The story of Indianapolis’ early automotive heritage begins a little over 120 years ago. Carl G. Fisher’s major recreational pursuit was bicycling. In the summer of 1890, 16 year-old Fisher and a dozen or so like-minded young cycling enthusiasts formed their own social club, the Zig-Zag Cycle Club. The club rented a large brick house adjoining the Empire Theater on Delaware Street. Members participated in riding events to towns located 20 or 30 miles from Indianapolis and back. At the time, riding a high-wheeler bicycle was an athletic challenge on the rutted roads of the time. Joining Fisher on those rides were James A. Allison and Arthur C. Newby.
In 1891, the seventeen-year-old Fisher and his two brothers opened a bicycle shop on Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis. Soon, Carl left his brothers Earle and Rollo in charge of the shop, while he engaged in regional bicycle competitions around the Midwest. One of his closest friends and rivals, Barney Oldfield, later became one of the nation’s most famous race car drivers. Bicycle racing provided Fisher the opportunity to cultivate social and business contacts that he would use in the future.
By the late 1890s, Indianapolis as well as the rest of the country was enjoying the bicycle craze. To some, it seemed as if bicycling rivaled baseball as the national pastime. Arthur C. Newby built a quarter-mile wooden racing oval on Central Avenue just north of Fall Creek in 1898 in time for the League of American Wheelman Convention. The velodrome offered seating in covered grandstands for up to 2,000 fans that paid admissions ranging upward from 25 cents.
Fisher purchased his first automobile, a De Dion Bouton motor tricycle in 1898. This budding interest for autos formed the springboard for converting the bicycle shop into an auto dealership later that year. Fisher and automobiles soon became inextricably intertwined in the history of Indianapolis. Fisher, Oldfield, and Newby barnstormed across the Midwest, appearing at dozens of local, regional, and state automobile races in 1901. On October 1, 1904, Fisher won the five-mile Diamond Cup race in Chicago, Illinois, driving the factory-entered Premier Comet.
Newby and two other individuals founded the predecessor of Diamond Chain Company, just outside of Indianapolis’ original mile square at West and South Streets in 1890. It was one of the first companies to exclusively produce bicycle chain in the U.S. As the bicycle craze died down about 1900, they began to produce multi-link chain for other transportation applications like automobiles. They proudly report that the 1903 Wright brothers’ flyer used Diamond Chain. Newby along with L.S. Dow and Phillip Goetz founded the National Automobile & Electric Company in Indianapolis during 1900.
An incident in 1904 provided the genesis for Fisher’s first fortune. Near his new auto showroom on North Illinois, Carl met Percy C. Avery, the patent holder for a compressed acetylene gas system for lighting buoys and lighthouses, who was looking for investors. Carl was so impressed with Avery’s demonstration of the system that he enlisted his friend James A. Allison to become partners with him and Avery in forming the Concentrated Acetylene Company.
Allison understood that the greatest obstacle to marketing the system was the explosive nature of the gas. Allison hypothesized a test for the compressed gas cylinder. Allison took it to the West Washington Street bridge spanning the White River. He threw it onto the rocks below, but it did not explode. He collected the device from the rocky shore and returned to Fisher’s dealership, where they agreed to start the company. The product they developed was the Prest-O-Lite system for automotive headlights. The Fisher Automobile Company location served as early Prest-O-Lite corporate offices before moving elsewhere.
In 1905, Fisher joined an American team that ventured to France to compete in the Gordon Bennett Cup races. He was stunned by the European cars’ superiority over the American models. This event started his thinking to improve American automobiles.
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