The Chicago Times-Herald Race of 1895

On July 9 1895 the Chicago Times-Herald took a cue from the French to announce a race for motor vehicles, the first in the USA, “A Prize for Motors”.  The world’s first motor vehicle race had been held only a year prior, running from Paris to Rouen, and imports of the first production automobiles had only reached the USA in 1893.  Motorized carriages were considered a passing fad, but H.H. Hohlsaat, publisher of the Times-Herald, was a far-sighted fellow, and wanted to promote the nascent industry of motoring.  He lured entrants to his contest with a $5000 prize for “inventors who can construct practicable, self-propelling road carriages.”   The course was a 54-mile route from Chicago to Evanston, and back.

A handsome photo of the Duryea car, hand-built by J. Frank Duryea, who wears a baseball cap (of the period) and is driving. It is perhaps the most recognizable ‘car’ among the entrants. [Detroit Public Library]
The promotion of the race quickly revealed a linguistic inadequacy: there was as yet no agreed-upon word for motor vehicles in English.   Once again, the Times-Herald stepped into the breach, inviting its readers to invent a new term for a new technology.  You’ve heard some of the names offered: Horseless Carriage, Vehicle Motor, Automobile, Automobile Carriage, and Moto Cycle, or motocycle as it was thereafter printed. Motocycle isn’t a term much remembered these days (unless you’re a fan of early Indians), but before 1900 it did become the blanket term for anything roving the public roads with a motor and wheels, as you will read anon in the Scientific American article reporting on the Time-Herald race.

E.J. Pennington’s motocycle was among the first gasoline-powered two-wheelers in the USA, and was patented the next year (1896). Steam cycles had been built since 1867, first by Sylvester H. Roper, and then by others, and the invention of the Otto engine (using gasoline) spurred new designs like this. Pennington was a con artist of the first order, and fleeced wealthy patrons in the USA and England with sky-high promises for his motorcycles and cars, which could not deliver. But, he did coin the term ‘motorcycle’ in 1893. Note the three seats, balloon tires, and the twin-cylinder engine out back. [Detroit Public Library]
The race was originally planned for November 9th, but most of the 80-odd builders who expressed interest in competing had not yet finished their vehicles.  Playing for time, Hohlsaat announced there would be a preliminary contest between the two cars that were ready on Nov. 2: a Gottlieb Benz driven by Oscar Mueller, and a Duryea, constructed  by J. Frank Duryea, who also drove it.  The Benz won that race after the Duryea struck a horse carriage and broke its steering arm.  Both cars were under-powered, and had trouble crossing even the mild rise of railroad tracks, over which they had to be pushed; spectators on bicycles proved far quicker than any of the motocycles.  It was not an auspicious start to a new industry, which most considered of interest only to the very wealthy.  It was bicycles that people got excited in 1895, and all the social changes they allowed (especially for women), with new opportunities for socializing. Motocycles seemed an expensive pain in the ass, and the 1895 race did little to dispel that notion.

Pennington’s four-wheel motocycle looked reasonable, but did not get far. Concealed under the bodywork is a laid-down V4 engine. [Detroit Public Library]
America’s first motor race was held in miserable conditions after an unseasonable blizzard, with 6″ of fresh snow on the ground, and the temperature hovering at 30degrees F.  The roads were mostly unpaved and slushy with icy mud, and for the new-fangled motocycles, the race was a daunting if not impossible situation.  Of the nearly 80 entrants that signed up for the race, perhaps a dozen appeared, but half were deemed un-roadworthy after a quick test in Holstaat’s barn; only six vehicles lined up to race on the day.   The vehicles were an amazing mixed bag, reflecting the state of the motoring industry in the day, on the cusp of modernity, but unclear whether it would be electricity, gasoline, or steam power that would emerge victorious.  The entrants included an interesting steam car built by A.C. Ames, using two bicycle frames holding a sleigh body, with the steam engine out back.  It was immediately disqualified as it could only run for 100 yards before running out of steam.  Two electric vehicles were entered: the Sturges Electric Car, built by Harold Sturges, did not have enough power to battle the built-up slush on the roads, and soon ran out of juice.  The Electrobat had a promising name, but also struggled with a lack of energy on the rough roads, and failed sooner than the Sturges.  Still, the Electrobat was given a Gold Medal award for efficiency.

