1898: It Was a Very Good Year!
It was the year Spain and the United States fought a "splendid little war" that marked America's emergence as a player among the Great Powers--and boosted the political career of one Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt of the First United States Volunteer Cavalry. It was also the year when Great Britain and France almost fought a war over an obscure town called Fashoda, on the banks of the White Nile in the Sudan. It was the year of the last battle between the U.S. Army and Native Americans, and one of the last significant "colonial war" battles in the British Empire. It was the year when Emile Zola published J'accuse, when Enzo Ferrari, M.C. Escher, George Gershwin, and Golda Meier were born and Otto von Bismarck died, radium and neon were discovered, the meat slicer was invented, and Pepsi-Cola came to market.
In Car Lust terms, 1898 was significant as the year of the first advertising campaign by an American carmaker, and the first sale of an automobile to a retail customer in the United States.
Automobiles were certainly still in the rough draft stage. They didn't call 'em "horseless carriages" for nothing: as you'll see in a little bit, the basic architecture of an 1898 motor vehicle was pretty clearly derived from its horse-drawn competition, right down to the narrow tread, large diameter spoked wheels. Wagons had narrow wheels to reduce rolling resistance so the horses could pull them easier; it took a while for the automobile engineers to realize that when you're using the wheels to propel yourself, they really need a wider tread and a larger contact patch to lay down power more efficiently.
The tires themselves were often iron, like on a wagon, or solid rubber, but that would soon change. Michelin had introduced the first pneumatic rubber automobile tire in 1895, the valve stem was patented in 1898, and within a few years air-filled rubber tires would become just about universal practice on automobiles.
All of the other major design elements of the modern automobile were still open questions. Should the throttle be a pedal or a lever? Brakes and gearshift and clutch, same question. Do we operate the steering by tiller, crank, or wheel? In a vehicle with two rows of seating, does the driver sit in front or in back? Do the two rows of seats face each other, or both face forward, or should they be back to back? Biggest question of all: what do you use for the prime mover, an internal combustion ("gas") engine, "external combustion" boiler and a steam engine, or batteries and an electric motor? You could find vehicles which answered these questions in various ways and various combinations, and up to that point there was no clear "right" answer for a lot of them. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of what was on offer in 1898.
In the ten years since Bertha Benz made her historic road trip in Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3, her husband Karl's business had grown into the largest auto company in the world in terms of sales. Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik was selling over 500 vehicles per year and employed about 400 people. Benz had two models of automobile in production in 1898, the Viktoria and the Velo, and was also making a truck that could be turned into a bus with a little coachwork. The Velo is shown here demonstrating its hill-climbing and rough-road capabilities in London:
The Lancashire Steam Motor Company of Leyland, England had exhibited a prototype steam-powered commercial vehicle at the Royal Agricultural Show in 1897. Here it is:
In 1898, the company sold its first "steam wagon" to a customer, the Fox Brothers textile mill, which used it to transport wool. The Lancashire Steam Motor Company renamed itself "Leyland Motors" in 1907, and yes, it's the same "Leyland" that ended up as part of British Leyland.
(Oh, and those "Sumner's Steam Lawn Mowers" blurbed on the side of the truck wagon? Click here to see one.)
Meanwhile, not far away, in Coventry, Daimler Motor Company--not to be confused with the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Germany that eventually hooked up with Benz & Company to become the Daimler-Benz we all know and love today--had gotten itself appointed as the official motor vehicle provider to the British monarch. It would hold this "Royal Warrant" until 1950, when King George VI's ride suffered a major transmission failure, and His Majesty switched to Rolls Royce. The 1898 Daimler product line included this six-passenger "shooting brake"--a proto-station wagon--with tiller steering and a 6 HP two-banger under the hood:
Just across the Channel, the French motor vehicle industry was off to a strong start. Panhard & Levassor, De Dion-Bouton, Delahaye, Mors, and Peugeot had cars in production for retail sale. This is a De Dion-Bouton; note that the second row of seats is in the front and the driver has to look over the front seat passenger's shoulder to see where they're going.
Toward the end of the year, some upstart named Louis Renault took one of his father's friends on a test drive of his subcompact Voiturette on the Place du Tertre, in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. The gentleman was so impressed that he bought the car on the spot.
We may therefore credit Louis Renault not only with founding the company that still bears his name, but with also with being the first new car salesman: Monseiur, what shall it take to get you into this Voiturette today? You have a trade-in, perhaps?...
Over on this side of the pond, the automobile industry wasn't quite so developed yet. There were dozens of little start-up manufacturers all over the country, but most of them were still in the experimental stage. The Duryea Motor Wagon is generally considered the first car to have been placed into series production in this country--and there's a case to be made that it beat the Benz Velo by a week or two to be the first standardized production car in the world, period. Here's the patent drawing from 1895:
As I said above, you could find automobiles on offer with steam and electric drivetrains, as well as gasoline. Here's an example of a steam car, the Piper and Tinker Steam Buggy built by the firm of Tinker & Piper, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Representing the electric approach to automotive propulsion is this Phaeton built by the Riker Electric Vehicle Company of Brooklyn, New York:
Aftyer two years of prototypes and experimentation, Alexander Winton, founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland, judged that his two-passenger gas-powered carriage was ready for series production, and placed ads in Scientific American offering it for sale at $1,000 F.O.B. Cleveland. That's about $26,000 in today's money, which seems an awful lot for a car with no cupholders.
Robert Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, a local industrialist and all-around leading citizen, saw Winton's ad in Scientific American. He was in the market for some new wheels, and took a trip to visit Winton and several other manufacturers and compare their offerings. On March 24, he bought a new Winton direct from the factory. This is generally recognized by historians as the first commercial sale of an automobile in the United States; we can also credit Mr. Allison with having performed history's first cross-shop.
Winton sold twenty more cars in 1898, and over a hundred the next year. One of 1898's other buyers was James Ward Packard of Warren, Ohio, who was not impressed with his car and complained directly to Alexander Winton in person. Mr. Winton did not appreciate the critique, and told Packard to build his own car if he thought he could do better. Mr. Packard took up the challenge, demonstrated his prototype in 1899, and founded the Ohio Automobile Company--soon renamed the Packard Motor Car Company--in 1900.
While there were dozens of automobile companies already in operation by 1898, a few of which were selling multiple hundreds of cars per year, automobiles were still extremely rare. Owning one required you to be your own parts and service department, and often your own fuel supplier.
In Medina, Ohio, where I live, the first car in town arrived about this time. It was an electric owned by Amos Ives Root, our most famous inhabitant, a pioneer of the beekeeping and wax candle industries. There was at the time no electric utility service in town, so to keep his car charged up, he rigged a generator to the windmill on his farm. When curious people asked what made the car go, his stock answer was "the wind."
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The reproduction of one of the first Winton print ads, from the July 30, 1898 issue of Scientific American, came from Wired's "This Day in Tech" blog. The Benz Velo, Renault Voiturette, Lancashire Steam Wagon, Daimler shooting brake, and Duryea patent drawing came from Wikipedia. The photos of the Riker Electric and the Piper & Tinker came from the Early American Automobiles website.