When most historians answer the question who built the America’s first successful gasoline automobile, they usually point to the Duryea brothers’ machine which was demonstrated in Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 22, 1893. This citation overlooks the fact that John W. Lambert demonstrated and attempted to market his vehicle in the summer of 1891.
A 1960 article in Antique Automobile and an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica credited former Indiana resident John W. Lambert with building America’s first successful automobile in January 1891. At the time, Lambert was a resident of Ohio City, Ohio, which is just across the state line.
This event predated both Duryea’s and Haynes’ claims of being first. Lambert may not have pressed his claim because he felt that, although extremely successful mechanically, it was a financial failure. He was unable to generate sufficient sales for more.
The 1891 Lambert was a three-wheel vehicle with a one-cylinder gas engine, a carburetor, and a drive system of his own design. By 1892, Lambert improved his one-cylinder engine. He then joined his father and brother in Union City, Ohio, to manufacture stationary gas engines.
In 1894, Lambert moved to Anderson to oversee their expanded operations of the newly named Buckeye Manufacturing Company. After attending the Chicago Times Herald Race in 1895, he returned home with a renewed desire to manufacture an automobile. By 1898, he fitted the Buckeye engine to a four-wheel buggy and operated it with success. That year also saw another Lambert innovation—the friction-drive transmission.
In 1902, Lambert formed the Union Auto Company in Union City to produce a rear-engine automobile with gearless, friction-drive. In 1905, Lambert closed this firm and formed the Buckeye Manufacturing Company in Anderson.
By 1910, this company had over 1,000 employees producing 3,000 cars and trucks a year. Lambert manufactured automobiles, trucks, fire engines, and farm tractors until 1917. During World War I, Lambert factories were converted to national defense production.
At the end of World War I, John correctly prophesied that a medium-sized, independent manufacturer would have to expand tremendously or merge with one of the large companies capable of mass production. The Lamberts chose instead to go into associated fields of automobile manufacturing. By the end of his career, John W. Lambert had over 600 patents in the automobile, gasoline engine, and other mechanical fields.
For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.