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The first car in Indianapolis, the 1893 Black, couldn’t even persuade its inventor to give up horse-drawn wagons

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum.

It’s easy to conceive of history as a straight-line narrative, in which one thing inevitably leads to another and so on to create our modern world. Except it’s much messier than that, full of fits and starts and reversals that don’t neatly fit into those narratives. For instance, take the story of inventor Charles Black, which the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum will feature this weekend.

Black, an Indianapolis-based businessman who owned a wagon works and blacksmith shop, took an interest in horseless carriages in 1891, after driving a neighbor’s Benz. (Whoever that neighbor was would have to have been one of the earliest adopters of the internal combustion horseless carriage in America, but we digress.) He then took two years to build his own two-seat gasoline-engine horseless carriage, a vehicle that looked much like the Benz that inspired him but was built entirely from scratch or from parts sourced locally (save for the spark plug, which came from Benz itself).

The conventional narrative for wagonbuilder-turned-automaker would have us anticipating Black’s wholehearted plunge into the construction of horseless carriages, either to great success (see Billy Durant or the Studebaker clan) or to abject failure (see literally the hundreds of other wagonbuilders who didn’t set the world on fire with their horseless carriages).

Black did indeed debut and extensively test his horseless carriage on the streets of Indianapolis in 1893, the same year a Daimler on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago inspired many an inventor to try to build their own horseless carriages. And afterward, he did indeed make an effort to produce and sell his horseless carriages. A couple efforts, in fact. The first, in which Chicago cigar maker Harburger-Homan and Company invested, ended when one of the investors died. A couple years later, he finally found sufficient (and sufficiently alive) investors to begin production, sometimes selling his cars as Blacks, sometimes selling them as Indianapolises. Production lasted from 1897 to 1900; according to Beaulieu, even the production cars were built “very much on Benz lines.”

(Whether Black beat Charles and Frank Duryea to the punch depends on how far one trusts Charles Duryea’s account of his development of the internal-combustion-powered automobile. Black either preceded the Duryea brothers by several months or lagged behind them by a year.)

And then Black just decided to quit. He sold his patents for $20,000 to a group that continued production for another year under the name Indiana and went back to carriage building, apparently unconvinced of the potential for the automobile. What’s more, according to the Standard Catalog, Black never drove another car for the rest of his life, “insisting until his death in 1918 that his ‘own original car was good enough’ for him.”

At least a couple Black-built horseless carriages still exist, including the one that Black’s daughter donated to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 1927 and that the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum purchased for its Indiana-built automobiles gallery in 1995 with funding provided by George Dadakis of Harrison, New York. Curator Sam Grate said not much is known about the car itself, including its exact build date. “Sources indicate this one was built in 1893, but there’s no records of it being seen outside of Black’s shop until 1894, so we call it a circa 1894 car,” he said.

Grate’s car-side presentation on the car, part of the monthly “If These Cars Could Talk” series, will take place at 2 p.m. this Saturday. For more information, visit AutomobileMuseum.org.