Driving an Early Automobile: The Locomobile to Electric Cars

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Early automobile experiences were unpredictable.

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An early horseless carriage: a 1904 St. Louis runabout. On display at the Canton (Ohio) Classic Car Museum, the rare car has a seat for extra passengers in front of the steering wheel. (Photo by Sam Moore.)

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In 1900, just three years before my father was born, 4,192 cars were sold in the U.S. According to one author, that was the first time more cars were sold than wagons and buggies (although that seems questionable to me). Even though buggy makers insisted to their customers "Oh no! The horse hasn't gone, and never will!" the horse really was on the way out.

The early years of auto production and use were nothing like those we're accustomed to today. Here are some anecdotes I've gleaned from several old books about the "horseless carriage."

The quality of early cars was a big concern. A doctor in Montana ordered a car (make unknown) from back east in 1903. When the car finally arrived, the doctor wrote: "The next evening I went to see a patient 6 miles in the country (having my horse and buggy follow). On the return trip, (the) carburetor … developed (a leak). When I got into town the commutator loop had worn through and was (sparking). This set the gasoline on fire, and, but for a lawn hose that was … nearby, my subsequent trials might have been avoided. I never started out with the certainty that I should not be hauled home, as frequently happened."

Of course there were no service stations in those far off days (in fact, there are none today: Modern gasoline emporiums offer lots of beer, snacks and lottery tickets, along with pump-it-yourself fuel, but precious little service).

A 1901 Locomobile owner reminisced: "It wasn't a bad little bus, when it ran and didn't catch fire." He and a friend were on a trip one day and ran low on gas, so they stopped at a country store. The store owner, "a sour looking individual who today would be called a profiteer," poured 5 gallons into the tank and said "Two dollars a gallon" (about $54 per gallon in 2012).

The Locomobile owner protested, but the storekeeper shrugged and said, "If you don't like it at that price just give it back to me." The driver's friend grabbed the can, drained out 5 gallons and handed it to the venal storekeeper. As they drove off, the driver wondered aloud what they'd do for fuel. His friend said: "Don't worry, I gave him back 5 gallons of water from our water tank!" The Locomobile was a steam car, and water was easily obtained from any creek or pond.

Doctors were early users of automobiles. As one medic wrote "the greatest problem in automobiling is the tire question. The cost of keeping a car equipped with serviceable tires is far in excess of other expenses." The horses that shared abominable roads with early cars may have been terrified of the noisy, smoking machines, but they also exacted a revenge of sorts. Shod horses periodically lost horseshoe nails, which, of course, quickly found their way into the tires of unsuspecting automobilists. Punctures weren't the only problem, however: Tire quality left much to be desired and blowouts were frequent as well.

An afternoon of motoring on country roads could easily result in half a dozen flat tires. Most experienced drivers carried two or three spare tire casings, several extra inner tubes, a tire pump and a patch kit. There was no shiny red AAA truck to call for assistance: The motorist was on his own.

After jacking up the car, he removed the tire from the wheel so the inner tube could be examined. If the leak was repairable, an appropriately sized patch from the tool kit was selected, smeared with rubber cement and pressed over the hole. After the cement dried, the tube and tire were forced back onto the rim and pumped up. Early tires required 60 to 70 pounds of pressure, so it was quite a struggle with a hand pump.

If the tire casing was shredded, one of the spares (if any were left) was put on. A spare tube would be substituted for one that was beyond patching. If the spare tubes had been all used, the desperate motorist might stuff the tire casing with grass or hay and hope it would get him to the next town without catching fire from the friction.

Finally, remountable rims were developed. That innovation allowed spare tires, already inflated and mounted on the rims, to be easily substituted for those that had gone flat.

Hybrids and electric cars are all the rage today, but electrics are nothing new. They were quite popular during the first decades of the 20th century, especially among ladies, who were thought to be too delicate to crank an internal combustion engine.

Mrs. Hamilton Fish, a wealthy New York lady, bought an electric car. The salesman who delivered the thing showed her how to work the single power lever: Push forward to go, pull back to back up and lift to stop. Mrs. Fish sallied forth on her maiden voyage and did all right for a while.

Electric cars are quiet, not a good thing for pedestrians accustomed to listening for the clatter of horses' hooves. A man stepped off the curb in front of Mrs. Fish, who panicked and shoved the lever forward, knocking the poor guy to the ground. As he lay there dazed, the good lady jerked the lever to the rear and hit him again. Still trying to find "stop," Mrs. Fish pushed forward and struck the poor soul a third time.

The hapless victim managed to scramble to his feet and limp down the street. Mrs. Fish finally got the contraption stopped, got out and stalked haughtily away, abandoning her new electric car forever.

Mrs. Fish was one of only a few, however, who abandoned the motorcar. By about 1916, leading American bankers and economists were predicting the imminent burst of the automobile bubble due to market saturation. Not everyone agreed; someone asked Billy Durant, the flamboyant head of General Motors in that era, when Americans would stop buying new cars. Durant replied confidently, "When they stop making babies!"

Durant was right. Even though GM, Ford and Chrysler are struggling today, Americans still love their cars, although today they probably buy more motor vehicles than they make babies.

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