“We think that this new means of transportation is destined to play an important part in the question of city traffic,” – Scientific American

The notorious flim-flam man E.J. Pennington arrived with two vehicles: the two-wheeled ‘motorcycle’ (as he called his motorized two-wheelers, becoming the first to do so, in 1893) with which he eventually fleeced investors, and a larger vehicle made by doubling up his motorcycle.  Interestingly, the Pennington machines were one of only two vehicles using rubber balloon tires recently invented by John Dunlop (1888), which everyone admired for their greater ability to handle the slush, and the smooth ride they provided compared to the solid tires of every other vehicle.

The doubled-up Safety bicycle chassis of A.C. Ames. [Detroit Public Library]
Max Hertel and G.W. Lewis both built motor vehicles for the race: Hertel’s did not start the race, and Lewis’ did not finish.  Jerry O’Connor drove a Benz sponsored by Macy’s department store that crashed three times.  It should be noted that none of the vehicles entered had brakes, and although they typically averaged 4-7mph, horse-drawn carriages were still an obstacle.   The cold was a serious issue, as all the vehicles left the drivers exposed, and vulnerable to the frequent snowballs thrown by jeering children.  Mueller actually passed out from exposure while driving his Benz; luckily each vehicle had an umpire from the race seated beside its driver, and Charles King simply shoved Mueller aside, supporting him on his shoulder, and carried on driving so the car would complete the race.

The second Benz sponsored by Macy’s…their first Thanksgiving Day Parade? [Detroit Public Library]
Only two vehicles completed the course: the Benz imported by Hieronymus Mueller & Co. of Decatur IL, driven by Oscar Mueller, and the Duryea, constructed  by J. Frank Duryea, who also drove it.. The Duryea was the winner of the race, making 54.36 miles in 7 hours and 53 minutes, averaging 7 miles per hour, and burning 3.5 gallons of gasoline.  Every one of the competitors dealt with mechanical calamities en route, and Duryea had to dash into a tinsmith’s shop (after rousing the owner at home) to straighten his steering arm after a collision with a carriage.  Jerry O’Connor, in the Macy’s Benz, had three accidents, all with horse-drawn carriages: a streetcar, a towing rig carrying another race competitor that had failed, and a hack (single horse with light two-wheeled carriage), which broke his spokes and his steering arm, after which he gave up the competition.  After 8 hours and three accidents in the freezing, windy conditions, that was understandable.  Still, the race planted a flag for motoring competitions in the USA, and only time stood between this first, feeble attempt at a proper motor race, and the popularity of motor vehicles as everyman transportation.

Max Hertel’s entry used a small motor that proved inadequate on the day. [Detroit Public Library]

From Scientific American, Dec. 7 1895:

“It was extremely unfortunate that the weather should have interfered so seriously with the Chicago Times-Herald motocycle contest, which came off at that city on Thanksgiving Day. The recent storm had left the roads heavy with snow and mud. We are told that for miles on the west side the boulevards were unbroken fields of snowbanks and slush. Six machines lined up for the start : The Duryea, of Springfield, Mass.; the Morris & Salom Electrobat, of Philadelphia; the H. Mueller motocycle, of Decatur, Ill, the R. H. Macy, of New York; the De la Vergne. of New York ; and the Sturges electric motocycle, of Chicago. The Roger motocycle, with a view to giving it a long distance test. was started from New York to Chicago by road on November 15; but it was stalled by snow when it reached Schenectady.

The Sturges Electric vehicle. These construction detail photos (taken on glass ‘dry plates’), show the curiosity this new technology aroused, and the many ways builders addressed issues of steering and translating a power source to the wheels. [Detroit Public library]
Two of the machines covered the distance fixed for the race ; the first being the design of an American inventor, Charles E. Duryea, of Springfield, MA. His vehicle, a gasoline motocycle, covered the fifty-four miles in 10 hours and 23 minutes ; a really creditable feat, when we consider the wretched state of the roads. The H. Mueller, also an American machine, was second, making the journey in 1 hour 35 minutes longer time. The De la Vergne, the Morris & Salom, and the Sturges electrical machine made no effort to cover any great part of the course. The R. H. Macy had to retire after covering half the distance on account of broken running gear.

