October 30, 1893 is the last day of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, a great fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World and offered fairgoers a chance to see the first gas-powered motorcar in the United States: the Daimler quadricycle. The exposition introduced Americans to all kinds of technological wonders—for instance, an alternating-current power plant, a 46-foot-long cannon, a 1,500-pound Venus de Milo made of chocolate, and Juicy Fruit gum—along with replicas of exotic places and carnival-style rides and games.
Four years earlier, the Universal Exposition in Paris had featured an elaborate display of steam- and gas-powered vehicles, including the Serpollet-Peugeot steam tricar, named for its three wheels and powered by a coke-burning boiler and a lightweight, petrol-fueled four-wheeled car built by the German engineer Gottlieb Daimler. The Chicago fair promised an even more impressive spectacle. Its Transportation Building, designed by Louis Sullivan, was crammed full: Pack mules and horse-drawn carts crowded next to bicycles and boats. Most exciting of all were the rows of massive American-built steam locomotives that towered over everything else in the hall. Trains, the Exposition’s organizers seemed to say, were the transportation of the future.
Only one internal-combustion vehicle was on display at the fair, tucked away in the corner of the Transportation Building: another of the wire-wheeled, tiller-steered, one-cylinder platform quadricycles that Daimler had introduced to Parisian fairgoers in 1889. It was like nothing most Americans had ever seen and yet almost no one paid any attention to it. Reporters barely mentioned the Daimler car and it didn’t even appear in the exhibition catalog.
But a few very important people did notice it and studied it closely. One was the bicycle mechanic Charles Duryea, who used the Daimler car as the inspiration for the four-wheeled, one-cylinder Motor Wagon that he built with his brother Frank. In 1896, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company became the first company to mass-produce gas-powered vehicles in the United States.
Another admirer of the Daimler car was Henry Ford, who returned to Dearborn after the fair and built an internal-combustion quadricycle of his own. (He called it his “gasoline buggy.”) Ford drove his little car for the first time on July 4, 1896 and sold it later that year for $200. Just a few years later, he incorporated the Ford Motor Company and the automobile age had begun.