There are many footnotes from the earliest days of the automobile at the end of the 19th Century, when eager inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs attempted to build their own innovative versions of future transportation.
These were the horseless carriages, mostly constructed from existing horse-drawn rigs, steered by tillers and powered by steam, electricity or primitive internal-combustion engines.
One of those early American vehicles – and significantly, the first car made in Michigan –was the 1895 Benton Harbor Motor Carriage, designed and built by brothers Albert and Louis Baushke, who named the creation after their Michigan home town. It was powered by a two-cylinder gas engine developed by William O. Worth of Chicago.
Believed to be the first viable automobile built in America from the ground up rather than adapted from a horse-drawn carriage, the Benton also pioneered five-passenger, forward-facing seating. Compared with the spindly vehicles of the day, the Benton seemed substantial and, for that era, futuristic.
Just one Benton was produced, its failure blamed on an engine design that included no internal lubrication, which would cause the car to shudder to a stop after a short distance. The Baushke brothers blamed Worth for their car’s disappointing debut, a dustup that ended with Worth seizing possession of the Benton and taking it back to Chicago (presumably shipped rather than driven).
But unlike the Benton Harbor Motor Carriage Company, or the Chicago Motor Vehicle Company later started by Worth, that one and only Benton still exists. Worth retained the car until the 1930s, and it eventually was sold to David Kolzow, who restored it and donated it to the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where it remains today, heralded as a game-changer of automotive design.
Last week, the Benton was inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register, the oldest vehicle so honored, by the Historic Vehicle Association in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior. It follows 19 other vehicles deemed to be significant to American automotive history that have been inducted to the national register during the past three years.
The HVA had indicated that the Benton would become part of the registry, showing the antique in the annual Cars at the Capitol display and including it in a special show-window exhibit on Park Avenue in New York of three revolutionary vehicles from the past and present.
Although the HVA has made no general announcement of the Benton’s inclusion in the national registry, the group’s Facebook page reported the induction, held October 4 during the AACA’s annual Night at the Museum event.
To learn more about the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit the HVA website.