Charles and Frank Duryea

Many automotive pioneers started their careers in the bicycle business, as did the Duryea brothers from Illinois. Older brother Charles was born in 1861 while Frank Duryea was born eight years later. From a very young age they moved across the United States where the job took them.

When they studied the mechanics of internal combustion engines at the Springfield public library, the two set the foundation for the very beginning of the American automotive history.

Charles had a magnificent talent for design, which he first showed in bicycles. Frank was the hard worker and also had a sense for mechanics. The first Duryea car design attracted the attention of Erwin Markham, who became their first investor.

Erwin invested around $1000 in their vehicle project, covering the total expenses for the use of an old machine shop, a set of cast parts and an obsolete horse drawn buggy. Frank Duryea was paid $3 per day to perfect Charles's design and to make a functional automobile.

He worked ten hours a day conducting test after test. Using the trial and error method Frank solved the initial ignition, carburetion and transmission issues. They had installed a 4 horsepower single cylinder gasoline engine for the power performance. In 1894 Frank finally made the first successful road test. Erwin Markham provided more money on several occasions, but decided to pull out when the Duryea Motor Wagon Company was about to be established the following year.

Duryea brothers got 480 shares, while the rest was spread among 175 different investors. Every share was valued at $100, a considerable amount for those days. Duryea Motor Wagon Company became the first company that built and commercially sold gasoline powered vehicles in the United States.

It was all timed just before Chicago Times-Herald race, the very first American car race. Held on November 28, 1895, the race included a 54 mile race from Chicago's Jackson Park to Evanston, Illinois and back. Six motor vehicles participated in this crazy event through the harsh winter conditions. Frank Duryea won the race in little more than 10 hours at an average speed of 7.3 mph, earning $2,000 for his company.

The Duryea automobile tested on the public streets of Springfield, Massachusetts withstood heavy snow and ice, impressing the general public and numerous observers. The publicity helped to sell thirteen cars by 1896. Newspapers wrote on the development of the horseless carriage as a marvelous mechanical achievement, well suited to solve many needs of the modern society.

As an interesting fact, the Duryea model is responsible for the first recorded car accident in the United States. Only two months after selling their car, certain Henry Wells hit a bicycle in New York and landed in jail for a night. The cyclist suffered a broken leg, but entered the history books nonetheless. The original Duryea model was salvaged from storage by former Duryea engineer and gifted to the Smithsonian Institute in 1920.

Pictures of Duryea brothers

Charles and Frank Duryea profile   Frank Duryea   Charles Duryea


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