The Manifold Hazards of Early Motoring

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 25, 2018

Life was hard for early motorists, and not just because the roads were bad and the vehicles totally unreliable. People had been relying on horses to get around for millennia, and suddenly here was a noisy interloper, mostly owned by the rich, getting in the way and scaring the equines. This is from Brian Ladd’s 2008 Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age:

In 1900, car owners were almost by definition wealthy, especially since they often employed chauffeurs: many wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to operate their own vehicles. Automobiles became the most visible intrusion of city life into the countryside—noisier, dirtier, and more dangerous variations on the bicycles that had been all the rage a few years before….In rural Europe, cars remained a sign of wealthy urban invaders into the 1930s. Farmers and villagers watched them roar (or splutter) by, get stuck, or run off the road, and they reacted with amusement, contempt, fear, hatred, envy, or perhaps admiration.

A little of all those emotions, probably. Bad-mouthing motorists was definitely a good way to tweak the noses of the arrogant “swells.”

It's unclear if Uriah Smith's "Horsey Horseless" was ever actually built. But it was patented! (Courtesy U.S. Patent Office.)

Also, belching gas and steam cars scared the horses, which inspired one inventor—Uriah Smith of Battle Creek, Michigan—to invent “Horsey Horseless,” a fake horse’s head that could be mounted on the prow of carriage-like early automobiles to calm approaching animals.

Laws were passed in a number of places restricting the automobile, both in speed and in operation.  As early as 1865, the British Parliament passed the first of the Locomotive Acts—aimed at steam cars. Among other things, it set a 4 mph speed limit (2 mph in town) for road vehicles, insisted that at least three people be on board, and required somebody waving a red flag to walk in front of the car at all times. Meeting an oncoming horse meant a full stop.

This hapless Canadian man is pushing the car somewhere in Ontario, 1900.

The “red flag” laws soon spread to the U.S., with Vermont implementing them in 1894. In Pennsylvania, drivers had to send up a rocket every mile. Some cities actually banned cars.

Connecticut passed America’s first speed limit in 1901, holding cars to 12 mph in the city, 15 in the country. The law wasn’t as restrictive as it seems, because cars then couldn’t go much faster. And there were only 4,200 of them on U.S. roads at the time.

Although there was almost 40 carmakers in 1901, there were no highway signs, streetlights, traffic lights or indeed any form of licensing. Chaos reigned on the roads. And it got worse as auto populations quickly increased—there were 200,000 cars by 1909, and 2.25 million in 1916. In the summer of 1908, 31 people were killed in Detroit traffic accidents alone.

From the Detroit Free Press, June 29, 1914:

An automobile containing a bridal couple, several wedding guests, three children and many bottles of liquor rounded the corner from Labelle Avenue onto Woodward Sunday evening and turned turtle going at least 40 miles an hour.

The 1906 The Law of the Automobile by Xenophone P. Huddy cites a Georgia Court of Appeals ruling that cars are to be treated as “ferocious animals,” and “the laws relating to the duty of owners of such animals is to be applied.”

In Chicago, cars got a very bad reputation. The Tribune headlined, “Is Automobile Mania a Form of Insanity?” And Mayor Carter Harrison opined in 1902,

The other day on one of the North Side boulevards, I heard a toot that seemed right behind me. I jumped about six feet and then looked around. The machine was fully a half-block away, and when it went past, all the occupants grinned as if it were a good joke. These fellows blow their horns just to see the people jump, I believe….The natural tendency of a man operating an automobile is to run it at high speed.

A Catholic priest gave sermons about “auto madness.” Fast drivers were derided as “scorchers.” Of such attitudes was born the character of Toad of Toad Hall, the hell-bent-for-leather motorist in a red roadster who terrorizes the populace in The Wind in the Willows (1908).  

Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker set out on their grand cross-country journey in 1903, taking Bud the dog. (Wikipedia photo)

A 1917 story from Harper’s Magazine, “Fate and $1,500,” details a man’s experience when his wife buys an “infernal automobile,” including getting fined for speeding, roaring through the window of a laundry, taking out a fire hydrant, trampling a public park, and in general costing a fortune to maintain. “On the road, an automobile will out-eat a horse 10 times over,” says the poor fellow, who later runs the car off a public pier to save his marriage.

Early automobilists didn’t help matters with their patronizing attitudes towards rural people. A German auto club opined, looking back from the 1920s, “Whenever a world-weary hen darted under a car, the Podunk Times could be counted on to publish an outraged philippic under the headline ‘Automotive Mass Murder.’”

All this should be put in context, of course. Horses were dangerous, too. According to Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, “In the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles).”

And then, of course, there was the sheer ignominy of the cars themselves, which were dangerously under-braked, stiff of steering, and notoriously difficult to start with their crank handles (which could take off an arm or just a few fingers). Tires were notorious for frequent punctures, which is why cars carried several spares, and early unpaved roads (little more than old wagon trails) were so bad that many early cars were of necessity high wheelers. Nothing else could get through the mud.

When Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker set out to cross the country in their Winton automobile in 1903, they took with them “coats, rubber protective suits, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, a water bag, an axe, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, a block and tackle, cans for extra gasoline and oil, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun, and pistols.” There was also a pitbull named Bud, who got his own set of goggles to block out the dust. The travelers were hailed as heroes for making the arduous trek.

Among the hazards encountered by Jackson and Crocker: In Glencoe, Illinois, a steel cable had been stretched across the road to keep out the “devil wagons.”

Gas stations didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1905. Hardware stores or blacksmith shops might sell gasoline, if motorists were lucky. Long-distance travel was a huge challenge, and not just because it was hard to find gas. Inter-city traffic meant getting bogged down in farmer’s fields and having the taciturn agriculturalist pull you out with his team—for a fee. The Lincoln Highway, crossing the country, wasn’t dedicated until 1913.

Thinking about all this doesn’t mitigate the pain of today’s traffic snarls, but at least we can realize that the good old days weren’t all that good.

Let's spend 14 minutes with this video of the early days of motoring:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter



Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One