This Photo From 1878 Is Likely The First Picture Of A Racecar

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

See that big, ungainly mass of wheels and boiler and smokestack there? That beast is the direct ancestor to every hyper-advanced F1 car, every NASCAR brute, every rallycross hot hatch, every racecar that exists today or ever has existed. Because that beast is very likely the first purpose-built racecar ever, and it’s from Wisconsin.

By ‘purpose-built’ racecar, I mean this was a vehicle designed and built with the express purpose of winning a motoring competition. That competition, that race, was a state-sponsored Green Bay-to-Madison 200 mile run, and it had two entries: the Oshkosh, shown above, and the Green Bay, which, sadly, seems not to have been photographed.

You’d probably be right in wondering just why the state of Wisconsin would sponsor an automobile race when there was exactly one known car in Wisconsin, the 1871 steam car known as the Spark, built by the strangely appropriately named Dr.Carhart (a physics professor) in Racine. One car doesn’t make for much of a race, and the Spark does not even seem to have been race-capable at the time. So what’s going on, Wisconsin?


Easy. Wisconsin wanted more cars. To stimulate automotive development, they came up with the idea of a race and pledged $10,000 to the winning team that could provide the:

“... invention and production of a machine propelled by steam or other motive agent which shall be a cheap and practical substitute for the horse and other animals on the highways and farm.”

No one was more sick of stupid horses than Wisconsin, and they wanted some cars, already. Ten grand back in 1878 was, to use the common parlance of the era, “a shitload” of money. Even with this incredibly lucrative prize, building viable cars in that era was still difficult enough that only two entrants (out of six that registered) came forward.

The Oshkosh was the simpler of the two vehicles, but even so it was still a 10,000lb behemoth. It was built by five Oshkosh residents, and it seems as though it used an existing two-piston steam engine, and had a solitary forward and reverse gear, the ability to travel backwards being one of the stipulations of the competition, along with plowing and wagon-hauling stages.


The Oshkosh, with its big vertical boiler and cylinders of 6” bore and 8” of stroke made all of 12HP. It wasn’t exactly quick, but it worked.


The Green Bay was about 4,000 lbs heavier but faster, mostly thanks to its 3-speed transmission. Incredibly, it seems to have had four-wheel steering, and period descriptions like this make me really, really wish there were pictures of it:

‘The machine is the most clumsily built and contrived concern it would be possible to imagine. Without the slightest prejudice whatever it is pronounced a perfect curiosity by the best mechanics that look at it. It exhibits the most curious specimens of ingenuity, the ingenuity of puzzling movements and complications rather than simplicity and mechanical economy. All four wheels are on a sort of ball and socket joints and each turns in and out independently of the axle. The boiler is horizontal and the general outline, with cab and all, is much like a miniature railroad locomotive. Instead of propelling with an endless chain the motion is reduced from the cylinders by a succession of gears. It is massive and homely in the extreme, if any comparison is allowed with the Oshkosh machine.


When the race was on, The Green Bay did prove itself to be faster, but a series of breakdowns and time-sucking repairs quickly evaporated any speed advantage the vehicle had. Both steam cars could pull about the same amount of weight (which was water-logged timber, in wagons) and so eventually the Oshkosh, itself not free from breakdowns, managed to complete the race, the Green Bay having retired before the end. The average speed came to about 6 MPH, one more than specified as a minimum by the race’s rules.


Things take a sour turn when the state of Wisconsin decides that they don’t want to pay the $10,000 after all, suggesting (with some validity) that the Oshkosh was neither “cheap” nor “practical” as the rules stated. And, it’s not like the Oshkosh team were total angels, either. Listen to this account of the hauling competition, from an interview with one of the members of the Oshkosh team:

... the Oshkosh crew wasn’t above resorting to some sleight of hand if it worked in their favor. Gallinger related: ‘A bunch of farmers at Fort Atkinson put us through our paces. They had nine wagons lined up which they wanted us to pull up a grade. There were men in the wagons. I looked at the grade and knew I’d never make it. The pull was on an inch rope. I started the machine real fast to bust the rope. I busted it. Tied on again and busted it again. Once more. Then I told those men they’d better walk up since the rope wouldn’t take it and then started real slow so the rope wouldn’t part, and made it all right with the empty wagons. Those men figured they walked because of a weak rope not because of a weak engine.’


Clever. Still, the Oshkosh did beat the Green Bay, and eventually the Wisconsin legislature voted to at least partially do the right thing and the team was given $5000, still a nice chunk of change in 1878.

That means that picture up there is not just very likely the first purpose-built racecar, but the first winning racecar as well. And, keep in mind, all of this was going down a solid decade before Mercedes-Benz claims they ‘invented’ the automobile.


Contact the author at