The Very First Road Race


Many of the very early automobiles, some of which we’ve featured on this site, date to around 1901 or 1902. For an example, Henry Ford’s first automobile creation was the 1903 Model A.

Most historians would agree that the first road race actually took place in 1895. To put this early date in perspective, the horse or horse carriage was still the popular way to get around town. The year 1895 was also just nineteen years since Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It was also just five years since the federal government’s Census Bureau declared the end of the western frontier and it’s accompanying Indian hostilities.

Duryea automobile, 1905
Duryea automobile, 1905

Things changed dramatically during this relatively short time. It changed enough that a road race was staged where the winning vehicle, a Duryea, averaged some 7.5 MPH. Not a high speed by any means but certainly must faster than walking. The Duryea car that competed in this contest was built a year earlier in 1894 and was the second car built by the Duryea brothers, Frank and Charles. That same year the brother’s automobile won the Chicago race they founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.

By the year 1900 the brothers split up. Charles continued to produce Duryea automobiles right up until 1917 and the start of World War One. Frank teamed with the gun maker Stevens and produced cars called the Stevens-Duryea until 1927.

The road race was sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper and is recognized as the first automobile competition held in the U.S. The race took place over a 54 mile long loop that ran from Chicago to Evanston Illinois.

early 1900's race car
Early 1900’s race car

The Importance of Early Auto Competition

The fact is that when the automobile was being developed and exhibited during the last decade of the nineteenth century, there were still a good many people that were wondering what was wrong with the horse. What was this new contraption that ran without horses or mules and made such a racket? This was particularly true with those noisy steam automobiles.

It was evident to all the automakers and would be automakers that competition would promote their product. This was certainly true with the Duryea brothers who formed their own car company the same year they won the Chicago race. The winner of an early road race could claim his vehicle to be superior and chances are he would sell some. It was proven that if your automobile won a race your brand name would prosper. For the industry in general it was a win-win situation. Competition brought out spectators along with newspaper reporters and this in itself was a victory. Turn of the century automakers were selling the American public on the idea of turning out the horse and buying a car.

Mueller-Benz car, second place finisher in 11905 Chicago Race
Mueller-Benz car, second place finisher in 1895 Chicago Race

The Duryea Day Antique and Classic Car Show

The Duryea Day Antique and Classic Car Show event takes place annually at Boyertown Community Park in Boyertown Pennsylvania. Classic and vintage automobiles are on display along with live band and a flea market. The Duryea Day show is a joint effort organized and run by the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles and the Pottstown Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America. For more information about the event see website

The first Duyea automobile built in 1893 in Springfield Massachusetts was powered by a one cylinder engine delivering four horsepower. The engine itself laid horizontally under the body. The cylinder head actually extended over the rear axle. Another interesting historical  note is that the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, by building thirteen identical cars in 1896, became the first American automaker to produce multiple copies for sale to the public.

A Second Auto Race

Another notable road race event took place in 1901. The race was to go on a route from New York City to Buffalo New York.

Below is a link to our article regarding steam powered vehicles you’ll enjoy…

Early Steam Powered Vehicles

Vanderbilt Cup Race start, Long Island 1910
Vanderbilt Cup Race start, Long Island 1910

The race was won by four White Steamers, steam powered automobiles, produced by White Steam Cars. The race unexpectedly was terminated in Rochester due to the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo.

The White Steamers in this event were the first to appear in competition. Steam engines obviously had been around for a long time, about one hundred years before the internal combustion engine was developed. Steam power essentially powered the industrial revolution. When the White Steamers won the 1901 race they were at that time felt to be superior to the internal combustion engines. Steam powered cars stayed on the scene until about 1920 when improved internal combustion engines eventually took over.

Map of the Great Race of 1908
Map of the Great Race of 1908

The White Steamers were also the winners of the Long Island Endurance Race that took place in 1902. These events on Long Island still take place today.

Another good article on AutoMuseumOnline you’ll find interesting is The Great Automobile Race of 1908.

(Article copyright 2013 AutoMuseumOnline. Photos and images from the public domain)