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The First American-Made "Automobile Vehicle" Advertisement Is 127 Years Young
They are everywhere, and there is no escape from their grasp. You check your phone, and you see them. You turn on the TV – sure enough, you hit them, sooner or later. You drive to work, and there they are, smiling from billboards, trucks, buses, or whole buildings. You turn on the radio, and you can’t refrain from hearing them.

The First American-Made "Automobile Vehicle" Advertisement Is 127 Years Young

Duryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobileDuryea Motor Wagon - the first US-made series production automobile
We are talking about car advertisements and the frenzy that started about 130 years ago. Cars are an all-around presence in our daily lives, and it’s hard to imagine life without them (frankly, it’s harder to imagine life without automobiles than without the internet and smartphones). 

Rough estimates place the car ad spending at about 17 billion dollars – and that’s in the U.S. alone – in 2022. But at the dawn of the 19th century, one advert spurred this financial roller coaster. And, come to think of it, it makes perfect sense – all trips begin with the first single step.

However, this time things are a bit different. Cars emerged into the U.S. world in the early 90s. In the 1890s, don’t judge so hastily, with one Duryea company building the first American-made, American-powered, American-tested, and American-sold “automobile vehicle.”

That’s not a redundant statement - at least not for that age. “Automobile” and “Vehicle” were not interchangeable; animals were standing between them. Literally, most vehicles of the time were still horse-drawn (oxcarts were still around, but we can rule them out).

This particularity – the horse – was foretold into oblivion by one (unsubtly named) The Horseless Age magazine that promoted other means of transportation. Say hello to – you guessed it – the motor wagon.

For late 19th-century USA, this motor wagon came from two brothers – Charles and Frank Duryea, who built an automobile of their design – basically a coach body with a gasoline motor. That was in 1893, and the two brothers were in business two years later. So much so that The Horseless Age published an article about the company in the first issue in November 1895. Also, the Duryeas had a paid advertisement printed on page three of the periodical.

Their first car ad said: “Duryea Motor Wagon Company, Springfield, Mass. Manufacturers of Motor Wagons, Motors, and Automobile Vehicles of all kinds.” It would probably make copywriters of today’s agencies roll on the floor laughing, but this simple phrase started it all.

For the record, the publication did not have a rate card, and all advertisements were sold individually, an aspect clearly stated on the opening page of the first number of the monthly gazette. A Google-digitized copy of that historic premiere of automotive journalism can be viewed at this link, together with the Duryea advert.

To pay respect to motoring truth, The Horseless Age also printed several other car ads from various manufacturers - Daimler bought the entire first page, for example. But this story focuses on the first commercial for the first entirely American-made car.

The ad promoted motor wagons, motors, and automobile vehicles built by the Duryea Brothers. With their (and America’s) first automobile, presented to the public on September 21, 1893, the Duryeas opened the gates of history. Drive-tested that day, the car covered about 300 feet (some 90 meters) before breaking down.

Transmission issues fell on the fate of the first domestic car of the USA, with the belt failing to rise to the occasion. I guess you could say it couldn’t take the tension of that historical moment. Still, Frank Duryea expeditiously remedied the malfunction, and their buggy drove for another half a mile or so that same day.

From there on, the prototype had a good evolution, with the builder replacing the belt-drive transmission with robust and reliable higher-tech gears and friction clutches. The power came from Duryeas’ twin-cylinder engine. This improved model won the first automobile race in the USA, on Thanksgiving Day in 1895, from Chicago-to-Evanston-and-back. The Duryea was the only car across the line, with the five other - two of which were electric - succumbing to the elements. 

As detailed in The Horseless Age, the vehicle had quite the specs, mechanics-wise: “In appearance, the vehicle does not differ materially from an ordinary heavy built buggy. It weighs about 700 pounds and has ball bearings and rubber-tired wheels: the tires also being of Mr. Duryea’s invention. (…) The lever in front wholly controls the carriage. The lateral movement turns the wheels; the vertical motion starts and stops the vehicle, changes its rate of speed, and reverses its movement, driving it backward when desired. (…) the variable speed ranges from three to sixteen miles an hour, the normal rates being three, six, and ten. (…) it may be geared to different speeds to suit the roads of any locality and may be run at any speed desired within its limits of 20 miles an hour.”

In 1896, 13 motor wagons left the Duryea factory – that's more than one per month. This set yet another milestone - the first carmaker to manufacture a selling automobile in a series of identical examples. In true 127-year-running automotive journalism fashion, here is the model’s technical data (courtesy of The Horseless Age):

It ran on 34-inch wheels at the front and 38-inch “hind” wheels. The 120-pound (54.4 kg) engine produced four “horse-power” – an improved Otto-type, double cylinder, self-regulating as to work required – was very economical. Only one-fourth of a cent a mile, the carriage carried enough gasoline to last 150 miles. Also, the vigilant journalist noted that “the time required to recharge with fuel and water is only five minutes.”

At this point, the author of this 2022 story can only admit that regarding motoring journalism, things haven’t strayed from what The Horseless Age set in motion over 125 years ago. Disregarding technological aspects, an article from autoevolution today is no different than what the reporters used to write in America’s first car magazine. Great things can hardly be improved…


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