TR Footnotes — FN.0910
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Auto Firsts
Victor Parachin

Historical tidbits about your favorite towed vehicle

The millions who attend annual automotive shows would be quite surprised to learn that the first National Automobile Show took place in 1900 from November 3-10. It was sponsored by the Automobile Club of America and featured 40 automakers exhibiting more than 300 cars. Attendance averaged 6,000 per day and visitors viewed braking and starting contests.

A ramp was built to demonstrate the hill-climbing ability of the cars and barrels were placed on the floor to show the ease of steering an automobile. Admission to the “horseless horse show” was 50 cents. That same year, William McKinley became the first U.S. president to ride in an automobile.

Here are other fascinating automotive firsts:

First steering wheel. The earliest automobiles were steered by tillers, much like a boat. In 1900 the first steering wheel was used on a Packard Model C, built by the Ohio Automobile Company. Visitors at the National Automobile Show looked skeptically at it referring to the steering wheel as “that foreign thing.” In defense of the new innovation, Packard officials declared: “In machines that are designed to travel in excess of twenty miles an hour” a steering wheel was an absolute necessity.

First car accident. On May 30, 1896, Henry Wells of Springfield, MA was driving his Duryea Motor Wagon in New York City. He collided with Evylyn Thomas who was riding her bicycle. She was taken to the Manhattan Hospital with a fractured leg. Wells spent the night in jail.

First fatality. Three years later on September 13, 1899, the first auto Fatality took place. Henry H. Bliss, 68, a real estate broker, was knocked down and run over as he was departing a streetcar at Central Park West and 74th Street, New York City. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital where he died. The car driver, Arthur Smith, was arrested and held on $1,000 bail.

First automobile laws. It quickly became apparent that states would have to establish rules and regulations on drivers and their vehicles. On July 06, 1899, the city of Chicago authorized a Board of Examiners of Operators of Automobiles. The board members’ task was to determine the qualifications of individuals seeking licenses. The first board included the city electrician, the city engineer, and the commissioner of health.

In 1901, Connecticut became the first state to enact uniform, statewide motor vehicle laws. That year, New York issued the first state license plates for automobiles and collected a total of $954 in fees. The first vehicle stop sign was put in Detroit in 1914.

First speeding arrest. Jacob German has the distinction of being the first driver arrested for speeding. That took place on May 20, 1899 when German, the operator of a taxicab for the Electric Vehicle Company, was arrested for driving at a “breakneck speed” of 12 miles per hour on Lexington Avenue, New York City. He was booked and jailed in the East 22nd Street police station.

First speedometer and speed limit. The curved dash of the 1901 Oldsmobile was the first vehicle equipped with a speedometer. England was the world’s first country to establish the speed limit. That took place in 1902 and was set at 20 miles per hour.

In the United States, the first national speed limit law was enacted in 1942 and set at 35 miles per hour. The following year, 1943, a ban on driving for pleasure was put into place because gasoline was needed during World War II. The 55-mph national speed limit legislation was passed in the U.S. in
1974. That was the first time since World War II that the government instituted such a law.

First car produced for commercial sales. That was the car manufactured by Charles Edgar Duryea, regarded as American’s pioneer automobile manufacturer. Duryea began building his first automobile in August 1891 in Springfield, MA, and was successfully operated on April 19, 1892. By 1895, he organized the Duryea Motor Wagon Company producing cars for commercial sale. The first was sold in 1896.

First armored car. Designed by Colonel Royal Page Davidson in May 1898, it came complete with a Colt automatic machine gun mounted on the car. Intended solely for military use, the vehicle was manufactured by the Duryea Automobile Company and first used by the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy of Lake Geneva, WI.

The first commercial use of an armored car was employed by Brinks Incorporated in Chicago in 1918; however, it was not made entirely of steel. A completely steel-protected armored car was put into service on February 1, 1920 by Michael Francis Sweeny of the Sweeney Detective Bureau, St. Paul, MN.

The side walls and roof were steel. No wood was used. The glass was “polished plate wired glass”. All the Windows could be covered by hinged steel plates, which fell into place when triggered.

First car factory. In 1899, Ransom Eli Olds of Detroit, Michigan began manufacturing Oldsmobiles at his factory. In 1901, he produced 433 cars, 2,500 in 1902, and 5,508 in 1904.

Although Olds pioneered car manufacturing, it was Henry Ford who would be the first to mass-produce automobiles. In 1908, he introduced the Model T with a low price made possible by mass-production. His vehicle became the first that was affordable to the general public.

Ford further developed auto manufacturing in August 1913 by using a moving assembly line. At his Highland Park, MI, plant, a two-rope pulley was hooked to a Model T chassis, pulling it past the workers who added the necessary parts. By the end of that year, his assembly line was motorized.

The use of an assembly line increased Model T production from seven-and-one-half to 146 cars per Hour, making them even more affordable. Henry Ford’s assembly line effectively removed automobile ownership from the exclusive hands of the wealthy.

First interchangeable car parts. One reason cars were initially so expensive was that each automobile had to be hand-built. That expense dropped enormously when Cadillac cars became the first to use interchangeable parts. Three Cadillacs were shipped to England and completely disassembled. The parts were then intermixed and the cars reassembled.

That interchangeability concept completely revolutionized automobile manufacturing techniques by making it possible to produce parts ahead of time. There was no longer a need to hand-build each vehicle.

First White House Car. William Howard Taft ordered the first official White House car. It was a White Steamer. Taft, who was a large man, was so impressed with the roominess of the steam-powered auto that he continued to use steam vehicles throughout his term and bought others for personal use after leaving office. Other prominent individuals who preferred White Steamers included John D. Rockefeller and Buffalo Bill Cody.

First starter. The early autos could only be started by using a hand crank. This was often difficult, dangerous, and almost impossible for women to do. In 1911, Charles Kettering of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Com-pany (Delco) developed and installed the first self-starter in a Cadillac. This, too, helped advance increased use of the automobile by making it easier for most people, especially women, to drive.

First car radio. In 1929, Motorola sold the first car radios for aftermarket installation. The radios were developed by Paul Galvin and Bill Lear, who later became founder of the Lear Jet. The 1987 Lincoln Town Car was the first American car to offer a factoryinstalled CD player as an option.

First automatic transmission. In 1940, General Motors offered an automatic transmission on their Oldsmobile model. Called the “Hydra- Matic,” the transmission used four speeds and added $57 dollars to the price. By the late forties, the Hydra- Matic was being used by Cadillac and Pontiac as well as independent automakers such as Nash and Hudson.

First air-conditioned car. What is now standard on virtually all new vehicles created a stir when the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit, MI, publicly exhibited an air-conditioned auto at the 40th Automobile Show in Chicago in 1939. Air inside the car was cooled to the temperature desired, filtered, and circulated.

The cooling capacity of those first auto air conditioners was equivalent to 1. 5 tons of ice in 24 hours when the car was driven at 60 miles per hour, or two tons at 80 miles per hour.

First businesses catering to drivers. J. G. Kirby’s Pig Stand was the first drive-in restaurant. It opened in Dallas, TX in 1921. The first chain restaurant catering to drivers was created in 1935 when Howard Johnson contracted with a friend to open an identical version of his already-successful restaurant on Cape Cod. Within a year, 39 more Howard Johnson franchises opened.

In 1940 the company received an exclusive franchise to provide food service for the newly opened Pennsylvania Turnpike. That turnpike was also the first modern long-distance road in America, opening on October 1, 1940. By 1941 more than 150 Howard Johnson restaurants stretched along the roads from Florida to New England.