Detroit’s First Test Drive

March 22, 2017

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By Matt Wolfe

March 6, 1896, Charles King becomes the first person ever to drive a gasoline-powered automobile in Detroit

Though Detroit continues to serve as a hotbed for automobile testing and development, the Motor City’s story began with a singular drive down Woodward Avenue. Hall of Fame Inductee Charles B. King holds the distinction of being the first person ever to drive a car on the streets of Detroit. King was a mechanical genius and one of the most technically knowledgeable of the early automotive pioneers. He was also one of a handful of people who foresaw the automobile’s future as a part of everyday life.

 Charles King seated (left) in his office and drafting room on the second floor of the Lauer Machine Shop (pictured right) on St Antoine street in Detroit, Michigan where he assembled his first car

King received an education in mechanical engineering from Cornell University before moving to Detroit in 1889. After visiting the 1893 Chicago Exposition to see Gottlieb Daimler’s self-propelled carriage, King set about building a horseless carriage of his own. His vehicle was completed during the winter of 1896 and on March 6th, King became the first person ever to drive a gasoline-powered automobile through the city of Detroit.

King had routinely carried out such test drives before, and usually did so at night to avoid possible accidents and unfavorable publicity. However, his March 6th ride would be far from covert. King began his drive on St. Antoine Street, departing around 11 p.m. from the machine shop where he had designed and built his car. He drove south toward the Detroit River, and then turned right onto Jefferson Avenue. He turned right again onto Woodward Avenue, where his presence began to attract attention from onlookers who were astounded at the site of King’s automobile puttering down the city streets.

A crowd soon gathered, and became large enough that it halted King’s progress in front of the Russell House Hotel at Cadillac Square. King eventually drove his vehicle back to the machine shop, only to be greeted by a policeman who threatened to ticket him for disturbing the peace. Ironically, King’s first publicized test drive was trailed by Henry Ford, who was riding a bicycle. Three months later, Ford would take his own vehicle, the Ford Quadricycle, for its first test drive with King as a passenger.

The next morning, the Detroit Free Press ran a story chronicling King’s drive; “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.” The Detroit Journal later interviewed King, and reported what was to be his most famous quote regarding the future of the automobile. “I am convinced,” he said, “they will in time supersede the horse.”

Charles King (seated right) taking a ride down Woodward Ave in his automobile several months after his historic first drive in Detroit

King was right, over the ensuing decades the automobile quickly became the preferred method for personal transportation. Over a century has passed since King’s bold proclamation, and thanks to the contributions of innovators that came after him as well as recent legislation approving the testing of autonomous vehicles in the state of Michigan, horseless carriages may soon be taking themselves for test drives down Woodward Avenue.

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