It was an anniversary that went by mostly unnoticed on Friday, yet its eventual impact would change America forever. For it marked the 125 years ago that Henry Ford drove his first car: the Quadricycle.
That “car” was merely the start of a journey for the Dearborn farm boy, who, through trial and error, would become one of America’s most successful businessmen, and build one of the world’s largest automakers.
Ford left the farm at 28 years old.
“I was offered a job with the Detroit Electric Co. as an engineer and machinist at forty-five dollars a month,” Ford wrote in his autobiography, “My Life and Work.”
“We rented a house on Bagley Avenue, Detroit. The workshop came along and I set it up in a brick shed at the back of the house. During the first several months I was in the night shift at the electric-light plant — which gave me very little time for experimenting — but after that I was in the day shift and every night and all of every Saturday night I worked on the new motor.”
A friendship leads to a breakthrough
Ford followed the work being done by early automotive industry pioneers, including the Duryea brothers in Springfield, Massachusetts and the Apperson brothers in Kokomo, Indiana. No doubt he also followed coverage of the fledgling automakers in Scientific American. But it was Ford’s friendship with Charles King that just might have been his biggest influence.
Ford met King, who trained at Cornell University as an engineer, after he moved to Detroit, and the two developed a friendship. King, who developed a pneumatic hammer in 1890 and like Ford, had an interest in developing four-cycle engines.
While the friendship helped, it took a few years for Ford to get a running engine, and it would take nearly as long for him to build his first car. But King got the drop on Ford, being the first person to drive a car in Detroit on March 6, 1896, although King’s triumph was short-lived. He was never able to raise the needed cash to race it or put it in production.
In contrast, Ford was paying for his car’s development himself with the help of his wife, Clara, building it within his backyard shed on Bagley Avenue, although not everyone approved.
“My gas-engine experiments were no more popular with the president of the company than my first mechanical leanings were with my father. It was not that my employer objected to experiments — only to experiments with a gas engine. I can still hear him say: ‘Electricity, yes, that’s the coming thing. But gas—no,’” Ford remembered later.
“He had ample grounds for his skepticism — to use the mildest terms. … No storage battery was in sight of a weight that was practical.”
What Ford created
Ford’s idea of a horseless carriage coalesces around the internal combustion engine.
“The car would hold two people, the seat being suspended on posts and the body on elliptical springs,” Ford wrote of his self-described horseless carriage, with its ethanol engine producing four horsepower. Power was funneled to the rear wheels via chain drive. It weighed 500 pounds.
“There were two speeds — one of ten and the other of twenty miles per hour — obtained by shifting the belt, which was done by a clutch lever in front of the driving seat. Thrown forward, the lever put in the high speed; thrown back, the low speed; with the lever upright, the engine could run free.
“To start the car, it was necessary to turn the motor over by hand with the clutch free. To stop the car, one simply released the clutch and applied the foot brake. There was no reverse. The wheels were twenty-eight-inch wire bicycle wheels with rubber tires.”
Once completed, Ford realized he had another problem: the vehicle was wider than the shed’s door. Ford took an axe to the wood door frame and brick wall, rolling his new Quadricycle onto the streets of Detroit on June 4, 1896, with a friend, Jim Bishop, riding ahead of him on a bicycle as Ford drove along Grand River Avenue in Detroit, crossing three major thoroughfares.
Ford sold the Quadricycle in late 1896 for $200, to Charles Ainsley of Detroit, with the money put towards building Ford’s next car. Still, it would be another seven years, and two failed attempts at starting a car company, before Ford Motor Co. was successfully established in 1903, and another 12 years until he introduced his crowning achievement: the Ford Model T.
But in 1896, even Ford couldn’t know how much his passion for automobiles would change America and the world, forever.