Smithsonian Automobile Collection -- Introduction

Introduction

This photo shows the Copeland steam-propelled tricycle in front of the Carriage Porch at the north entrance Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle) on the Mall.

At present a large number of collections of antique auto- mobiles exist in the United States. Most are small, reflecting the discoveries of private collectors; but more than a few are large, representing considerable effort by either individuals or organizations. None contains so many actual automotive milestones, however, as that housed in the U. S. National Museum, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

This collection includes, for example, the Duryea car, built in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is universally considered to be the first American automobile driven by an internal-combustion engine. For those who endorse the claim of Elwood Haynes and the Apperson brothers, it also includes the first vehicle produced as a result of their genius. Neither of these cars would be of much use to the collector who might wish to operate them, but they are the two most important very early gasoline vehicles built in this country.

As most of us know, the internal-combustion-engine vehicle was not the first self-propelled vehicle to travel the public road. Long before the appearance of the first Daimler, Benz, or Duryea gasoline automobiles, steam wagons of various forms were built. Recent acquisitions of the Smithsonian's National Museum that come under this heading are the Roper steam velocipede of the late 1860's and the Long steam tricycle of 1879-1881. While much more recent than the Cugnot three-wheeled gun tractor of 1770, still preserved in Paris, these are very early as far as American development is concerned, and are of unusual interest in themselves. Probably the most elusive of automotive treasures are the early racing cars, which were always few in number. The hazardous nature of their use saw to it that few remained for many years. It is astounding, therefore, that the Winton "Bullets" Nos. 1 and 2 both are to be found in the Smithsonian collection. These machines share with Henry Ford's "999" and the Peerless "Green Dragon" the honor of writing the first chapters in the romance of automobile racing here, a story still being lived on the concrete of Sebring and the bricks of Indianapolis.

Less spectacular, but no less important, are the examples of the first models of such well-known American automobiles as the Oldsmobile, Franklin, Cadillac, and Autocar. These were among the very first cars offered to the buying public by their makers, and on their acceptance the industry was destined to rise or fall. Ask any collector to choose which car in the Smithsonian collection he would like to own, and he would name the Simplex. With the Mercer Raceabout and the Stutz Bearcat, the chain-drive Simplex Speed Car is the most sought after of early automobiles. It represents all that is grand in the cars of the brassbound era a truly mighty engine and beautiful, clean lines. Only a few of these cars remain today, and this is one of the best.

The automobile is one of the most important factors in our everyday life. For many persons it is a convenience and a means of recreation, but to many more it is an absolute necessity. Modern transportation is based in substantial part upon the services of the automobile, and a slight idea of what life would be like if the automobile suddenly ceased to exist can be recalled from the days of tire and gasoline rationing during World War II.

When we consider the number of people engaged in manufacturing, selling, operating, and maintaining passenger automobiles, trucks, and busses, and in incidental businesses such as those connected with oil-refinery products, accessories, insurance, and highway construction, it is apparent that our economic structure is most decidedly related to the automobile. Our living today is definitely geared to this form of conveyance, and its existence affords a livelihood to millions.

Few people, however, in a generation that has always known the automobile, realize how brief its history is. At the turn of the century the automobile was considered the work of madmen determined to upset the enterprises of the harness maker, the blacksmith, and the horse breeder; while even more recently it was looked upon merely as a plaything of the wealthy.

Only 40 or so years ago highways became seas of mud in rainy weather. Then the horse was still the master, extracting untold numbers of mired vehicles from muddy traps. But, with the continued lowering in cost of the automobile, bringing its purchase within the ability of more and more people, the demand increased for more and better roads and streets, resulting in the relatively excellent traffic arteries of modern times.

Today, because of fine roads, and the automobiles that travel upon them, it is possible to make in several hours trips which formerly took as many days. Workers are easily transported to and from their places of business, farmers carry goods to market with little effort, heavy construction material is swiftly delivered directly to the job, vacations are readily enjoyed, and emergencies are quickly met, all with a machine that two generations ago was in its infancy.

True, there were huge self-propelled road vehicles many generations earlier, but they were clumsy steam monsters which contributed little to the development of the light-weight, flexible, and more practical gasoline-engined vehicles that appeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century both here and abroad.

In addition, many unusual and less practical vehicles powered by sails, clockwork, pedals, treadmills, and various forms of human and animal power had been conceived, if not actually constructed. The majority of these probably were never built, but extant drawings of them remind us of the ingenuity of their designers. One of them was the jet-propelled steam vehicle said to have been suggested by Sir Isaac Newton toward the end of the seventeenth century.