Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show
Charles Duryea claimed the first U.S. patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. Henry Ford sold his first “Quadri-cycle” in 1896. At the turn of the century, about 8,000 vehicles shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons.
Of the 4,200 automobiles sold in the United States at the turn of the century, gasoline powered less than 1,000. On November 3, 1900, America’s first national automobile show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
An innovative assortment of electric, steam, and “internal explosion” engines powered these horseless carriages. New manufactures like Olds Motor Works of Lansing, Michigan, built models of each kind to compete in the developing market.
The manufacturers presented 160 different vehicles at the first national automobile show. Future leaders of the the nation’s greatest transportation industry gave driving and maneuverability demonstrations on a 20-foot-wide track that surrounded the exhibits.
A wooden 200-foot ramp tested hill-climbing power.
About 48,000 show visitors paid 50¢ each to see the latest automotive technology. The most popular models proved to be electric, steam and gasoline…in that order.
New Yorkers welcomed electric models as a way to reduce the estimated 450,000 tons of horse manure and 15,000 horse carcasses removed from the city’s streets each year.
Hundreds of “Hansom” cabs built by the Electric Vehicle Company worked well, but heavy lead-acid batteries, muddy roads, and lack of electrical infrastructure confined these early electrics to metropolitan areas. Thomas Edison spent years working on battery power for automobiles, but abandoned the effort.
Consumers favored “steamers” over their gasoline-powered competitors. Steam-powered automobiles traced their roots back to 1768, when a French military engineer, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, built a self-propelled steam tricycle to move artillery.
By 1900, manufacturers like Bridgeport, Connecticut-based Locomobile (from the words locomotive and automobile), Stanley Motor Carriage Co., Tarrytown, N.Y., and others boasted of their products’ safety and touted the virtues of simple steam power over “complex and sinister” internal combustion engines.
Locomobile produced 750 steamers in 1900, second in sales only to Columbia & Electric Vehicle Co. of Hartford, Conn., but consumers complained of the time required to heat boilers and the necessarily frequent stops for water. Progress in the development of internal combustion engines soon outpaced steam technology.
Automobiles powered by internal combustion engines at the 1900 National Automobile Show were primitive, noisy and cantankerous. Most were based on Nikoulas Otto’s 1876 four-stroke design and ran on a variety of “light spirits” such as stove gas, kerosene, naphtha, lamp oil, benzene, mineral spirits, alcohol, and gasoline.
One early critic complained that the internal combustion engine was, “Noxious, noisy, unreliable, and elephantine. It vibrates so violently as to loosen one’s dentures. The automobile industry will surely burgeon in America, but this motor will not be a factor.”
The critic was wrong. Gasoline, once an unwanted byproduct of kerosene refining, cost only about 15 cents a gallon in 1900 and produced dramatic increases in engine horsepower. Despite the absence of “filling stations,” gasoline was readily available in a market where electric lights were making kerosene obsolete.
The refining industry needed a product to replace kerosene and gasoline was it. In 1901, Olds Motor Works sold 425 models of a gasoline-powered “Curved Dash Runabout” for $650 each. Four years later, when the model was discontinued, almost 19,000 had been sold. America’s consumer preference for gasoline-powered internal combustion engines was thoroughly established.
When New York City hosts its next International Automobile Show, more than 1,000 vehicles will be on display for one million visitors. Internal combustion and hybrid gasoline-electric automobiles will be well represented. No steam-powered vehicles are expected.
Electric Cars: Back to the Future
“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes.” – Horseless Age, 1905
The American auto industry’s 21st-century hybrids emulate their predecessors from more than 100 years ago.
Electric cars once were practical on level roads – even with their mammoth lead-acid batteries and limited range – but were largely confined to big cities where recharging infrastructure was available.
Engineers of the day examined novel ways of combining electric motors and gasoline engines to exploit the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of each.
“In this system an electric generator or dynamo is coupled direct to the petrol motor, and the current furnished is employed to operate electric motors which drive the car,” notes the 1905 Automobile: A Practical Treatise on the Construction of Modern Motor Cars – Steam, Petrol, Electric, and Petro-Electric, by Paul Hasluck.
Modern hybrids are much indebted to Ferdinand Porsche’s 1902 gasoline-electric Mixte. The Mixte used a small four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity – but not to turn its wheels.
The engine powered two three-horsepower electric motors mounted in the Mixte’s front wheel hubs that could briefly surge to seven horsepower and carry it to a top speed of 50 mph.
While more than a century of technological evolution separates Mixte from today’s hybrids, both rely upon gasoline to enhance and recall the virtues of “electrics” as automobiles with a future.
Learn more about engine-fuel technologies in “The Blue Flame – Natural Gas Rocket Car.”
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