If you’re like me, and, let’s face it, you are, you’ve spent many an afternoon exploring abandoned cars, playing games of What’s That Stain? and Is This Edible? But did you ever stop and wonder about the very first abandoned car? You should. Abandoned cars are as much a part of motoring’s rich heritage as the GT40 or intermittent windshield wipers. Here’s the story of the first abandoned car in history. I’m proud to say it’s an American invention.
The Great American behind the first abandoned car is Oliver Evans, and the car even had a name: The Oruktor Amphibolos. Oruktor Amphibolos means “Amphibious Digger” (I know, it sounds like some awful East German superhero) and was called that because it was commissioned by the Philadelphia Board of Health to dredge out the city’s dockyards. When it was built in 1805, it was also the first self-propelled vehicle in America, and the first motorized amphibious vehicle of any kind. Of course, the City of Philadelphia couldn’t give a pair of cheesesteak craps about that; they just wanted a dredger. Oliver Evans wanted the vehicle part.
Evans, like many brilliant minds, was also equally a kook. You see, although Philly paid him to make a dredger, he ended up building an amphibious vehicle that doesn’t really dredge.
The Oruktor was 15 tons, 30 feet long, and powered by a 5 HP steam engine. That’s like trying to pull four Crown Vics with an engine from a lawn tractor. Oh, and, based on drawings, it doesn’t appear to have been steerable. At all. But that didn’t stop Evans from crowing about its amazing achievements, even if most of them took place in the magic wonderland that was Evan’s mind.
But back to the story at hand — his greatest invention — the abandoned car. After Evans built the Oruktor, he had to actually get it to the dockyards, meaning it actually had to travel, no mean feat for a massive piece of dredging equipment powered by a handful of horses. First, the Oruktor collapsed in Philadelphia’s Centre Square, and he charged people 25¢ to come look at it while it was repaired; this was an important first step in abandoned vehicle development. Immobility is key, and while the monetization is a great innovation, it’s not really abandoned.
The first confirmed report of a truly abandoned motor vehicle doesn’t come until 1840, but it’s referring to Evan’s vehicle, and likely occurred much earlier. As John F. Watson writes,
“Oliver Evans had at one time a great steam engine standing for six months at the corner of Ninth and High streets, where it had broken, and would go no further!”
I’d guess the date would be in later 1805-1806, when the dredger would be returning to Evans’ care, or perhaps en route to a new location.
Sadly, that means we very likely missed celebrating the bicentennial of abandoned cars by a good 6 or so years. This is a real shame, especially considering the grand entrance the abandoned vehicle made: a nearly building-sized behemoth, sitting for half a year at a busy intersection in a major city.
A tip of a windshield full of parking tickets to you, Oliver Evans, and the amazing gift you’ve given abandoned motoring.