On a recent trip to Peoria, Illinois, my wife and I visited the Peoria Riverfront Museum. While we were there to see a temporary exhibit in the small museum, I was more happy to see one of its permanent exhibits, an early 19th Century American automobile, in the museum’s lobby. This Duryea Motor Trap was built in the 1890s near Peoria. I’ve always found cars of this era unfamiliar and hard to wrap my head around, so I spent a long time poking around this one on display.
Charles and J. Frank Duryea, brothers from central Illinois, are generally credited as the first Americans to try their hands at mass-producing an automobile. Charles moved to Massachusetts in 1891 to build bicycles with Harry Rouse, then convinced Frank to move there, as well. They began constructing a single-cylinder gas engine a year later and within a couple years, they’d put together their first running car.
After promoting their “horseless carriage” with two notable appearched, the duo forged plans to build them for the public. By 1898, both had moved back to Peoria and set up the Duryea Manufacturing Company on the east side of the Illinois River. There, they began their planned production run of 100 Duryea Motor Traps in the company’s first year. That number was never reached and the company shuttered their doors a few years later.
What they built in the interim was a neat, simple, machine. This diagram in the exhibit lays out the mechanical components nicely.
The Duryea gas engine has a single cylinder that produces four screaming horsepower. A hefty single chain—Charles’ bicycle background likely contributed to this mechanical element—from the transmission drives the rear axle’s gigantic gear. The only things familiar with a semi-modern car is the rear leaf-spring suspension.
The front wheel of the tricycle has rudimentary steering and no suspension. This was likely not a comfortable ride, beyond the cushy upholstery on the seats, on the carriage-rutted roads of the 19th Century.
Again like you’d expect from a bicycle designer, the single handle between the front occupants controlled the throttle, gear selection, and steering. The pedal near the front operated the brakes while the lever-shaped pedal at the base of the seats operated the reverse gear. Those were all the controls.
The only thing to identify this particularly motor car as a Duryea, by the way, was the brass step to climb onto the front seat. Otherwise, this looks similar to any of a number of 19th Century vehicles, most of which resembled horse-drawn carriages. The seats with two front-facing and two rear-facing would become a regular design of circa-1900 French cars that would be called dos-à-dos (back-to-back). Some early Curved Dash Oldsmobiles—one might call them the first “successful” mass-produced American cars—would be dos-à-dos, as well.
Unless offered an evolutionary lineage, it’s hard to envision how this Motor Trap bears any similarity the modern cars parked just 50 feet away in the Peoria Riverfront Museum parking garage. We mostly see it as a curiosity, but the first attempts at automotive mobility had to be extraordinarily basic. You have to crawl before you can walk, let alone run.
It is quite possible that you’ve heard the name Duryea before. The brothers built quite a few motor cars and the second one they built, which had four wheels, won the world’s first organized car race. That race was put on by the Chicago Times-Herald, which was held November 28, 1895. That was Thanksgiving Day and the snowy roads proved difficult, but Charles drove to victory on the 54-mile course at an average of 5 miles per hour. That sounds less then impressive, but think about it this way, Duryea won a grueling 10-hour endurance race in an open car on unprepared roads in the snow. That’s pretty Roadkill, except for the winning part.
P.T. Barnum also realized the value in demonstrating a “horseless carriage” to circus audiences who had almost certainly never seen an automobie before. He chose a Duryea for this purpose in 1896. By 1900, early Duryeas buyers were registering their cars for leather license tags, like this 19th one distributed by the state of Pennsylvania in 1900. The pace of automotive development was already being pushed by then; in 1899, electric cars in France had eclipsed 100 kilometers per hour in land-speed attempts. In less than a decade, American land-speed racers would be running 100 miles per hour on Ormond Beach in Florida.
Nevertheless, America’s automotive roots are very humbling. The Duryeas’ Motor Trap was a first attempt at basic self-motivated transportation for the public stateside and despite its archaic appearance, the grand progenitor of the country’s legacy of automotive ingenuity. As Floyd Clymer wrote in the 1950s, early autos like the Duryea struck terror into the unwitting populace because they “shook and trembled and rattled….They spat oil, fire, smoke, and smell.” We’re glad to uphold that automotive tradition ourselves.