When NYC introduced the nation to auto expos as car sales surged

New York City had seen its first automobile five years earlier, when the ever-spectacular Diamond Jim Brady took his new Woods electric brougham out for a crowd-stopping spin down Fifth Ave. And it already had seen its first auto-related fatality, on Sept. 13, 1899, when a Mr. Henry Bliss stepped off a Central Park West streetcar into the path of someone’s limo. And by now a small experimental fleet of electric taxis was working the town, carrying their fares more or less quite reliably when their batteries weren’t dead. (“In time, cab riding will be a positive pleasure,” said Scientific American.)

But in November 1900 there were still no more than 500 horseless carriages in all New York State, and mostly they remained nothing but amusing novelties, playthings of the rich and idle. That’s who turned out, resplendent in their gowns and tuxedos, when the Automobile Club of America staged its first National Automobile Show at Madison Square Garden, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and Astors and Morgans and Bostwicks and Van Rensselaers and automotive enthusiasts of that stripe. There were 60,000 of them in all during the week-long festivities, an attendance still rather less than that of the average society horse show. In the United States in November 1900 there were about 8,000 autos, and about 18 million horses.

It was believed that things were changing. “The automobile is here to stay,” ventured the New York Sun. “It is rapidly being developed to the point where it will be absolutely free from any danger and easily manipulated by anyone.” Certainly it never would become as popular as the bicycle; for starters, the rock-bottom-cheapest machine to be found cost nearly $300, a sum unimaginable by the average $5-a-week working man, and most cost considerably more than that. But everyone in high society would surely own one. John Jacob Astor himself had motored into Manhattan in his flashy 12-horsepower French racer, making the 90-mile trip downriver in a bone-rattling five hours, and he was quite the talk of the show.

So were the pioneer automakers Charles Duryea and Alexander Winton. Both men were known to New Yorkers already; Duryea, of Springfield, Mass., had won the nation’s second auto race, held in the city, in 1896, and Winton had actually driven one of his cars the 800 unpaved miles from Cleveland to New York in 1898. They, along with racer Andrew Riker who seven months earlier had set a speed record at Springfield, L.I., covering 50 miles in two hours and three minutes spent the week drafting the by-laws of the first automakers’ trade association. Standards were far from settled. Manufacturers had no clear idea yet whether steering mechanisms belonged on the right side or the left. Most cars had four wheels, but some had three. Steamers and electrics were the popular favorites, but the new gasoline-powered buggies seemed to be gaining market share.

Some 300 machines from some 40 manufacturers surreys, stanhopes, phaetons, runabouts, commercial delivery wagons were on display on the Garden floor. Demonstration models went around and around a planked oval track throughout the week. On the Garden roof, a 200-foot inclined ramp that simulated a steep country road let competitors show off their climbing and braking capabilities. Much admired was the elegant, white-enameled, rose-upholstered bridal carriage with footman’s perch. Notable as well was the 12-horse military steamer that carried four soldiers and 10,000 rounds of ammunition and was guaranteed to cross 100 miles of warfront in 12 hours.

Several vehicles came with an extra seat for the onboard mechanic their manufacturers assumed the well-equipped motor hobbyist would always want to keep handy. “An automobile is an engine and needs an engineer,” said one man. “In England, all the machines are made to carry a man. Here, where we try to educate everyone up to the point of managing an auto, we are always in trouble. A steam engine, a gas motor or an electric engine is not a kid-glove proposition.”

Ten years later there would be nearly 300,000 automobiles in the United States, and there would be speed limits, and licensing and registration requirements, and the beginnings of a profoundly new national way of life beyond the ken of those attending the auto show at Madison Square Garden in November 1900. For the time being, as terrified horses reared at every sight of the unnatural carriage that somehow pulled itself, there would be petitions to ban the thing from public streets; anti-auto zealots would spread broken glass on roadways or shoot out the tires of passing machines; kids would throw rocks.

Some quarters were more far-seeing than others. Scientific American, for example, recognized early that the automobile was going to be a boon to the public health, because there would be fewer horses excreting in the streets, and to the general civility as well, because rubber-tired motorcars ran much more quietly than steel-wheeled wagons. “The noise and clatter which makes conversation almost impossible on many streets of New York will be done away with, for horseless vehicles of all kinds are always noiseless or nearly so,” said the magazine. It conceded: “The bells of the new vehicles will be somewhat annoying at first.”

First published on March 5, 1998 as part of the “Big Town” series on old New York. Find more stories about the city’s epic history here.

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