On this day in 1869, the inventor and mechanic Frank Duryea is born on a farm in Washburn, Illinois. When Duryea was just 24 years old, he and his older brother, Charles, designed and built the Duryea Motor Wagon, one of the first successful gas-powered motor vehicles in the United States. Ever since then, there has been a great deal of disagreement over exactly which brother was responsible for the invention of the Motor Wagon. Because he outlived Charles by almost 80 years, Frank had the last word. Until the day he died in February 1967, the younger Duryea brother insisted that the pioneering automobile was entirely his own creation (except, that is, for the troublesome steering tiller that never worked quite correctly).
What is beyond dispute is that Frank Duryea was the first automobile driver on the American road. In September 1893, he was behind the wheel as the Duryea car made its first successful trip, 600 yards down his street in Springfield, Massachusetts. When he tried to turn the corner, the Motor Wagon’s transmission blew; however, Frank managed to patch it back together and putter down the road for another half-mile or so.
In September 1895 the two brothers organized the first car company in the United States, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, to build and sell their gas-powered contraptions. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, in a brilliant promotional stunt, Frank won the country’s first automobile race, the Chicago Times-Herald race from Chicago to Evanston. (The race unfolded despite an enormous snowstorm that made the roads nearly impassable; still, Frank managed to complete the 50-mile loop in a little more than 10 hours.)
Frank left the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1899 and two years later he helped start the Stevens-Duryea Company, another auto manufacturing concern in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. He retired in 1915 and spent the rest of his days living comfortably in Connecticut, traveling, gardening and puttering around his workshop.