Who developed the first automobile in America?

Who developed the first automobile in America? It’s a question that has been discussed thoroughly. Although a group of native Hoosiers and long-time Indiana residents lay claim to that title, most historians agree that the auto in America emerged naturally as the requisite technology developed. It was probably developed concurrently by individuals who were working independently on developing the “horseless carriage.” Suitable internal combustion gasoline engines were not available in the United States until the late 1880’s or early 1890’s.

1895 Duryea
1895 Duryea

But when historians must name a title holder, generally they point to J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea. By Frank’s account they produced their first operable machine in Springfield, Massachusetts. A contemporary story in the town’s newspaper The Republican, September 22, 1893, confirms the initial, rather disappointing test run.

They went on to win the first American automobile race, the Chicago Times-Herald Race on November 29, 1895. In 1896, they used the same design to manufacture, which is accepted as the start of the commercial auto industry in America. Their Duryea Motor Wagon Company failed in 1898.

1894 Haynes Pioneer
Elwood Haynes in the 1894 Pioneer
Copyright Elwood Haynes Museum

It is a well-known fact that Elwood Haynes of Kokomo successfully demonstrated his “Pioneer” automobile along Pumpkinvine Pike on July 4, 1894. This run preceded commercial production of Haynes-Apperson automobiles by two years. With the failure of the Duryea firm, Haynes was recognized as the proprietor and inventive genius behind the oldest automobile company in America.

1891 Lambert
1891 Lambert

An 1960 atricle in Antique Automobile, and an entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica credited John W. Lambert with building America’s first successful automobile in 1891 while he was a resident of Ohio City, Ohio (just across the state line, south east of Decatur, Indiana). This predated both the Duryea and Haynes claims of the first American auto. Lambert may not have pressed his claim because he felt, that although extremely successful mechanically, it was a financial failure because he was unable to generate sufficient sales to build it.

So, please don’t shoot the messenger. We aren’t choosing favorites.

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

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