One hundred and seventeen years ago today, on March 6, 1896, the first automobile in Detroit was driven up Woodward Ave. by Charles Brady King. King, a prolific inventor who became independently wealthy from inventions like the pneumatic jackhammer, had a singular influence on what became the auto industry. If ever there was a seminal figure in car history, it was Charles King. Influenced after seeing Gottlieb Damiler’s self-propelled carriage at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, King started experimenting with gasoline engines and just before 11 PM on this date in 1896, before a crowd of witnesses in Detroit that included Henry Ford following on a bicycle, King fired up the four cylinder gasoline powered Sintz engine in his self-made motor car and headed down St. Antoine street toward the Detroit River, reaching breakneck speeds of up to 7 miles per hour. Reaching Jefferson Avenue, he turned west towards Woodward and then drove up Woodward to Cadillac Square, where he stopped at the Russell House Hotel. The next morning’s Detroit Free Press reported:
The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. It is the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and its progress up down Woodward Avenue about 11 o’clock caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right, and went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed.
King was a mentor to both Henry Ford and Ransom Olds, whose own first automobiles would be completed within a year. Ford’s first car, the Quadricycle, used engine valves loaned to him by King. In 1900, King joined Olds’ company, the first the mass produce automobiles in America, but when Oldmobile’s Detroit factory burned down a year later King left to become the Northern car company’s chief engineer, a position he held until 1908, when he decided to take a two year sabbatical to study European auto manufacturing.
At Northern he introduced the first car with the engine and transmission mounted together into a single unit, a practice that is still used by the vast majority of cars. When he returned the America he started the King Motor Car Company, where he was the first automaker to put the steering wheel on the left. He also developed the first practical V8 engine.
King’s original motor car does not survive but in 1946, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s 1896 drive, an accurate and functioning replica was made, sponsored by either the Detroit News or Hudson’s department store (I’ve misplaced my notes and will update this after checking with the museum) and donated to the Detroit Historical Museum, where these photos were taken.