The First Real Open-Source Car Arrived Way Earlier Than You Think

Illustration for article titled The First Real Open-Source Car Arrived Way Earlier Than You Think
Screenshot: Horseless Age

The idea of an open-source car — as in a car whose plans are freely available to anyone who wants them — seems like a fairly modern idea. The Local Motors Rally Fighter is a well-known example of a modern open-source car, and Tesla famously announced that all of its patents would be open-sourced in 2014, though surprisingly this hasn’t seemed to make a big impact on the overall industry.

What’s also surprising is how late to the game Tesla and everyone else really was on this open-source thing, since the first version of such an open-source car appeared more than 120 years ago.

That’s right — 124 years ago, to be exact, because it was in 1896 that the St. Louis patent attorney firm of Higdon & Higdon decided to build a car and then make the plans free to anyone who wanted them.

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I know this because it was proudly announced in my go-to archaic publication, The Horseless Age, as you can see here:

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Screenshot: Horseless Age

What are we looking at here, exactly? Our patent-pals from St.Louie seem to have taken an off-the-rack seven-horsepower gas engine from the Weber Gas & Gasoline Engine Company of Kansas City, which does not seem to be the same company as the Weber Grill company (which started in Illinois in 1893 as the Weber Bros. Metal Works, in case you were wondering, like I was).

The coil-sprung automobile was “geared to make from three to 15 miles an hour,” and it seems people liked to say it “could go up stairs,” if that’s something you were interested in. Maybe if your garage was a third-floor walk-up or something.

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It looks as if the engine was “hung on coil springs directly from the axles...independently of the body of the vehicle,” which must have helped isolate vibrations from the engine.

The car doesn’t seem to have used a conventional differential, but rather a system where “the rear wheels are supplied with clutches so that one may turn faster than the other in rounding a corner,” which sounds to me like a very early form of torque vectoring, too.

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The resulting automobile seems to be pretty representative of its era, without any real groundbreaking innovations but having the sorts of quirks a lot of late 1800s automobiles had. Nothing was really written in stone back then.

My big question is why this was built. It’s possible the Higdons were just into cars and wanted a reason to build one. Maybe they used it as a sort of odd promotion for their business that they could write off or something?

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The one other place I’ve seen the Higdon & Higdon car mentioned suggests it was “an advertising gimmick,” which makes sense, though the act of building a car deliberately without patents to promote a patent business seems a bit backward. But whatever, I bet it got some attention.

Hell, it’s getting attention right now, in the space-year 2020, which I suspect would really shock those Higdon boys.

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I have found at least one example of a car that seems to have used the open-source Higdon & Higdon design: That’s this 1908 Success Model C, which is said to have taken the basic Higdon design, though updated a good bit with a steering wheel instead of a tiller and an opposed-piston engine making 12 HP.

Now, the Success may be a bit of a cheat, though, as one John C. Higdon was the founder of the Success Auto Buggy Manufacturing Company, and in an example of some really ham-fisted irony, Success took out patents on its high-wheeler designs. It then tried to collect royalties from other carmakers, taking them to court when they didn’t comply.

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As one article describes it:

Prior to building his first automobile, Higdon was a patent lawyer by trade and he used the car for advertising purposes, boldly stating ‘Although we are patent lawyers, there is no patent on this vehicle and everyone is free to copy it.’ Years later, when he had a change of heart and mind, he began suing other manufacturers for patent design. His claim did not hold up in court.

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Damn, Higdon. That’s some pretty hypocritical shit you tried to pull there. Despite losing in court (likely due to the intervention of karma), Success built about 600 of its inexpensive buggies from 1906 to 1909, which in the context of the boom era of early 1900s carmakers is actually a pretty respectable run.

So, there you go — the first open-source car was also one of the first examples of a real dick move. Nice to know some things never change.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!: https://rb.gy/udnqhh)

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DISCUSSION

One inexpensive way to provide differential action is to include one-way clutches or even ratchets in the hubs. You’d only be powered by the inside wheel in a turn unless that wheel started to slip, and then outer wheel would pick up the load.

Tricky trying to back up, though.