REVISED AND EXPANDED In an earlier feature at Mac’s Motor City Garage, we told you of the first automobile to run on the streets of Detroit. Here is the second: Henry Ford’s Quadricycle.
Most gearheads are familiar with Henry Ford’s first automobile, his 1896 Quadricycle. Here we explore some of the lesser-known aspects of one of the great stories in automotive lore.
Stories invariably mention how Ford built his first car in a converted coal shed behind his home at 58 Bagley Avenue in old downtown Detroit. However, the city’s street numbering system has since been changed and that address no longer exists. Today that spot is in the 200 block of Bagley between Park and Clifford. A historical plaque on the front of the Michigan Building, more commonly known as the Michigan Theater, which has occupied the site since 1926, marks the location.
At various times, Ford and his associates attempted to date his first auto at 1893 or 1894, but historians have long since debunked these assertions. They have confidently fixed the car’s first test drive as occurring somewhere between 2 and 4 AM on June 4, 1896—three months after Charles B. King made his first run. The name quadricycle apparently originated from an 1895 Chicago Times-Herald contest in which readers were asked to invent a replacement for the term “horseless carriage.”
Another oft-told tale in Ford folklore is how, when he completed the Quadricycle, he discovered it wouldn’t fit through the shop door and was forced to tear out a brick wall in order to take his first test drive. Well, that’s sort of true. Ford was not really an idiot; he designed the car so it could be partially disassembled to pass through the doorway. When it came time for the test drive, Ford’s knock-down system either didn’t work or he became impatient with it, and that’s when he took an ax to the doorway.
So the modified doorway part of the story, at least, is correct. Note how in the 1911 photograph below, the right door of the coal shed is twice as wide as the left. Following Ford’s emergency masonry work with the ax, Ford’s landlord, a Mr. Wreford, installed a double-width door. Wreford, an enthusiastic supporter of Ford’s automotive experiments, had earlier donated his half of the shed to the project.
Once Ford got that first test run under his belt, he made numerous improvements to the Quadricycle, replacing the wooden frame rails with iron, installing brakes (originally there were none) and converting the two-cylinder, four-horsepower engine from air to water cooling. He also replaced the original bicycle saddle with a buggy-style bench seat and fashioned a boxlike wooden body to cover the runnning gear. The cooling system’s water tanks, also wood, formed the rear side panels of the bodywork.
The modifications were performed mainly by David Bell, a blacksmith at the Edison Illuminating Company where Ford served as plant superintendent. You can find period photos of the Quadricycle in varying configurations, with and without bodywork and so on. When Ford was done working with the Quadricycle, he sold it to Charles Ainsley for $200 to fund his next project. Ford’s cohorts and fellow tinkerers in these early days included Bell, Jim Bishop, Ed “Spider” Huff, George Cato, Charles Brady King, and Oliver Barthel. Detroit’s auto pioneers were a small and relatively tight-knit group.
Decades after the 1896 test drive, Ford had a replica of the Bagley Avenue coal shed erected at Greenfield Village, his historical theme park in Dearborn. It’s the cozy workshop in the lead photo at the top of this feature. By the way, the Quadricycle in the lead photo is also a replica. In fact, you will find multiple Quadricycles (one real, the rest not) on display around the grounds of Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum—which can be disorienting to visitors actually paying attention. We’ll close with a photo of Henry Ford with (we’re pretty sure) the real Quadricycle: