exist to corroborate this claim, therefore it is not widely recognized. Elwood Haynes of Kokomo, Indiana, is generally accepted as one of the first to demonstrate a gasoline-powered automobile in America on July 4, 1894.

Indianapolis News December 27, 1913
Indianapolis News December 27, 1913

Black asserted in an article in the December 27, 1913, issue of the Indianapolis News that “In 1891, after making most of my parts in my blacksmith shop and having others made for me, I was ready with my first machine. I tried it out on the streets of Indianapolis, using the Circle and Delaware Street mostly as they were paved.” The article listed 12 prominent Indianapolis businessmen who recalled seeing Black operating his auto in the spring of 1891. If only there were contemporary sources to back-up this claim he might have received wider recognition for accomplishments.

Black Business Wagon
Black Business Wagon

As a skilled blacksmith and carriage maker, Black had the expertise to make most anything he needed. He built his own spark coil after rejecting one made in Germany. He commissioned a local storage battery company to build a battery specifically for his purpose.

Black is also known for a few other notable firsts. For example, in June 1892, Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison issued Black a license (possibly the first in the country) to drive on the city streets. Black probably also paid the first damage claim for an automobile accident in 1892 when he gave $1 to an ash hauler for a broken harness when the horse was frightened by the noise of his auto. Plus in 1893, President Benjamin Harrison rode in Black’s car in Indianapolis just after leaving the presidency. Black also claimed taking Thomas Taggart home from the Grand Hotel one day.

Black 10-passenger Wagonette
Black 10-passenger Wagonette

The fact remains that Charles H. Black conducted automotive experiments in the early 1890’s. Plus, the C. H. Black Manufacturing Co., at 44 South Pennsylvania Street (where the Century Building now stands), is documented as commercially producing autos from 1896 to 1900. The 1896 date establishes the firm as one of the first auto manufacturers in the state. The company’s printed catalog described five models from a lightweight two-passenger Business Wagon for $600 up to a 10-passenger Wagonette priced at $1,800. Black sold his designs and manufacturing rights in late 1899.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.