When Was the First Car Made in America?

Learn about the first car made in America and the history of the American automobile in general.

When Was the First Car Made in America?

While America isn't the birthplace of the car as such, the American automotive industry has nonetheless had considerable influence over the practices used by the automotive industry as a whole. Perhaps the most important development to come out of the American car industry is the use of the assembly line, which was developed by Ford to produce the Model T.

Speaking of which, many people probably assume that the Model T was the first car made in America, but that's not true at all. There were several cars made in the States before the Model T, but the Model T was the first car to actually be affordable for the majority of the American population.

So, what was the first car to actually be made in America? Well, in this article, we're going to find out as we take a look at the history of the automobile industry in the United States. If you're interested, read on to learn more!

What Was the First American Car?

This is kind of a tricky question, as it frankly depends on what you consider to be a car. Cars with steam engines existed well before cars with gasoline engines, but perhaps you don't consider steam cars to be real cars by modern standards.

There have been a few vehicles over the years that could possibly be counted as the first car made in America, so let's go over some of them here.

Early Steam Vehicles

Powered vehicles have changed considerably over the decades since they were first invented, and as such, it's sometimes hard to tell what exactly counts as a car. If you're willing to get a little loose with your definition, however, you could argue that the first American car was the Oruktor Amphibolos, created by Philadelphia-based inventor Oliver Evans in 1805.

The Oruktor Amphibolos was indeed the first self-propelled vehicle to be invented in the States, although it was a far cry from any car you're probably familiar with. The Oruktor Amphibolos used a steam engine for power, and as its name implies, it was actually an amphibious vehicle; the car was essentially a paddleboat with wheels.

Unfortunately, the Oruktor Amphibolos wasn't all that successful as either a car or a boat; it was incredibly slow, not very reliable, and also utterly massive. The Oruktor Amphibolos was 12 feet wide by 30 feet long and weighed a hefty 17 tons. Evans himself was also considered to be a somewhat dislikable person, and for these reasons, his invention never really caught on.

In later decades, however, several American companies that made steam vehicles were founded, including Roper, Dudgeon, and Spencer. While these companies didn't quite manage to bring steam power into the automotive mainstream, the designs of their cars were a lot more similar to the cars we're familiar with today.

Early Gasoline Vehicles

Obviously, no one uses steam engines in cars anymore; the majority of modern cars now use gasoline engines. If you're of the opinion that the birth of the car only really happened with the introduction of the internal combustion engine, this is the first car you're really going to be interested in.

So, who exactly developed the first American gasoline car? Some consider the first American gasoline car to be the one patented by George B. Selden of New York. However, it's hard to say if Selden is actually the first American man to invent the gasoline car; while Selden's design was one of the first of its kind, he never actually put his vehicle into production.

Selden filed the patent on his vehicle in 1879, but his patent wasn't actually granted until 1895 because he kept making numerous amendments to the application. Eventually, however, his patent did go through, and he ended up licensing his patent to most of the other American car manufacturers at the time.

However, Henry Ford really didn't like the idea of paying Selden every time Ford made a new car, and so he and four other companies set out to fight this patent in court. Ford eventually won the case thanks to his argument that the design of the engines in his cars was based on a different design from the engine that Selden had patented.

The True Origins of the American Gasoline Car

In short, Selden was the first American to design a gasoline engine-powered car, but not the first to actually make one. So who was it that actually holds this claim to fame?

The first Americans to actually build a successful gasoline car were the Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank. The brothers built and tested their first vehicle in 1893, and founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896. While the brothers' car might not have technically been the first American car, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company was for sure the first American car company.

The first car that the brothers made was pretty primitive, but at the very least it was a solid proof of concept. The car itself was essentially just a modified horse-drawn buddy fitted with a single-cylinder engine that produced 4 horsepower.

In general, Charles Duryea handled the financial aspects of the company, and it was mainly him who searched for potential investors and the like. Frank Duryea, on the other hand, mostly dealt with the manufacturing and design aspects of the business.

Despite this, however, the brothers unfortunately entered into a bit of a feud over who exactly was mainly responsible for the success of the car. Charles claimed that the car had become successful thanks to his direction, while Frank claimed that it was his work in particular on the car's engine and transmission that made it work so well.

The Duryea Motor Wagon Company has another (somewhat infamous) claim to fame, as it was a Duryea car that was involved in America's first-ever car accident. In 1896 in New York City, a driver named Henry Wells accidentally hit a cyclist with his new Duryea. No one was killed, luckily, but the cyclist suffered a broken leg and Wells had to spend that night in the city's jail.