Going to the auto show, a century ago

John Kelly
Columnist February 3, 2013

I haven’t yet been to this year’s Washington Auto Show, but I have a feeling it will be like the autos themselves: safe and a little boring.

I mean as compared with Washington’s very first auto show, which kicked off on Dec. 10, 1900. The vehicles on display back then must have seemed as exotic to the attendees as jetpacks would to us today.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

In 1900, horses ruled the streets. A headline in The Washington Post that spring read “Horse Market Active. Effect of Automobile Is Not Feared by Dealers. It Is Looked Upon Only as a Fad.”

A leading horse dealer told The Post that limited supply was raising equine prices. The U.S. war in the Philippines was putting horses in high demand for cavalry use. The British were snapping up American horses for their war in South Africa. If you wanted a well-matched team of horses in Washington, you’d better be prepared to shell out $600 to $900.

Sure, rich people dabbled with the automobile, but the District’s horse dealers were convinced it was a passing fancy. “They argue that the noise of the engine or motor will soon wear the tender nerves of the society belle or swell to a frazzle, and that the odor of the locomobile is not at all agreeable to sensitive nostrils.”

Of course, those of us who love cars love that smell. Not the artificial new car smell but that old car smell: the tang of gasoline and coolant mixed with the somehow comforting scent of exhaust and warm leather.

The cars on display 113 years ago in the Convention Hall at Fifth and L streets NW were the latest models, eager to be gazed upon — tires kicked, paint work caressed — by what today we’d call early adopters.

At the time it seemed that anyone with a shed, a toolbox and some gumption was starting his own automobile company. At the 1900 Washington Auto Show there was nary a Ford or Chevy in sight, let alone a Hyundai or Toyota.

Instead, there was the Overman Automobile Co., exhibiting its steam-powered Victor model. Riker Motor Co. was there, as were the Knox Automobile Co. and the Woods Motor Vehicle Co. The Pennsylvania Horseless Carriage Manufacturing Co. had a machine powered by kerosene. The Electric Vehicle Co. — not to be confused with the Woods Electric Vehicle Co. — had a dozen machines on view, the largest, the Columbia brougham, was upholstered inside with Russian leather.

A De Dion-Bouton was driven directly to the show from New York City by C.G. Wridgway on what was described as a “lengthy and disagreeable trip.” How lengthy and disagreeable? It took Wridgway 17 hours and 50 minutes.

That inaugural auto show had something today’s doesn’t: motion. A track ringed the display floor, allowing manufacturers to demonstrate their models. Each night various driving competitions were held. Drivers threaded their way around the barrels of an obstacle course. A stopping contest had drivers get their machines up to 15 miles per hour and then wait for the signal to hit the brakes. On the first night, the winner was Mr. Knox of the Knox Automobile Co., who brought “his carriage to a complete stop in the remarkably short distance of 13½ feet.”

The following evening, steam-powered cars competed. Judges let them go much faster, which was probably not a good idea. According to The Post, “One machine in particular was stopped with such force that the result was disastrous to the heads of the driver and judge.” (It would take 50 years before seat belts became options on U.S. cars.)

Then there were the “unique and amusing” waistcoat races. A line of coat racks were placed along the track. Each driver had to pull up to a rack, stop, take off his coat and hang it up, then drive to the next rack, take off his vest and hang it up, then drive around the track and put his garments back on and button them up.

This supposition was that every man had a waistcoat — and would be wearing it.

So, how did the automobile end up faring in Washington? Well, obviously that Post story about it being a fad was proved wrong.

But there was another article that spring that proved more prescient. “Good City for Autos,” read the headline. “Washington is to become a city of automobiles,” it began. “The smooth concrete streets, for which the National Capital is noted the world over, affords advantages which favor the adoption of the automobile in place of the horse.”

We’ve never really looked back.

Tuesday: In search of Washington’s earliest drivers.

To read previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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