The Great Chicago Race of 1895

Your name is Frank Duryea and the year is 1895. You are reading a tattered copy of the Chicago Times-Herald and see an announcement for a race for horseless carriages, offering $5,000 in prizes, $2,000 for the winner. You quickly find your brother Charles and show him the article. “Let’s enter that race!” you say. Charles agrees and you quickly send a telegram to Chicago stating your intent to enter your gasoline powered horseless carriage.

The Great Chicago Auto Race of 1895 had already been delayed twice before it finally started on Nov. 28, 1895. Snow had fallen steadily throughout the night and in the morning a snow plow pulled by a team of powerful horses was brought in to clear the small starting area. There were only few entries and most of them were European, German-built Benz cars. Herman H. Kohlstaat was publisher of the prestigious Chicago Times-Herald. Automobiles were becoming very popular in Europe and a race seemed like a good idea to inspire interest in the United States and interest in the paper. Most of these cars were three-wheeled vehicles and resembled today’s motorcycle more than today’s car. Kohlstaat had announced earlier in the year that his newspaper would sponsor the first race ever in the United States for these slow, strange-looking horseless carriages. Within a month, the newspaper was flooded with letters and telegrams from people all over the world who wanted to enter a vehicle in the race. Some of these automobiles were imported from Europe, but a number of them were being built by everyday tinkerers in the back yards of America. Many people stated they wanted to enter a car in the race, but would not have their vehicles ready until Labor Day. Since Kohlstaat wanted as many entries as possible, he delayed the race until Nov. 2. When the big day finally arrived, 80 automobiles had been entered, but only two showed up: a car built by the Duryea brothers and German Benz car brought over by Oscar Mueller from Germany. Kohlstaat was very disappointed to say the least.

Most of the other 80 entrants begged Kohlstaat to delay the race again until Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. Not wanting to be made a laughingstock by other rival papers, Kohlstaat talked to Duryea and Mueller and they agreed to stage an exhibition only race for the eager spectators. The actual race would be pushed back one more time to Nov. 28, Thanksgiving Day. The exhibition was to run from Jackson Park to Waukegan and back again, 90 miles round-trip.

In the exhibition race, Frank and Charles Duryea quickly pulled ahead of Mueller’s Benz car at the start. But less than halfway into the race their noisy car frightened a team of horses. The horses, pulling a wagon, bolted into the road and smack into the Duryea’s path. Frank, who was driving, ran the car into a ditch to avoid hitting the wagon. Badly bent, the car was pulled back to the railroad station by the same team of horses and was shipped back to Springfield, Massachusetts for some fast repairs before the big race. The Mueller Benz car obviously won the exhibition race.

Finally, Thanksgiving Day, 1895, arrives — race day. The streets of Chicago are covered with four to six inches of heavy snow. Cars entered in the race have either broken down or are unable to make their way through the snow to the starting line. A shivering crowd of spectators line the streets. The race is delayed for an hour until six cars finally make their way to the starting line. The flag drops and the race has officially begun. The crowd cheers and six cars inch across the starting lane and slowly roll their way towards history.

Two electric cars entered in the race quickly run out of power. The race has been shortened to a 55 mile run because of the snow. The race is a match up between the Duryea brothers and three German Benz cars. One Benz is returning champ Oscar Mueller’s. Another has been entered by the R.H. Macy store of New York, which is importing German-built Benz cars and hopes to sell them in Chicago. The other is entered by the De LaVergne Refrigeration Company of New York City.

Just outside the city of Chicago, the Duryea car passes the Macy Benz, which later runs into a horse and does not finish. On the way back from the town of Evanston, the half way mark, Duryea passes the Mueller Benz and then the De LaVergne Benz. The car continues to pick up speed, despite the cold and snow and the Duryea car crosses the finish line with no other car in sight. What is left of the frozen crowd cheers wildly. An hour and a half later, the Mueller Benz car crosses the finish line, the only other car to finish the race. It had taken the Duryea nearly 10 and a half hours to complete the race, traveling at a speed of 7 miles per hour.

The American Duryea car had beaten the three German cars handily, but perhaps even more importantly, it had numbered the days of horse-drawn wagons and carriages.

Each car in the race had carried an umpire. The umpire assigned to Mueller’s car, was Charles B. King. King had hoped to enter his own car in the historic race, but could not get it ready in time. King did get to drive in the race because Oscar Mueller, apparently overcome by fatigue and excitement, had passed out during the race. King had took the tiller and drove the car to the finish line.

After his success in the Chicago race, Frank Duryea returned to his home in Massachusetts and began building the Duryea car. In 1896, Duryea was the biggest automobile producer in the United States, turning out 13 hand-built cars. The reason for the Duryeas’ success where so many others failed was a two-cylinder and later a four-cycle internal-combustion engine which powered the cars.

A man named Elwood Haynes had showed off his automobile in Kokomo, Indiana in 1894, one year after the Duryeas had taken their horseless carriage for its first test drive on the streets of Springfield. Haynes had never heard of the Duryeas until their win in 1895 at the Chicago race. He refused to believe that he had not been the first car maker. In fact, for the next 30 years that Haynes built cars, his company’s ads always carried the slogan: “The Haynes is America’s first car.” Another pioneer car maker was Alexander Winton who built his car in Cleveland, Ohio. Winton was the first to use a steering wheel instead of the traditional tiller. He placed the engine in front of the driver instead of under the car and he developed the first practical storage battery. Winton is probably best known for the influence he had on other car designers. James W. Packard, a maker of electrical products, paid a visit to Winton’s office in Cleveland to offer a few suggestions for improving Winton’s car. Winton threw a fit, became enraged, and suggested Packard build his own cars. Packard did just that.

On March 7, 1896, Frank Duryea was reading the Detroit Journal:

“The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. The apparatus seemed to work all right and it went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed.”

When Frank read who had built this car, he chuckled.

This car was built by none other than Charles Brady King, a railroad mechanic and the Chicago auto race umpire and driver for the Mueller’s Benz car when Mueller had slumped over in the driver’s seat. King’s life-long dream had finally come true. Another dream was also about to come true. For pedaling on a bike behind King’s car was a 32-year-old mechanical engineer who worked for the Edison Illuminating Co. His name was Henry Ford.

Imagine that! I think we all know how this story turns out from here.

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