Driving an Early Automobile: The Locomobile to Electric Cars

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

| November 2007


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.)

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.