Though the invention of the first American car is often credited to Henry Ford, that is not the full truth. The first American automobile was invented in 1893 by Charles and Frank Duryea—better known as the Duryea brothers—in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts. The brothers, much like the Wright brothers, were bicycle mechanics with a knack for innovation, and their first prototype was a gasoline-powered “horseless carriage,” complete with a one-cylinder engine and three-speed transmission on top of an old horse carriage. Frank continued to work on the car, and, by the time the first automobile race was held on November 27, 1895, he had a more powerful car with a two-cylinder engine to make it run.
In addition to Frank Duryea’s car, five other cars entered the 54-mile auto race sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald: two electric cars and three gasoline-powered German imports. The trip was made treacherous due to heavy snowfall the night before; Duryea described the drive from where he was staying in Chicago to the starting line as “hard going.” Even so, when the entrants were told go, the Duryea car was the first to kick off.
Though the race started out alright on the soft, compact snow in Jackson Park, issues immediately arose once the track turned onto the busier Chicago streets. Due to road conditions, such as ice and ruts, Duryea recounted his car swaying harshly from side-to-side and eventually breaking when the left wheel got caught in a rut. This wasn’t the only time he ran into trouble—on the return trip, he and his riding partner Arthur W. White had to pull over and fix the engine as one of the two cylinders started going out. It took nearly a full hour to fix the engine, but they were not the only ones running into trouble. A Macy Benz car ended up breaking halfway through the snow and damaging the motor.
Overall, the race took a little over 10 hours to finish, and Frank Duryea was the first to cross the finish line despite the number of breakdowns he and Arthur W. White faced. Compared to modern-day racing, winning a race while averaging 7.3 mph doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s huge for the first American car. Everything has only gone uphill from there.