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The First American Automobile Race?

Posted June 13, 2011 1:58 PM by dstrohl

While we're on the topic of steam-powered vehicles today, let's take a look at a 200-mile race through Wisconsin - from Green Bay to Madison - between a pair of steam buggies that took place in 1878. As related at the Wisconsin Historical Society's website, the race was prompted by a $10,000 award offered by the Wisconsin state legislature in 1875 for a viable self-propelled alternative to a horse and buggy.

Six entrants stepped forward, but only two - the Green Bay and the Oshkosh - ended up competing in the race. The former had the speed advantage, but proved unreliable, so the Oshkosh took the win, though the Wisconsin legislature only ended up awarding the owners of the Oshkosh $5,000.

Yet the first automobile race in America is commonly believed to have occurred in 1895 in Chicago. The account of the steam buggy race seems to upend that little bit of history.

By the way, if those mid-1870s dates seem familiar, that's precisely the same time George Alexander Long built his first steam wagon in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, and proceeded to terrorize the locals with it. Coincidence, or was there some reason steam wagons seemed to be in vogue at that time?

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Join Date: Apr 2011
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Re: The First American Automobile Race?

06/13/2011 11:27 PM

I have found no US powered road race before this one in Wisconsin. Researching steam road vehicles up to 1875 in the US, there does not seem to be an occasion when two such vehicles could get together in one place.

The first staged steam race is easier to answer with the 3 August 1808 race in London where Trevithick he pitted his "Catch-Me-Who-Can" against any and all comers, horses or whatever, for a 24 hour run. The engine was guided on a wooden boardwalk to avoid getting stuck in the mud. Much money changed hands.

Still in the UK, steam drags, omnibuses and such were around in the late 1820s with Gurney, Hancock, Maceroni, etc and I have scoured the papers to find evidence of a staged or informal race with no luck.

Eventually we come to the record of a prearranged match race of two self-powered road vehicles over a prescribed route at 4:30 A.M. on August 30, 1867, between Ashton-under-Lyne and Old Trafford, a distance of eight miles. It was won by the carriage of Isaac Watt Boulton, one of six he said he had run over the years, perhaps driven by his 22 year old son Philip. The race was against Daniel Adamson's carriage, likely the one made for Mr. Schmidt and perhaps driven by Schmidt. The reports do not indicate who was driving, perhaps because it was illegal--the red flag law was fully in force. Boulton's carriage had been converted from a scrapped John Bridge Adams light-rail vehicle. This is recorded in the contemporary press and in several books. I have IWB's own notes on the matter in front of me at my desk, and wish he were rather more wordy. So, two "motors" racing appear to make the First Motor Race anywhere.

In vogue? I guess steam carriages were in the air for a few hundred years and frequently built from 1800 on. Technical and legal roadblocks continually kept them from overtaking the horse until cheap liquid fuel became available.

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