J. Frank Duryea pictured in the car he co-created in Illinois, 1895
J. Frank Duryea pictured in the car he co-created in Illinois, 1895

The Duryea Motor Wagon: Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects No.89

The Duryea brothers' motor car was a $70 buggy equipped with a 2-cylinder engine

Rhodri Marsden
Friday 27 November 2015 23:52

The world's first competitive motor race took place 120 years ago today. Well, kind of. The pioneering Paris-Rouen trials had run just over a year earlier, but its organisers had declared beforehand: "Ce ne sera pas une course". (Not a race.) The "Chicago Times-Herald Race", however, evidently was.

In 1893, J Frank Duryea had built a motor car with his brother Charles, a $70 buggy equipped with a 1-cylinder engine. This race, however, required something more powerful, and the brothers upgraded it to a 2-cylinder, 2-stroke machine. With the race set for 2 November, the Times-Herald's editor, HH Kohlsaat, announced a four-figure "prize for motors". Nearly 90 contestants applied to enter.

Come the big day, however, only two cars were ready: Duryea's and a Benz car driven by one Oscar B Mueller. The race was postponed, but on the day of the re-run two of the vehicles were prevented from entering the city by police. The race finally got under way at 8.55am on 28 November with a field of six, including two more Benz vehicles and two electrically-powered two-wheelers. With sub-zero temperatures and treacherous driving conditions, the course was shortened from 100 to 54 miles (Chicago to Evanston and back).

The two-wheelers failed to get up the first significant hill. One of the Benzes hit a horse and left the race. Mueller lapsed into unconsciousness due to exposure. The steering arm of Duryea's car broke off and had to be replaced by a blacksmith, and with 12 miles to go one of the cylinders malfunctioned. This was repaired by Charles Duryea, who travelled alongside in a horse- drawn sledge.

Frank Duryea eventually won in a sloth-like time of 10 hours 23 minutes. "At no time," he recalled triumphantly in his autobiography, "were we compelled to get out and push."


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