Richard Stevens' reproduction of the 1893 Duryea Motor Wagon

Credit: Springfield Museums

The Quest To Bring America's First Gas Powered Automobile Back To Life In Springfield

September 23, 2016

On September 21, 1893, a horse-drawn carriage, retrofitted with single-cylinder gas engine and a carburetor inspired by a perfume bottle, was driven through the streets of the town where it was built—Springfield, Mass. The relatively small crowd assembled at dusk to take in the curious exhibition was witnessing history in the making. It was the first ever successful run of an American-made, gas-powered automobile, and the culmination of years of work by two brothers—Charles and J. Frank Duryea.

In Springfield, they would shortly double down on their historic drive and launch America’s first motorcar company. While the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. was marketing and selling gas-powered "cars" to the public, Henry Ford was still tinkering at 58 Bagley Ave in Detroit, trying to figure out how to make his first successful automobile, the Quadricycle, work.

Recently, I traveled to the Wood Museum of Springfield History at the Springfield Museums, where the Duryea's place in Massachusetts history is well documented and exhibited. I thought it was so I could tell the story of the Duryea Brothers' trailblazing accomplishment. It is, to be sure, a compelling story. One that you can easily argue deserves more attention. But it has been told. Perhaps you’ve even heard it. Whose story you likely haven’t heard is Richard Stevens’.

"I was born in Massachusetts. I was born in a house, not a hospital," Stevens told me. "And lived in foster homes my childhood."

From Massachusetts to New Hampshire to Wyoming.

"I guess I’ve been kind of a loner," he explained. "I had tinker toys and erector sets that I used to play with all the time, and I think that got my mind somewhat trained to be able to piece together concepts on motion and the mechanics of things."

But the toys were just a prelude. When Stevens was 12, the family he was living with bought a brand new Chevrolet station wagon—and it changed the course of his life.

"I used to go out when they weren’t watching, and I’d sit in the driver seat of the car, barely able to look over the steering wheel and, “vroom, vroom, vroom,” I’m driving this car," he said. "Of course, the car isn’t moving but to me I was driving my first love. That 12-year-old boy fell in love with the automobile."

Just two years later, he built his first car on his then-foster parent’s farm, out of a “reel-type” lawn mower—the kind you might see manicuring greens on a golf course.

"I disabled the reel portion of it," he said. "I put a plank in the front of it. A 2x4 for a front axle. Bed, steel rod, broom handle."

Stevens would make cars his life’s work—first as an auto mechanic and then as a vocational school teacher. In the 1980s he began researching his biological family history at the Springfield public library, where—one day—a book caught his eye.

"I reach in and I pull out a book entitled 'Data Relevant to America’s First Gasoline Powered Automobile,' by Frank Duryea," Stevens said. "As an automotive professional, this represents the birth of my craft."

Original 1893 Duryea Motor Wagon
Caption
Photo Credit: National Museum of American History - Smithsonian

And the beginning of a quest. Frank learned that the car, officially called the Duryea Motor Wagon, was still in existence—in the collection of none other than the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Yearning to see it for himself, he hopped a train to Washington only to learn that the car was not on display. Worse, no staffer at the museum that Saturday could tell him were it was.  

"Came back home to the Springfield area, my tail between my legs," he explained. "And kind of sat on it for another couple years or so, just asking questions."

Eventually he found his answer. The Duryea Motor Wagon was on loan to the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Penn. Stevens arranged for an eight-hour private audience with the car. And he came prepared.

"I brought a VHS Camera, numerous tapes, a ream of paper, pencils, micrometer, tape measure, ruler," he said.

Stevens says he doesn’t remember exactly when, but at some point he had made a decision.

"Because it was so difficult to locate I said, 'I’ll make one,'" he said.

As I climbed into Stevens reproduction of the Duyrea Motor Wagon at the Springfield museum where is on permanent display, I couldn't help but be impressed. For five years he worked every detail—enlisting Amish craftsmen to help make the wagon and a wheelwright on the North Shore to forge the wheels.

"Machinist, welders, upholsterers—so there are any number of artisans it took to actually fabricate this car," he said.

But Stevens says he only knew he had truly succeeded when he first heard it. And what does it sound like? Well, in the museum we couldn’t fire it up, let a lone drive it. But, like any good car man, Stevens does a pretty good impression. This is all him—impersonating that single-cylinder and strategically tapping and rattling the car:

Stevens' driving his Duyrea reproduction in 2016
Caption
Photo Credit: Springfield Museums

Steven’s reproduction of the Duryea was unveiled in a drive through the streets of Springfield on September 21, 1993, the 100th anniversary of the Duryea’s historic drive—a moment he says he’ll never forget. His admiration for the Duryeas and what they pulled off is evident: Charles, who he calls the dreamer, but especially Frank, the tinkerer, who actually built the car. When I asked what he likes so much about Frank, Stevens said simply: “He never gave up.” The same can, of course, be said about Stevens.

"To have been able to take a dream and turn it into a reality," he mused. "Even though a lot of folks can’t understand how you can have a love for something like this. I make no apologies for it. That’s who I am. I love my baby. I guess I’m a proud father"

America’s first successful gas-powered automobile, the Duryea Motor Wagon, was unveiled 123 years ago, and brought to life by Richard Stevens for all to see in the town where it all happened—Springfield, Massachusetts—23 years ago this week.


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