Early Horseless Carriage Race Was a Turkey Trot

Racing horseless carriages through Chicago in the snow went about as well as you probably think it did.

Frank and Charles Duryea in the winning car

Frank Duryea (at the tiller) and his brother, Charles, in the winning car.

Photo courtesy Sam Moore

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In the 1890s, America knew all about horse races. From the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, to hundreds of county fair harness races, to the young guy who tried to pass another buggy on a dusty country road, horses were raced all the time.

In about 1890, the development of the chain-driven “safety” bicycle with pneumatic tires spurred a huge bicycle craze, and then bikes had to be raced, as well. No one, however, had thought of racing motor vehicles, mostly because it was almost impossible to find two running horseless carriages to compete against one another.

Craze born across the pond

Not so in Europe. The French and Germans, in particular, were busy experimenting with motor vehicles that actually ran – and those naturally had to be raced to see which was the best and fastest. So on July 22, 1894, the world’s first automobile race was staged between Paris and Rouen, a distance of about 80 miles.

Twenty-five cars started the race and 15 finished. Among the finishers: five Peugeots and four Panhards. A De Dion steam car came in first, but was disqualified, so first and second place went to Peugeot and third to a Panhard. This first race caught the attention of every tinkerer, engine head and crackpot in America. Within a few months, some 500 patent applications for self-propelled vehicles were filed at the U.S. Patent Office.

Throwing down the gauntlet

The Chicago Times-Herald sponsored an automobile race, set for July 4, 1895, with a cash prize of $2,000 (about $57,000 today). Entry forms poured in from all over the country, but by June hardly any cars were ready, so the race was postponed to Thanksgiving. Rival newspapers, who probably wished they’d thought of the idea, heaped scorn on the race and predicted it would never happen.

During the fall, a few horseless carriages began to show up in Chicago, where they were put on public display. Meanwhile, tiring of the awkward title “horseless carriage,” the Times-Herald ran a contest (with a $500 prize) to find a new name for the machines. Millions of entries flooded in and the final winner was “Moto Cycle,” an unfortunate name that lasted only until the race was over.

The day before the race, only 11 contestants said they’d be there, and it had started to snow. The next morning, 8 inches of slushy snow covered Chicago streets and only seven cars showed up. One of them, a Pennington, had been hauled there on a horse-drawn wagon because it wouldn’t run. The owners brought it as a promotion to drive stock sales. A Morris & Salom electric (the Electrobat) also joined the group. Well-designed but under-powered (the owners had been unable to procure a supply of spare batteries), the car ran only a short distance. Elwood Haynes entered a Haynes-Apperson, but it broke down at the last minute and was scratched.

Three German-built Benz cars (although one was called a Roger-Benz motocar) were also in the mix. Harold Sturges of American Battery Co. entered a Morrison-designed electric car, and Charles and Frank Duryea were there with their Duryea gasoline wagon.

Conquering challenges

The Duryea was the first car to start (after an hour and a half). It spun its wheels and threw slush, but it moved. The remaining entries followed at intervals, many needing a push from spectators to get started.

Charles Duryea, who had not learned to drive a car, rode in a horse-drawn sleigh behind his brother, Frank, in the gasoline wagon, which was running very well. Frank was well in the lead when a steering arm broke, requiring the services of a blacksmith shop. Most shops were closed for the holiday, but Frank removed the broken part and he and Charles scouted around in the sleigh until they found an open shop. Repairs were made and Frank was back in the race an hour later, having been passed by the Rogers-Benz machine.

A little later, Frank lost his way and, while lost, the sparking mechanism failed. When Charles found him, Frank had built a fire and was heating the mechanism prior to making repairs. It was another hour lost, but the other cars were having problems too (the Rogers-Benz that had been ahead had banged into a trolley car and was out of the race) so Duryea was still in the lead.

Claiming the prize

By afternoon, the weather cleared and many Chicagoans were out for sleigh rides. As the Duryea gasoline wagon roared along the west side’s broad boulevards, sleigh after sleigh fell in behind the car. Charles Duryea wrote later, “An army of sleighs and rigs followed, and occasionally one would get in front and in the way. There was much enthusiasm and many snowballs. We knew that the cavalcade was [packing the snow and] making a good road for the next fellow, but that did not worry us for we believed that we were going faster than he could anyhow.”

Soon the streets became narrower and the merrymakers dropped away. The snow grew deeper and Charles went ahead with the horses to break a path. The little car’s engine was laboring and the transmission suddenly started to make an ominous grinding noise. Frank stopped and, in the fading light, found that a chunk of steel had chipped off a gear and gotten wedged between two teeth. The chip was pried out and Frank went on.

Finally, at 7:18 p.m., Frank piloted the Duryea across the finish line, five hours (according to Charles Duryea, but only one hour according to others) ahead of the only other car to finish, one of the Benz machines. Whether by one hour or five, it was a victory and good enough to win the $2,000 first prize. The Duryea gasoline wagon was the only car in the race that was neither pulled nor pushed and that had gone the entire distance of 54 miles under its own power, completing the race in 10 hours and 23 minutes for an average overall speed of just over 5 mph.

The Duryea brothers kept on building, racing and selling cars for a few years, but soon began to quarrel over who had actually invented the car – both wanted sole credit – and eventually split. Charles moved to Peoria, Illinois, where he built unsuccessful cars for a few years. He even took a shot at the Ebert-Duryea tractor, but it was also unsuccessful. Frank stayed in Massachusetts and built the luxurious and expensive Stevens-Duryea automobiles until selling his stock and retiring a wealthy man in 1915.

Just another story of the early dreamers, crackpots, tinkerers and mechanical wizards who built the American automobile industry. Don’t you wonder if it could happen today? FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.