By Leigh Morris
Our Place in History
As Charles and Frank Duryea would learn, being first is no guarantee of future success.
Following the Duryea Motor Wagon’s 1895 Thanksgiving Day victory in America’s first auto race, the brothers established the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. in Springfield, Mass. Here they built what many believe to be America’s most significant automobile – the 1896 Duryea Runabout.
Not only was the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. the first firm to commercially manufacture and sell automobiles, but the Duryea Runabout was America’s first series produced automobile. In other words, the 13 Runabouts were identical in every respect, a concept that eventually would make it possible to build cars for the masses. Other vehicles of that time were singular examples.
Similar to the Duryea Motor Wagon that won the 1895 race, the Runabout featured a two-cylinder engine that was capable of speeds of up to 20 mph.
As time would prove, the Runabout turned out to be the pinnacle of the Duryeas’ success. The Duryea Motor Wagon Co. was dissolved in 1898 as business quarrels between the brothers began to intensify.
Frank went on to design an entirely new automobile. He then formed a manufacturing partnership with the J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co, the maker of Stevens firearms. The vehicles were manufactured by the Stevens-Duryea Co. Stevens-Duryea vehicles were pricey, starting at $1,200 in 1901. Frank sold his interest in the company in 1915.
For his part, Charles returned to Peoria to experiment with three-wheeled motorcars, but never regained the prominence he had enjoyed in the 1890s. His attempts to manufacture vehicles and components came to an end in 1917. He devoted the rest of his life to historical research and writing.
What really divided the brothers was Charles’ insistence that he deserved full credit for all of the Duryeas’ automotive achievements and that Frank was “simply a mechanic” hired to carry out Charles’ plans. Charles remained adamant in his claims until his death on Sept. 28, 1938.
Following his brother’s passing, Frank sought to set the record straight regarding his contributions to the auto industry. At one point, Frank traded insults with Charles’ son, Jerry. Frank was the last living American auto pioneer when he passed away on Feb. 15, 1967.
Henry Ford, the most famous of America’s auto pioneers, had the foresight to acquire a Duryea Runabout, the only one that survives. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Perhaps Ford had the Duryeas in mind when he observed: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” The Duryeas could not work together, thus allowing long-term success to slip away.
There is little to remind us the Duryeas were Illinois natives and got their start here. Up in Stark County, the city of Wyoming honors the Duryeas with Duryea Park, located across Williams Street from the old railroad depot. The brothers’ mother, Louisa, is buried at Pleasant Valley Cemetery near Wyoming.