The museum's collection also contains a number of experimental cars, a number of cars that were produced in relatively small numbers, and some brands that gained favor for a brief period and then failed. There were hundreds of auto manufacturers in the early twentieth century, and although you might never have heard of Franklin, Kelsey and Tilney, Riker, Balzer, or Winton, these unsuccessful automobiles can help us understand American history in all its richness and complexity.
The first car the Smithsonian Institution collected was an experimental gasoline-powered automobile. Designed and produced by Stephen M. Balzer, this 1894 Balzer automobile was technologically interestingit had a rotary enginebut Balzer never mass produced motor cars, and the Balzer Motor Company was not a commercial success.
In 1910, Elwood Haynes donated a car to the Smithsonian. The Haynes Pioneer was test driven on July 4, 1894. This car, although not the first American-made automobile, is one of the earliest made cars in the museum's collection, and is also gasoline powered.
In contrast to Stephen Balzer, who got out of the car business in 1902, Elwood Haynes stayed active in the business until his death in the 1920s. The Haynes Company did relatively well in the early twentieth century, but like many auto companies of the time, it failed during the 1920s.
Different Fuels, Different Futures
Building a gasoline car didn't guarentee sales and a future in the automaking business, some of the car companies that failed in the early twentieth century backed the wrong horse when it came to fuel type. Inventors and manufacturers built steam, gasoline, and electric cars. Gasoline has its problems as a fuelit is inflammable and emits pollutants, to name but two of thembut gasoline-powered vehicles became the norm within a generation.
Electricity was a new technology in the late nineteenth century, and its modernity may have made it appeal to urbane city residents. City dwellers were the largest market for electrically powered vehicles, since such cars operated best on smooth roads and over short distances. Electric cars were quiet and easy to drive, and they were often seen as a replacement for a carriage for the wealthy: many early electric vehicles look like carriages. But electric cars had disadvantages: they couldnt go very far between charges, batteries needed maintenance and wore out, and you couldn't carry a spare can of electricity in your car. Bad roads also limited electrics' usefulness.
Steam power had been harnessed for factories and for railroads in the nineteenth century. Of the three main fuels for automobiles, it was the most tried and true. But steam didn't work as well for small personal transportation as it did to fuel large locomotives. Steam cars took time to warm up and be ready to drive, and the boiler that made the steam could explode. Steam cars were initially popular but they faded from the market.