The Duryea Brothers and the First Auto Race

Written by Bonnie Gringer

Brothers Charles and J. Frank Duryea started off as bicycle mechanics, but they became some of the earliest automakers after they became interested in gasoline-powered engines and cars. They’re best known for designing and producing the first American automobile. However, they cemented their place in automotive history by winning the first American auto race, held in 1895.

In 1893, the Duryeas hand-built a gasoline-powered wagon in their workshop in Springfield, MA. It had a one-cylinder engine and a three-speed transmission that were mounted on a used horseless carriage. They made their first test run with the vehicle in September of that year, and the car ran at an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour, which was pretty good for that time period. Over the next year, the brothers perfected their invention, and the new Duryea wagon gained more power from a two-cylinder engine instead of the previous one-cylinder. This is the vehicle that they would drive when the publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald, H.H. Kohlsaat, decided to stage the first American auto race, inviting all comers to participate in the event.

France had held the world’s first auto race a few years before, but Kohlsaat was determined to hold an event in Chicago that would rival it. The course that officials arranged for the race in Illinois turned out to be about 54 miles long, running from Chicago to Evanston and back. Initially, the date of the race was set for Nov. 2, 1895, but only the Duryeas and one other competitor, Oscar Mueller, were ready, so the race was postponed to Nov. 27, which was Thanksgiving. Out of dozens of race entries received, only six participants showed up to the starting line that morning. The race went on in spite of the paucity of competitors.

Traveling through freshly fallen snow on a 30-degree morning, the handful of race participants set off. Included in the group of contestants were drivers of two electric cars and four gas-powered vehicles. Frank Duryea entered the competition with the only American two-cylinder gas-powered automobile there; the other gas-powered vehicles were Benz wagons that had been imported. The two electric cars failed to make much headway, with their batteries failing due to the cold weather, and the two other gas-powered vehicles failed to finish, but Mueller and Duryea were close rivals for much of the race. Duryea’s wagon was robust enough to drive through the snow and gained the lead, but the brothers lost time twice when they had to stop to make repairs. Mueller passed them while they stopped to make repairs to a broken steering arm, and later in the race, the engine’s cylinders stopped firing and needed repair.

Despite falling behind on the road heading to Evanston, the brothers regained the lead on the turn back and ultimately held it to the end, despite needing to stop for gas and for a railroad crossing. At 7:18 that evening, Frank Duryea crossed the finish line, taking just more than 10 hours, averaging around 7 miles per hour during the trip. Mueller’s car made it over the finish line at 8:53 that night.

For their win in the race, the brothers received $2,000, which is about equal to $49,000 in today’s money. In the wake of their victory, the brothers established the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896. Their new business became the first one to mass-produce cars: They hand-built 13 identical vehicles, which were the first gasoline-powered vehicles sold in the U.S. The Duryeas’ achievement moved the auto age into the limelight, setting the stage for Henry Ford to come along with his Model T about a decade later. While the Duryeas’ automotive success was not to last, without it, the American automobile industry would not have been the same.

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