America’s First Automobile: The Duryea Brothers’ Role in Reforming Transportation

Charles and Frank Duryea in a Duryea Motor Wagon | Courtesy of the Boyertown Auto Museum

Although they didn’t create the first automobile in the world, Charles and Frank Duryea were the first to not only build one in the United States, but they also had the first automobile company in the United States. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company manufactured and sold automobiles. Based on these accomplishments alone, it can be argued that the Duryea brothers are the pioneers of the unofficial reform of transportation in America. The brothers were in the bicycle-making industry when their careers first started. At this point in time, the 1880s, the bicycle was one of the most popular means for getting around, in addition to the railroad of course. The elder brother, Charles Edgar Duryea, was known for being very inventive, and even created what he called a “sylph,” which was a bicycle that had the steering levers on the sides of the seat and a smaller wheel in front.1

Duryea’s “Sylph” | Courtesy of Detroit Public Library

Because of his creativity along with his niche for the bicycle industry, he naturally became interested in bigger and better things, such as the automobile. James Frank Duryea was also a very talented mechanic, so naturally the brothers worked very well together.

In 1886, at an Ohio state fair, Charles came across a gasoline engine. Being the inventor he was, Charles immediately got the idea to use that engine to power a carriage or wagon. It wasn’t until 1891, however, that Charles completed the design.2 Immediately after, Frank began turning that design into a reality. Keep in mind, this design was just that—a design, and most likely a prototype at that. While building the car, Frank found some flaws in the design, but he also came up with solutions to them while Charles was away. By 1893, the brothers had finished building and testing their automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts. The final product was just a buggy with an engine, but that was just the beginning.3 The brothers both claimed that they were the main contributors to the vehicle and some head-butting began.

Patent Drawing for Duryea’s “road vehicle” 1895 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By 1895, the brothers completed an improved version of the car. Many believe that Frank was the one who contributed the most for this automobile. On November 28 that same year in Chicago, Illinois, Jackson Park hosted America’s first-recorded automobile race. It was a 54-mile-long race that went from Chicago to Evanston, IL. There was a total of six cars participating in the snowy race. After roughly ten hours, the improved Duryea car came in first place with an average speed of 7.3 mph. In addition to bragging rights, the Duryea brothers also won the prize of $2,000.4

James Frank Duryea and Arthur Rice at the 1st Auto Race in the U.S. | Courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Some time later, near the end of 1896, the brothers established their own company and sold thirteen copies of the winning car. However, the company did not last very long. Surely the speculation about who contributed more was a factor, but there were also theories about Charles wanting to move the company to Detroit, but the brothers didn’t have the money to do so. However it happened, they split up and both went on to continue contributing to automobiles.

Workers at the Duryea Motor Wagon Company | Courtesy of Detroit Public Library

In 1904, Frank Duryea and Joshua Stevens established the Stevens-Duryea company manufacturing automobiles. Frank helped create the first six-cylinder car, and he also contributed to the limousine, which sold well into the 1920’s. Needless to say, Frank became very successful because of his career with automobiles. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1996. Charles, on the other hand, was not so successful. After numerous failed attempts in the automobile industry after the split with his brother, he ended up settling as an editor for Automobile Trade Journal.5 Even though it seems that they weren’t as successful as Henry Ford or Karl Benz, the brothers are truly the forgotten pioneers for automobiles in America.

  1. Richard P. Scharchburg, Carriages Without Horses: J. Frank Duryea and the Birth of the American Automobile Industry (Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., 1993) 162.
  2.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, s.v. “Charles E. Druyea and J. Frank Duryea.”
  3. Frank Duryea, “America’s First Automobile Race, 1895,” American Eras: Primary Sources (Detroit, Gale 2013), 428.
  4. Mary Bellis, “The Duryea Brothers of Automobile History,” Historical Car Manufacturers, September 6, 2017, https://www.thoughtco.com/duryea-brothers-automobile-history-1991577 .
  5. Charles Carey, “Duryea Bros. Build 1st US Motorcar, Despite Themselves,” New England Historical Society, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/duryea-brothers-build-1st-us-motorcar-despite/ .
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30 Comments

  • This was a very interesting article to read. I personally, as many others, have always thought that Henry Ford was the first to design and build the car, so it was interesting to find out that was not the case. I find it unfortunate that they do not get the create for their idea and it mainly goes to Henry Ford. It is really neat to see how much has changed in the design of cars over time and all the technology that we now have and how much easier cars are to acquire and drive now.

  • This was quite an interesting article. I initially thought that this article was going to talk about Henry Ford because I always believed Ford was the creator of the automobile. But it was actually much more than that. The story of the Duryea brothers is honestly quite sad, due to their differences thy split up. With only one of them becoming successful. I do wish however there was more detail on their relationship and how it led up and what exactly caused them to split up. But other than that great article.

  • I had no idea of this backstory behind the invention of the automobile. I think I knew Henry Ford wasn’t the person who invented the automobile, but I never knew who ACTUALLY DID. If these men had moved to Detroit, I could’ve seen why Detroit’s NBA team is called the Pistons. However, I guess the automobile industry blossomed into something that found its home in Detroit.

  • I did not know that these guys were one of the first pioneers for automobiles. I did not even know that they even existed but this article does shed some light as to what they were able to accomplish. I guess you don’t really hear much about these guys because when people think of the first automobile everyone thinks of Henry Ford. It is a bit sad that the brothers weren’t successful together since they ended up splitting up but they were still able to accomplish a lot with what they did have.

  • Before this article, I have never heard of the Duryea brothers. I think it is incredible that they had the ability to create an automobile that could go approximately seven miles. The reason I find this incredible is because, during their time period, they had very limited technology. So they most likely did not have that many resources to work with. However, I find it sad that they split after disputes. Overall, this article was fascinating and taught men something I did not before reading.

  • The Duryea brothers are truly forgotten. I never knew that one (or two) of the automobile pioneers were the Duryea brothers. This kind of information should be taught or at least brought up in elementary school at least. Owning one of the first automobile companies in America is a huge deal since, maybe, without them the world would not be as we know it.

  • It is so amazing to see how far our world has come from discovering a gasoline engine and turning it into a car, to today where we have cars that can drive itself. Just imagine how much creativity had to be within Charles and Frank Duryea’s minds to create the first car.

  • I always thought Henry Ford was the first person to build a car and start a company so it was really interesting to learn that it was actually the Duryea brothers. It’s sad that they weren’t as successful as Henry Ford because they ended up splitting but they still deserve the attention of being the first pioneers of automobiles. I’m really glad I read this article and learned about them and what they accomplished.

  • Thank G-d someone wrote about this. People give way to much-undeserved credit to the antisemite Henry Ford. Anyway, it’s very sad that the brothers ended up going their separate ways. I would have been a little interested in learning more about the brothers after they have split up, but other than that, this was a great article and I’m glad I took the time to read it.

  • This was a really interesting article. Before reading it, I had mistakenly associated the building and design of cars to Henry Ford, not realizing that it was something much larger than I had thought. The story of the Duryea brother’s is definitely a bit sad though, as the brothers had their differences and split up, leaving one to be successful and the other to not. I do wish though that there was a little more insight into their relationship after they split the business.

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