The Columbia Perambulator 3-wheeled electric coach, built by an old coachworks branching out into new turf: Columbia became a proper manufacturer not long after this race.  Not the driver sat above and behind the passengers, with a tiller steering arm.  [Detroit Public Library]
Although it is to be regretted that the recent storm should have spoiled this most interesting contest as regards the number of contestants and the rapidity with which the course was covered, we must bear in mind that the great severity of the test speaks all the more favorably for the excellence of the vehicles which completed the journey. The storm of a day or two previous had completely paralyzed vehicular transportation in the very district where the Duryea motocycle completed a fifty-four mile journey at a five-mile gait, and came in to the winning post none the worse for the trying ordeal. No better proof could be given of the all-round excellence of this vehicle. The greatest care must have been exercised in the proportioning of parts, and the general setting up, both of the motor and carriage, to enable it to battle for ten hours against the combined obstacles of mud and snow. It is, moreover, greatly to the credit of the manufacturers that all this strength should have been obtained without the sacrifice of general appearance. As shown in the illustration, the Duryea motocycle is certainly an elegant turnout, and for looks it could hold its own with the average horse carriage of today. Undoubtedly the motocycle has come to stay.

The Electrobat built by Morris and Salon gets my vote for the best name! It’s clear from this photo it uses front wheel drive, with larger wheels up front than the rear.  It’s not the first front-wheel drive motor vehicle – that credit goes back to Cugnot’s ‘fardier a vapeur’ of 1770! [Detroit Public Library]
For private use, as compared with the horse carriage, it has many points in its favor. The space required for stabling would be merely that occupied by its own bulk; and its running expenses would be limited to the fuel consumed and such repairs as might occasionally be required. We think that this new means of transportation is destined to play an important part in the question of city traffic. In the main thoroughfares of the larger cities traffic is badly congested. The adoption of the motocycle will largely relieve this, for the reason that it occupies only about one-half the space of the horse carriage; moreover, it turns in a much smaller circle, and is in every way more flexible in a crowded thoroughfare. The metaphorical allusion to a flow of water in speaking of city traffic is well chosen. The stream of traffic is subject to the same laws as any fluid moving in a fixed channel. The more easily the particles adjust themselves to each other, the more rapid will be the flow, other things being equal. Nothing hinders the flow of traffic so much as a line of vehicles moving on a fixed track and having the right of way over ot her traffic. If such a thoroughfare as Broadway, in New York City, were asphalted from end to end, and its vehicular traffic carried on by various forms of the motocycle, its capacity would be largely increased.

A rare close-up of the Pennington four-wheeler, with exposed connecting rods and large flywheel for its horizontal V-4 motor.  As with all Pennington motors, it had no cooling fins, and soon seized.  The certainty of dirt entering the exposed cylinder bores also guaranteed a short life.  The motor used train technology to transmit engine rotation to the rear wheels, using the wheels or in this case a flywheel, via the connecting rods. That branch of motor vehicle development was popular in the pioneering years, including with the first production motorcycle, the Hildebrand&Wolfmuller of 1896. [Detroit Public Library]
The force of this statement will be realized by any one who has watched the ease with which the bicycle can thread it way through a crowded thoroughfare. Making allowance for its larger bulk, the motocycle shows an equal facility of control. The general adoption of this vehicle, and the consequent removal of many thousands of horses from the streets of our cities, would result in greatly improved sanitary conditions. The introduction of the trolley and the cable car removed the nuisance in part, it is true, but it still exists. A gusty wind will raise at any time in dry weather a cloud of dust, which is composed more than anything else of pulverized manure. The gravity of this nuisance, viewed from a sanitary standpoint, is not generally appreciated. The adoption of any device, such as the motocycle, which will abolish the horse from a city’s streets, would be welcomed by its sanitary officers as largely conducive to public health.”

The steamer in all its confusing jumble of pipes and fittings. [Detroit Public Library]
Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.