1884 : First Self-Propelled Automobile in Michigan

April 2, 2023 all-day

If you’re driving around and you come across this Michigan historical marker, you may think it’s honoring the old 1950’s sci-fi film, “The Thing”….but it’s far from it.

“The Thing” was the first self-propelled vehicle in Michigan, before Henry Ford’s experiments and the other Michigan inventors that followed. It’s also considered to be the first automobile in the country!

“The Thing” seated four people and was built in 1884 by John & Thomas Clegg in their machine shop in Memphis, Michigan. The vehicle ran under the power of a single-cylinder steam engine with a boiler in the rear and “ran about 500 miles before Clegg dismantled it and sold the engine to a creamery” according to the historical marker.

Why was it called “The Thing”? Probably because the Cleggs never came up with a true name for it. If you’d like to visit this cool small town & see the marker and former machine shop site for yourself, please do. It’s a true slice of Michigan history that seems to get swept under the carpet and unknown by many.

The Historical marker reads: “Thomas Clegg (1863-1939) and his English-born father, John, built “The Thing,” the first recorded self-propelled vehicle in Michigan (and perhaps the country) in 1884-85. The Thing, driven by a single cylinder steam engine with a tubular boiler carried in the rear, seated four. The vehicle was built in the John Clegg & Son machine shop here in Memphis. It ran about 500 miles before Clegg dismantled it and sold the engine to a creamery. The shop was razed in 1936, just a short time before Henry Ford offered to buy it for Greenfield Village.”

Source: John Robinson, “Historic Michigan : Our First Automobile Was Called the Thing“, WFMK Blog, April 2, 2019.