One of my personal crusades is to raise awareness of the fact that Mercedes-Benz did not invent the car like they claim to, and that automobiles have been around far longer than most people realize — viable cars have been around since at least the early 1800s. That’s why I’m so delighted to tell you about the first car to be repossessed, and used to run from a cop — way back in 1867.
Actually, the story is even better, because it seems that the car was actually the first to be sold in the United States as well (though not the world). That means the very first car to be sold in America was also repossessed, and then used in a police chase. It’s no wonder the Grand Theft Auto series has been so popular here.
The car was the Curtis Steamer, and it really should be much better known than it is. The man behind the Curtis Steamer was Francis Curtis, who was, at various times, the superintendent of the Newburyport, Massachusetts gas works, and later built the first municipal waste system.
After building a successful steam powered fire engine (most likely the steam drove the pumps, and did not actually propel the likely horse-drawn fire engine), Curtis became interested in the idea of building a self-propelled, steam-powered vehicle.
The car Curtis built was a simple, tall-wheeled open car, powered by a 5 horsepower (back when that really meant five horses) steam engine. Hemmings, of course, has an excellent article on the car, and found that the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942 described the car as
... a horseless carriage with a 40- to 45-pound vertical boiler steam system and 5hp engine capable of 25 MPH and a range of 30 miles, “provided about a half-dozen stops were made for water.”
Every five miles stopping for more water? And then stopping 2.5 miles after that because you should have gotten out to pee at the last water stop, but for some reason you didn’t? Maddening.
Still, even if those specs seem almost useless to our jaded, modern eyes, the car had almost no competition, and Curtis happened to find a proto-gearhead who just had to have that awesome set of wheels. This started Curtis’s remarkable cascade of automotive firsts, starting with the first sale of a car in America, for $1000.
That grand would be paid for the car on the installment plan (possibly also the first instance of that sort of arrangement for the purchase of an automobile) and it looks like at least the first few payments went just fine. At some point in the arrangement, however, the (still unknown) customer stopped making payments, forcing Francis Curtis to become the very first automotive repo man in human history.
Curtis, who I’d like to think muttered to himself that “a repossession gentleman is perpetually one of intensity” set off to get the car back, which he did. It probably wasn’t that hard, since there was no body, no locks, and the man repossessing the car was the man who designed and built the car in the first place.
Once Curtis reclaimed his ride, his run of firsts didn’t stop. Like many people far ahead of their time, Curtis seems to have been surrounded by pissy, fussy neighbors who just found this whole horse-free carriage business sort of, you know, unsavory. The newness and strangeness of Curtis’s steam car was enough that one of his neighbors arranged to have a warrant for Curtis’ arrest.
It’s not really clear what charges, exactly, were used to justify Curtis’ arrest, though Hemmings speculates it was likely some variant of disturbing the peace. Regardless, Curtis knew the charges were bullshit, and acted accordingly when the police arrived:
... Curtis aroused the wrath of his neighbors, one of whom swore out a warrant for his arrest. When the officer arrived, Curtis left in his car with the officer in hot pursuit on foot, The first getaway by car in American history.
Now, I should be clear that some sources peg the police chase as happening in the testing period before Curtis delivered the steamer to his deadbeat client, and others seem to suggest it happened after repossession. I’m not clear which way it happened, exactly, but it barely matters, because either way, Francis Curtis was the first man to hop in a car and take off to get away from a cop.
Of course, all the cop would really have to do is stake out the water sources within a five mile radius of where the chase started to catch him, but still — you gotta hand it to Curtis, his steamer, and his big brass balls.
The combination of crappy, non-paying customers and legal troubles must have been too much for Curtis to be able to justify building more cars, and his 1867 steamer was the last car he built. He does seem to have patented a side-valve steam engine in 1870s, so he was clearly still engineering and designing steam motors, even if none made it into any other cars.
Still, I think Francis Curtis deserves a much more prominent place in motoring history. His achievements, all within two years of the end of the Civil War, are absolutely remarkable: first car sold in America, first car sold using regular payment installments, first automotive repossession (and with that, he became the Father of All Repo Men), and the first use of an automobile to get the hell away from a police officer. But certainly not the last!
If that’s not enough to make someone an American Automotive Legend, I don’t know what is. Here’s to you, Francis Curtis, ancestor of automotive reprobates and miscreants the world over.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.