StMU Research Scholars

America’s First Automobile: The Duryea Brothers’ Role in Reforming Transportation

Although they didn’t create the first automobile in the world, Charles and Frank Duryea were the first to not only build one in the United States, but they also had the first automobile company in the United States. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company manufactured and sold automobiles. Based on these accomplishments alone, it can be argued that the Duryea brothers are the pioneers of the unofficial reform of transportation in America. The brothers were in the bicycle-making industry when their careers first started. At this point in time, the 1880s, the bicycle was one of the most popular means for getting around, in addition to the railroad of course. The elder brother, Charles Edgar Duryea, was known for being very inventive, and even created what he called a “sylph,” which was a bicycle that had the steering levers on the sides of the seat and a smaller wheel in front.1

Duryea’s “Sylph” | Courtesy of Detroit Public Library

Because of his creativity along with his niche for the bicycle industry, he naturally became interested in bigger and better things, such as the automobile. James Frank Duryea was also a very talented mechanic, so naturally the brothers worked very well together.

In 1886, at an Ohio state fair, Charles came across a gasoline engine. Being the inventor he was, Charles immediately got the idea to use that engine to power a carriage or wagon. It wasn’t until 1891, however, that Charles completed the design.2 Immediately after, Frank began turning that design into a reality. Keep in mind, this design was just that—a design, and most likely a prototype at that. While building the car, Frank found some flaws in the design, but he also came up with solutions to them while Charles was away. By 1893, the brothers had finished building and testing their automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts. The final product was just a buggy with an engine, but that was just the beginning.3 The brothers both claimed that they were the main contributors to the vehicle and some head-butting began.

Patent Drawing for Duryea’s “road vehicle” 1895 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By 1895, the brothers completed an improved version of the car. Many believe that Frank was the one who contributed the most for this automobile. On November 28 that same year in Chicago, Illinois, Jackson Park hosted America’s first-recorded automobile race. It was a 54-mile-long race that went from Chicago to Evanston, IL. There was a total of six cars participating in the snowy race. After roughly ten hours, the improved Duryea car came in first place with an average speed of 7.3 mph. In addition to bragging rights, the Duryea brothers also won the prize of $2,000.4

James Frank Duryea and Arthur Rice at the 1st Auto Race in the U.S. | Courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Some time later, near the end of 1896, the brothers established their own company and sold thirteen copies of the winning car. However, the company did not last very long. Surely the speculation about who contributed more was a factor, but there were also theories about Charles wanting to move the company to Detroit, but the brothers didn’t have the money to do so. However it happened, they split up and both went on to continue contributing to automobiles.

Workers at the Duryea Motor Wagon Company | Courtesy of Detroit Public Library

In 1904, Frank Duryea and Joshua Stevens established the Stevens-Duryea company manufacturing automobiles. Frank helped create the first six-cylinder car, and he also contributed to the limousine, which sold well into the 1920’s. Needless to say, Frank became very successful because of his career with automobiles. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1996. Charles, on the other hand, was not so successful. After numerous failed attempts in the automobile industry after the split with his brother, he ended up settling as an editor for Automobile Trade Journal.5 Even though it seems that they weren’t as successful as Henry Ford or Karl Benz, the brothers are truly the forgotten pioneers for automobiles in America.

  1. Richard P. Scharchburg, Carriages Without Horses: J. Frank Duryea and the Birth of the American Automobile Industry (Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc., 1993) 162.
  2.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013, s.v. “Charles E. Druyea and J. Frank Duryea.”
  3. Frank Duryea, “America’s First Automobile Race, 1895,” American Eras: Primary Sources (Detroit, Gale 2013), 428.
  4. Mary Bellis, “The Duryea Brothers of Automobile History,” Historical Car Manufacturers, September 6, 2017, .
  5. Charles Carey, “Duryea Bros. Build 1st US Motorcar, Despite Themselves,” New England Historical Society, .

33 Responses

  1. The Duryea brothers lived in Peoria, Ill for a time. Not sure for how long, but there is a street named after them in Peoria Heights. Duryea Street.

  2. I have never heard about Charles and Frank Duryea. I think it is cool and creative that Charles saw a gasoline engine, and he knew exactly that he wanted to put it in a wagon. The race that the brothers one was also cool for its time. Ten hours driving is too long though. It is sad that the brothers split and Frank became successful mostly.

  3. Amazingly informative article! I found the part on how they had an automobile race. It is interesting how automobiles have come since the late 1800s. Even though seven miles per hours doesn’t sound impressive in today’s standards, it must have been a spectacle to drive or even see those automobiles in action. Who knows what the future has in store for us.

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