1896: First Gasoline-Powered Automobile in Detroit

March 6, 2023 all-day

Charles B. King and His Car

On March 6, 1896, 10 years after Carl Benz patented the first gasoline-powered automobile in Germany, and three years after the Duryea Brothers’ first vehicle, Charles King became the first driver of a gasoline automobile in Detroit.

Three months before Ford took the wheel, King had his own momentous first drive, a spin that began when he steered his vehicle down St. Antoine Street to Jefferson Avenue, and then swung north on Detroit’s famous Woodward Avenue to Grand Boulevard. After that, he turned around and headed home, only to be greeted by a police officer who threatened to ticket him for disturbing the peace.

The drive was accomplished in full view of hundreds of spectators who were thrilled with what they were seeing.

Residents woke up to the Detroit Free Press story: “The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night … It is the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and its progress up Woodward Avenue about 11 o’clock caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right, and went at the rate of 5 or 6 miles an hour at an even rate of speed.”

“I am convinced,” King told the Detroit Journal, “that, in time, the horseless carriage will supercede the horse.”

Born in California in the mid-1860s to a father who was an Army general in the Civil War Union, King received his training in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He had a million ideas of what to do with his life.

King moved to Detroit in 1889 at age 21, but it was only after a visit to the Chicago Exposition in 1893 that he realized a way to channel his ideas.

There, he spotted Gottlieb Daimler’s self-propelled carriage. If you could imagine after hundreds of years of horse-drawn wagons, there was suddenly no horse.

King set about to build a horseless carriage of his own and upon learning that New England’s Duryea Brothers, Charles and Frank, had already built and tested an automobile, there was no time to waste.

King served as a mentor to Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, Jonathan Maxwell, Henry Joy and others. In fact, he provided parts, instructed and assisted Henry Ford on his first quadricycle at the same time King developed his own car.

In 1903, King became chief engineer of the Northern Motor Car Co., where he designed the two-cylinder “Silent Northern” automobile that featured numerous innovations and the first running boards.

On the 1907 Northern model, he designed air brakes, an air-controlled clutch and other innovations for which he was granted patents. He was wildly successful, but boredom was starting to show.

Five years later, King left the company and spent two years in Europe studying automotive design. He returned to Detroit in 1910 and launched the King Motor Car Co. The King “Eight” (V-8) was billed as “The Car of No Regrets.”

In fact, at the New York Auto Show in 1912, the King automobile was the only one to feature left-hand steering, which soon became the industry standard. At that time, he already had more than 40 automotive patents to his credit.

That year, however, he left his company, devoting his time to working on numerous other experiments and inventions.

Sources :

Steven Rieve, Charles B. King pioneered horseless carriages, Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 27, 2009.

Photograph of First Car


More trivia from 1896

Librarians must have sensed they were on to something when they bought the Detroit Public Library’s (DPL) first automotive book in 1896. That was the same year that inventor Charles Brady King took his gas-powered automobile on its maiden voyage on the streets of Detroit, beating out Henry Ford by three months.

From then on, the library’s automotive stockpile accelerated to the point that the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) was created in 1953. It’s the world’s largest public automotive archive.

Originally housed on the fourth floor of the Main Library, the non-circulating NAHC has been on the second floor of the Skillman branch in downtown Detroit since 2003.

For more information, see “Tracking Car Culture”, Hour Detroit, January 2011.

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