Engineer Andrew Riker delivers the first four-cylinder, gas-powered Locomobile—a $4,000, 12-horsepower Model C—to a buyer in New York City on this day in 1902. The Locomobile Company had been known for building heavy, powerful steam cars, but by the turn of the century it was clear that the future of the automobile—and thus of the Locomobile—lay in the internal-combustion engine. Until it went out of business in 1929, the company built elegant, luxurious touring-cars and streamlined racers for wealthy patrons. A Locomobile, ads crowed, was the “Best Built Car in America.”
Steam-powered Locomobiles, built in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Worcester, Massachusetts, were solid, imposing, expensive machines. Like every other car powered by a steam boiler, they were also inconvenient. Steam cars had to warm up (literally: the water needed to boil in order to build up steam pressure) for about a half-hour before the car could be driven, and their water tanks needed to be refilled every 20 minutes or so. They also needed three kinds of fuel: water for the boiler, kerosene to heat the water and gasoline for the pilot light. (The car’s “key” was an acetylene torch.)
In 1902, the Locomobile Company hired a young engineer and racecar driver named Andrew Riker to create a gasoline car that was good enough to bear the Locomobile name. He did, and they were: made of manganese bronze and heat-treated steel, the Riker cars really were among the best-built cars in America.
In 1908, a two-year-old Locomobile became the first American car to win an international race. The car, nicknamed “Old 16,” was a 16-liter, four-cylinder, 120-horsepower two-seater piloted by 23-year-old George Robertson and his mechanic, Glenn Etheridge; the race was Long Island’s 11-lap, 258.5-mile Vanderbilt Cup. According to one reporter, Old 16’s victory “made Europeans sit up and take notice of American automotive efforts.”
Old 16 is currently on display at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1988, a 1928 Locomobile coupe appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.