First American Auto Race 121 years ago — Indiana State Quarter Coin

Today, the Indiana State Quarter Coin with its design of a race car remembers the first automobile race held in Chicago 121 years ago.

In The Automobile magazine of March 5, 1908, an article by Charles E. Duryea described the first American automobile race and its challenges:


In the Beginning of American Automobiling

The first automobile racing event in America was due to the initiative and generosity of H. H. Kohlsaat, then proprietor of the Times-Herald, of Chicago.

He was impressed by the showing in the great French event of the spring of 1895, and in June announced a series of prizes amounting to $5,000 and a small gold medal, to be given to the most meritorious in a three-day auto event, to be held about November 1, 1895.

The matter was kept alive in the columns of his paper and public interest stimulated as much as possible so as to attract a large entry list.

A prize was offered for the best name for the new vehicle and after much deliberation “motocycle” was adopted.

The fate of the word has proven how little the committee understood either horseless carriages or the automobile vocabulary.

Inventors sprang up like weeds in many small places, and each was sure he had the device that would get the big prize or at least one of the small ones.

Eighty-three entries were secured, some entrants engaging several vehicles.

The Monitor was built in ninety days; surely the same American talent was equal to the task of making successful self-propelled carriages in four months.

It looked then, as it often has since, very easy to put together a motor and a buggy and take a ride. But, alas, there were some disappointed inventors and discouraged event-promoters when the time arrived and but three or four vehicles were on hand.

Pennington, of airship and other hot-air fame; Mueller, who had imported a Benz rig; Duryea and one or two others constituted the small group.

The others were keeping the wires hot explaining that they were almost ready, etc., etc.

The management saw nothing else to do but postpone, and this they did, naming Thanksgiving day [November 28, 1895] as the next date.

To console those present and recompense them somewhat, an exhibition run of fifty-odd miles over the course was held for a purse of $500 to be divided equally among those who covered the course regardless of speed or time so long as it was in the same day.

We could feel our half of that money bulging our pocket, for there was no real auto there that could cover that course in opposition to the Duryea, except the Mueller-Benz.

It seemed so certain that the Duryea rig, which had been used by a green promoter all summer and had never been towed, would gambol over those fifty-odd miles on that beautiful Fall day in a most easy, pleasant manner, that my brother and I rode away with as much enthusiasm as a couple of school boys.

We had a few spares and there did not seem to be anything likely to break that could not be repaired by either or both of us on the road if necessary.

We ran away from the Benz and were going finely when our chain broke.

This did not worry us, though it permitted the Benz to get ahead.

We were soon after them and rapidly overhauling a German farmer driving a light road cart.

There was ample room to pass him on the left, as was our duty according to law, but we sounded our warning to let him know we were coming.

This ruined us, as these legal warnings have often done since.

He looked around and seeing us coming “like a railroad train” (about 12 miles per hour) decided he must get out of the way, so he took a short hold on the lines and pulled the outfit across the road to the left.

This blocked our way, and rather than hit him we glided into the ditch which looked easy, being full of grass. Our front wheels dropped nearly out of sight and both hubs gave way.

The Benz got all the money; the Duryea all the disappointments.

The Duryea went to the factory by freight; but was again present on Thanksgiving day.

Chicago was in the grip of a blizzard. Trains were late or abandoned.

Pedestrians sank to the waist in some of the streets.

Lincoln Park had not been traversed when the contestants entered it.

There were more entries, however, than on the first occasion.

A show room at Sixteenth street and Wabash avenue served as headquarters, and as the streets became more passable, some demonstrations were given.

Haynes had his second vehicle there.

Morris & Salom had two electrics, which were the first of the long series of the Electric Vehicle Company.

Lewis had a friction drive which he very carefully guarded. It was the predecessor of the Searchmont.

In all there were eleven who took starting numbers.

The weather had moderated enough to soften the snow on top but at night this froze into a crust hard enough to support pedestrians and sleighs.

The next morning was snappy cold. A starting spot had been scraped free of snow in Jackson Park.

Some of the starters arrived on trucks, some under tow and some, like the Haynes, did not arrive.

Only five lined up.

The Duryea had run out without trouble and seemed to be a good road breaker so it was sent off first.

The others followed quickly, but as they came to the slight rise leading on to the old Midway Plaisance it was noticed that there was trouble.

A run to the spot showed all but the Duryea stalled in the snow. Salom voiced the common sentiment when he said, “It’s against the rules to be pushed, but you had better lend us a hand, boys.”

So they were pushed and not only once but many times during the day.

The course lay through the city and to the north, then back to the city and out northwest, then back to the start through the parks on the west side. Total distance 54 miles.

The electrics were quickly out of it.

The Macy Roger, a French rig, made a hard fight and covered probably forty miles.

The Benz operator fainted from exhaustion but the rig was driven in by Chas. B. King, now of the Northern, and abandoned at the finish line.

The Duryea had two small breakdowns, one of which was distinctly traceable to the original accident, but in spite of the delay caused by these, it won the contest.

Its operator drove back to the storeroom with no sense of physical exhaustion.

It was the only rig to cover the course and transport itself both from and to its quarters on the same day.

Total distance about 70 miles.

Many modern rigs with their small wheels could not do such a feat.

The first prize, $2,000 cash, was awarded to the Duryea, which for years was the only American rig that had proven able to defeat foreign-built vehicles.

That this was not accidental, but a reality, was amply shown by other Duryea rigs winning the second American event at New York the next spring and by running away from the French victors of ’96, in the Liberty Day run at London, on November 14, 1896.

The effect of this contest on the budding industry was peculiar.

The inventors found themselves not ready even for the New York event, and many of them fell out, surprised at the severity of the problem and disgusted with its difficulties.

The carriage makers came expecting to see carriages with a push-button on the seat and a door-bell battery under it.

They found a whole power plant and went away convinced that it would never do for their trade.

The cycle user could only see steel wheels and rubber tires, and condemned all else, and later got his fill of toys in the shape of the little steamers which he snapped at so eagerly when they were thrown on the market.

The public generally were disappointed at the slow time made (because of the snow and the accidents, about 8 miles per hour), and ridiculed the performance and the promoters.

The few thinking ones saw that it had answered forever the question “What will they do in winter?” and had proven superiority over the horse.

It had also confirmed the gasoline men’s claims as to the superiority of gasoline motors for this work and those willing to see did not need another lesson.

Twelve years later we see the motor buggy just getting a very tardy recognition of its merits, and yet we, as a people, pride ourselves that we are up-to-date and can see through a ladder.

There was enough in that first run to prove conclusively the value of the buggy type, but few could see it.

That Duryea rig weighed under 1,200 pounds.

It had 44 and 48-inch wheels, with 2-inch hosepipe tires.

The motor was a two-cylinder, four-cycle, located at the rear.

It had three speeds forward and single chain drive to a live rear axle.

Why the makers went to France for their models when the public have been all these years waiting for something like this is a question not very easy to answer.


The Indiana State Quarter Coin with its race car shows with an image of the Duryea brothers in their winning automobile of November 28, 1895.

Indiana State Quarter Coin