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Independence Day Special: What Were Americans "Driving" In 1776?
It’s the Fourth of July and you know what that means! Americans back home and far from the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave are celebrating their freedom from British rule, and as you may know from school, independence was formally declared on July 2nd.

Independence Day Special: What Were Americans "Driving" In 1776?

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The Declaration may not have received the attention it deserves in the first years following the American Revolution, yet Independence Day was celebrated nonetheless. Its legacy, however, shaped the world like nothing else before it. The French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 comes to mind, spurred by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was drafted in consultation with Founding Father and prez Thomas Jefferson.

While celebrating our freedom with family reunions, barbecues, fireworks, parades, and baseball, it’s also worth remembering how different America was on that fateful day in 1776 from an automotive standpoint. In truth, personal transportation wasn’t exactly a concept back then.

The first steamboat didn’t arrive until 1807, the first toll road opened in 1794, and the first canals were completed in 1783 on the St. Lawrence River. The 18th century, therefore, was the epoch of the horse-drawn carriage for both personal and commercial transportation duties.

During and after the American Revolution, the most popular horse breeds came from the British Isles of Europe. Quarter horses were bred in Virginia since the 1600s, and as the name implies, the muscle-clad-yet-compact build was excellent for sprinting over short distances. Obviously, the name of the breed refers to 1/4-mile sprinting.

Paul Revere’s fabled midnight ride in 1775, when he warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops are coming, was also made possible by a trusty steed. There’s no mistaking that Revere’s “very good horse” helped deliver a message that changed the course of U.S. and British history.

The Carriage Age started a bit earlier than the late 17th century, and despite its importance to personal transportation, only the wealthiest of people could afford to own and maintain a vehicle. But even at its peak in the 1850s to the early 1900s, the primitive roads were a problem for wheeled travel. Be it horses, oxen, donkeys, wagons, coaches, or buggies, Americans did their best with what they had until the train signaled a paradigm shift.

Steam-powered locomotives were trialed in the first decade of the 1800s, but America had to wait until 1830 for the Tom Thumb steam engine to be completed by inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper. The 1.4-horsepower locomotive may have lost a race with a horse-drawn car over a mechanical failure, but it set the stage for American-built steam locomotives.

The Duryea brothers - Charles and Frank – revolutionized transportation in the United States in 1893 with a horseless carriage powered by gasoline. Bicycle mechanics like the Wright brothers, the Duryeas integrated a one-cylinder engine and a three-speed transmission into a carriage to create the first U.S. automobile. It could top 7.5 mph, and one year later, a two-cylinder contraption rolled out from their workshop in Springfield, MA.

Sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald, the 1895 race between four cars and two motorcycles is the stuff of legends. Frank Duryea – who established the first U.S. automaker in 1895 – crossed the finish line first. Believe it or not, two electric vehicles were also lined up at the start.

The Chicago Times-Herald race is remembered as the first automobile race held in the United States even though two of the six entrants were two-wheeled vehicles. The Duryeas sold the first American gasoline car in 1896, but that was still not enough to replace the horse and the carriage that shaped the country and its independence in the previous two centuries.

The Model A can’t be considered a groundbreaking design either, but the Ford Model T is a wholly different affair. Often regarded as the first affordable automobile in the U.S. and beyond its borders, the Tin Lizzie wasn’t only one man’s vision. In addition to Henry Ford, the team behind the Model T included Hungarian immigrants and people from very different walks of life. All of them, however, were connected by their common passion for engineering and the freedom offered to them by the Declaration of Independence.

From a time when you were lucky to own a horse – let alone a carriage – to the era when Henry Ford introduced the concept of affordability in the automotive industry, there’s no arguing that a lot has changed. Fast-forward to the present day, and American personal transportation ranges from the ever-popular pickup truck to 700-horsepower-plus cars and SUVs.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

 
 
 
 
 

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