Feb 22, 2013
Dave Walter
Comments Off on History Lesson: Who Built the First American Car?

History Lesson: Who Built the First American Car?

Nope, not Henry Ford. He invented the assembly line.

If you’re into classic cars, you might be tempted to say that it was the Duryea brothers, but that’s wrong too. The first working car to be designed and constructed in America was built by a man named John Lambert, all the way back in 1891.

13 years earlier, John’s father had taken him to see an Otto Stationary Engine that was being used by a tannery several towns away. Upon learning of the European Otto internal combustion engines, John had become fascinated with all things mechanical. Otto engines were massive things used mostly used by factories, and they ran on coal oil, which was a common fuel used for street lamps and heating.

Unfortunately for John, the factory had burned to the ground the night before their arrival. But that didn’t stop young Mr. Lambert’s curiosity. He sifted through the wreckage to find that huge Otto engine, then he disassembled it to learn how it worked.

Years later, he wound up owning most of Ohio City, Ohio, including the town opera house, the feed store, a grain elevator, and the lumber yard. Needless to say, he had amassed the money to indulge his passions. The 1888 Benz Patent Motorwagen had reminded him of that charred Otto engine, so he finally decided to build a horseless carriage of his own.

Using his wealth and connections, Lambert discovered that a man named John Hicks had applied for a patent on an internal combustion engine that ran on gasoline. At the time, gasoline was just a byproduct of coal gas, and was sold by pharmacies as a household cleaner. The nearest pharmacy to Ohio City that sold it was far away in Cleveland, so much of the initial development was done there.

The engine and body of the car were then shipped back to a machine shop that Lambert owned in Ohio City. Under the cover of night, Lambert’s team got the car running, and road tested it through the streets. When it was finally complete, the Buckeye Gasoline Buggy cost Lambert the modern equivalent of $90,000 to develop.

Although it was a good design, nobody in the rural state of Ohio had even heard of a gas-powered automobile in 1890, and not one single copy of Lambert’s car was ever sold.

Three years later, the Duryea brother’s 1893 Ladies Pheaton became the country’s first commercially viable motorcar. Henry Ford invented the assembly line in 1908, effectively crowning himself king of the car business. And John Lambert? Well, he sold his town and moved to Indiana where he started the Union Automobile Company. Over 300 Union cars were sold between 1902-1905. The name of the company was then changed to Lambert, and the company remained in business until 1916.