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Madison's First Car

Madison's First Car (1902)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-40837


A century ago, on June 16, 1903, Henry Ford founded his automobile company in Detroit. Less than a month later, on July 11, the Madison Democrat newspaper conducted a census of Madison automobiles and found a total of nine - one electric, four gasoline, and four steam powered. Five of the vehicles were 1903 models.

Frank D. Winkley, who worked for Badger State Land Company, bought a Waverley Electric in June 1902. The Waverley was produced by the International Motor Company of Indianapolis, which was purchased by the Pope Motor Company of Hartford, Connecticut in 1903. The Pope Manufacturing Company originally made Columbia bicycles; in 1895 it produced its first electric car. The Waverley featured 24 electric cells under the seat, a motor over the rear axle, three-inch tires on 30-inch steel wheels, generated four horsepower, and went as fast as 15 m.p.h. It “required frequent recharging.”

The largest vehicle in Madison was a Milwaukee owned by August M. Frisch, who managed the Advance Thresher Company. The Milwaukee was manufactured by the American Automobile Company of Chicago. It was a surrey-type vehicle with a steering rod, and accommodated six passengers. The water tank held 30 gallons and the gas tank 15. The Milwaukee had a top speed of 30 m.p.h, and could go 75 to 100 miles without refilling the gas tank.

All four steam cars were Locomobile Runabouts, made by the Locomobile Company of America in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Incorporated in 1899, the company's first cars were steam carriages modeled after the Stanley Steamer. They were chain-driven, tiller-steered, and their welded bicycle-like frames made them unsturdy. The Locomobile had a 16-inch boiler and burner beneath the seat. A thirty-gallon water tank was located behind the seat and a 14-gallon gas tank below the rider’s feet; unfortunately, they tended to use up all their water within 20 miles. The Locomobile seated two and could go 30 m.p.h. In time, after switching to gasoline power, Locomobiles became one of the most luxurious, prestigious and expensive cars of their time. The company claimed that the Locomobile was "the best built car in America," and their factory motto was "Four Cars a Day."

County judge A. G. Zimmerman purchased the first Locomobile in Madison, and Paul Harloff, who owned an electrical fixtures and supplies company, bought the second in August 1902. Louis F. Schoelkopf, who sold bicycles and typewriters on State Street, bought the third in May 1903.

H. H. Ratcliff, district agent for the Equitable Life Insurance Company, bought a Cadillac runabout in May 1903 from the Cadillac Automobile Company of Detroit. Dr. Cornelius A. Harper, a physician and surgeon, also had a Cadillac. Cadillacs seated four, went 30 m.p.h., and sold for $850.

The first Cadillac was built in October 1902, and in January 1903 the company took orders for an astounding 2,286 vehicles at the New York Automobile Show. “In a day when many automobile productions had a machine shop look to them, the Cadillac, comparatively, looked like a jewel from Tiffany's.”

Harry L. Hall owned a Conrad gasoline runabout built by the Conrad Motor Carriage Company of Buffalo. It seated two. In 1901 the Conrad Motor Carriage Company had produced its first gasoline runabout, which placed first in the July 4th Buffalo to New York City race. The 1903 model Conrad touring car sold for $1,250, and featured a 12-horsepower double cylinder engine in front, with three forward and one reverse gear, and a steering wheel instead of a tiller.

Marshall Hanks, an electrical engineer, owned a gasoline powered Oldsmobile, manufactured by the Olds Motor Works of Detroit. Olds was founded in 1897, and Ransom Olds opened the first auto factory in Detroit four years later. In 1901, its first year of operations, Olds made 425 cars. The 3 horsepower curved dash Olds was the first commercially successful auto, and cost $625.

Mark Gajewski