This Day in Tech History

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No Goin’ Back – No Reverse

HENRY-FORDJune 4, 1896:  Ford Test Drives First Car

Henry Ford gets ready to test drive the first Quadricycle (a.k.a. Car). Only one problem . . . they didn’t make the garage door big enough.  Out comes the Ax.  A couple chops and a wider door was created. The car ran 2 speeds, but could not go in reverse.

At approximately 4:00 a.m. on June 4, 1896, in the shed behind his home on Bagley Avenue in Detroit, Henry Ford unveils the “Quadricycle,” the first automobile he ever designed or drove.

Ford Quadricycle at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, MI

Ford Quadricycle at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, MI

Ford was working as the chief engineer for the main plant of the Edison Illuminating Company when he began working on the Quadricycle.  On call at all hours to ensure that Detroit had electrical service 24 hours a day, Ford was able to use his flexible working schedule to experiment with his pet project, building a horseless carriage with a gasoline-powered engine.

His obsession with the gasoline engine had begun when he saw an article on the subject in a November 1895 issue of American Machinist magazine.  The following March, another Detroit engineer named Charles King took his own hand-built vehicle made of wood (it had a four-cylinder engine and could travel up to five miles per hour) out for a ride, fueling Ford’s desire to build a lighter and faster gasoline-powered model.

As he would do throughout his career, Ford used his considerable powers of motivation and organization to get the job done, enlisting friends, including King, and assistants to help him bring his vision to life.  After months of work and many setbacks, Ford was finally ready to test-drive his creation, basically a light metal frame fitted with four bicycle wheels and powered by a two-cylinder, four-horsepower gasoline engine, on the morning of June 4, 1896.

01ish-Ford-Quadricycle_DV-09-MBC_e0010

The two cylinder engine could produce 4 horsepower.  The Quadricycle was driven by a chain.  The transmission only had two gears (first for 10 mph (16 km/h), 2nd for 20 mph (32 km/h)) but Ford could not shift into second gear due to lack of torque.  It did not have a reverse gear. The tiller-steered machine had wire wheels and a 3 US gal (11 L) fuel tank under the seat.  After several test drives, he was able to achieve a top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h) easily overpowering King’s invention.

When Ford and James Bishop, his chief assistant, attempted to wheel the Quadricycle out of the shed that morning, they discovered that it was too wide to fit through the door. To solve the problem, Ford took an axe to the brick wall of the shed, smashing it to make space for the vehicle to be rolled out.

Ford's shed off Bagley Ave in Detroit

Ford’s shed off Bagley Ave in Detroit

With Bishop bicycling ahead to alert passing carriages and pedestrians, Ford drove the 500-pound Quadricycle down Detroit’s Grand River Avenue, circling around three major thoroughfares.  The Quadricycle had two driving speeds, no reverse, no brakes, rudimentary steering ability and a doorbell button as a horn.  Aside from one breakdown on Washington Boulevard due to a faulty spring, the drive was a success, and Ford was on his way to becoming one of the most formidable success stories in American business history.

Running a replica Quadricycle

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