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.

| May 2015

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.