On Thanksgiving day in 1895, Frank Duryea won the first automobile race ever hosted in the United States. 125 years ago today, he made history.
The race was sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald, and it was originally designed as a 92-mile loop from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois. Today, that route would be no problem, but back then, with cars that averaged a few miles an hour at best, it was set to be an exhausting foray behind the wheel of some highly uncomfortable machines.
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Thankfully, the route was shortened to a 50-mile loop that ran from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois. Not so thankfully, it was shortened because of a blizzard that dumped eight inches of snow on the ground. Of the 89 cars scheduled to compete, a mere six lined up at the starting grid. Frank Duryea with his Motor Wagon was one of them.
The Duryea brothers—Frank and Charles—started off as bicycle manufacturers who gained inspiration from a gasoline engine displayed at the Ohio State Fair in 1886. Thus began some controversy, which I think the Encyclopedia Britannica explains well:
By 1891 [Charles] had completed a design, and, with his brother Frank, he then constructed a car and engine in a rented loft in Springfield, Massachusetts. In later years a controversy marred relations between the brothers: Charles claimed that the model was completed to an operable state under his guidance, while Frank asserted that he perfected the engine and transmission while Charles was in Illinois. In any case the car made a successful run in the streets of Springfield on September 22, 1893.
Whatever the case, it was Frank Duryea who created the improved version of the Motor Wagon that won its first race in 1895.
Now, back to the race. The 54-mile event required that all competitive cars have at least three wheels. Due to the snow, they had to be wrapped in twine for traction. And, since this was one hell of a long trip, the driver had to provide space for a second rider, someone who would protect against cheating.
Only two of the six cars finished the race: Duryea, who crossed the line after a grueling 10 hour event, and a Benz that finished after 12 hours.
The other entrants weren’t so lucky. A different Benz, sponsored by Macy’s, hit a street car, a sleigh, and a horse on the 50-mile trip. Two other machines—both electric—failed to make it far past the starting line due to the extreme conditions.
The Duryeas won $2,000 for finishing first, which in 2020 would be over $60,000.
Frank’s victory was one of the few pinnacles of the Duryea brothers’ venture. The two built and sold thirteen cars before the two brothers cut ties and went on to design their own cars.
It was a pivotal moment for the car industry as a whole and the American car industry specifically. The Duryeas were able to prove they’d made the most capable machine in the world at that point, showcasing the burgeoning technology on the big stage. It also led to several other developments, including the first automotive club, the first US-based automotive trade publication, and the sedan patent. Not bad for a six-car race.