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Ford's First Car: The Quadricycle

Henry Ford in his Quadricycle

Henry Ford in his Quadricycle

When most people think about the early Ford cars, they tend to think about the Model A, or maybe even the Model T. Both were very important cars in automobile history, but neither was the first. Very few remember the very first car that Henry Ford built, the Quadricycle.

Built ten years after the Benz Patent Motorwagon, the Quadricycle was the beginning of the Ford empire. It was inspired by an 1895 article on the gasoline engine in the American Machinist magazine. Ford soon became obsessed with the engine, and in June of 1896, drove his Quadricycle on the streets of Detroit for the first time.

A rear view of the Quadricycle. Note the buggy design and large wheels.

A rear view of the Quadricycle. Note the buggy design and large wheels.

Built in a Shed During Spare Time

Henry Ford was absolutely fascinated by the gasoline engine. He built and tested a gasoline engine in his kitchen sink with his wife helping him. So building a car was the natural step forward. Charles King, another noted engineer at the time, tested his version of a car well before Ford, and his test just inspired Ford even more. So Ford decided to build his own version of a horseless carriage.

The Quadricycle was built in the shed behind Ford's home. Ford, along with other friends and engineers (Including Charles King), worked long hours to build the 500-pound car. Ford was able to dedicate time around his work schedule to work on his invention (at the time he was Chief Engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company).

Specifications of the Quadricycle

The Quadricycle was mainly wood and steel, and was named so because it was mounted on four large bicycle wheels. It was designed much like the horse-drawn buggies of the time. Unlike many of his fellow innovators, Ford did not just put an engine on a buggy; he designed the buggy around the engine. This approach set the Quadricycle apart from many of the other prototypes of the time.

The vehicle was powered by a two-cylinder engine in the rear, capable of about 4 horsepower. It was a two speed transmission, but apparently Ford couldn't get enough speed up to move it into second gear. There was no reverse gear, and it had a top speed of 20 miles per hour.

The Quadricycle's First Trip

On the night the Quadricycle was finished, Ford immediately took it out for a test drive. However, the doors of the shed were too small to get the car out! Ford and Jim Bishop had to bash around the doorframe of the shed to make enough space to fit the Quadricycle through the door.

So at about 2 in the morning, on June 4, 1896, the Quadricycle went for its maiden voyage. Ford drove it around some of the major roadways in Detroit, and had to move it to the Edison Illuminating plant when a critical spring broke. He managed to fix it at the plant.

Just imagine what anyone who saw this excursion was thinking! Automobiles were extremely rare and very expensive at the time. Most people didn't know what one looked like. Thankfully it was still early in the morning, when most people were still asleep.

Later in the day, Ford drove his creation to his father's farm. Many people stopped to stare at the Quadricycle as Ford drove past. While the idea of the horseless carriage was well known, almost no one had actually seen one before.

Mr. and Mrs. Ford in his Quadricycle.

Mr. and Mrs. Ford in his Quadricycle.

Stopping, Steering, and Cooling

There were some interesting things about the mechanics of the Quadricycle. The Quadricycle had no brakes to speak of. Stopping was a matter of turning off the engine and coasting to a stop. Stopping, therefore, was more of an art than a science and made the automobile much more difficult to handle. As for steering, the Quadricycle had no recognizable steering wheel. Rather, a tiller, like something you might find on a boat, was used to move the wheels to steer. Due to the nature of the engine, there were some issues with overheating. Ford created a water cooling system to help combat this, which would later evolve into the radiator system.

The Fate of the Quadricycle

Ford sold a few Quadricycles for about $200 each. A delivery-wagon style Quadricycle was later designed, but also didn't sell well. The money from selling the Quadricycle went into developing and building his second car, the Model A. Ford later bought back his first Quadricycle in 1902, one year before Ford Motors was created.

If you take a look at the Model A, you can clearly see elements of the Quadricycle. Although the Model A had a steering column, a larger engine, and a back seat, it still retained the buggy-like appearance and bicycle-like wheels.

Today, there are still replicas of the Quadricycle being made by hand by a company in the UK. Other car enthusiasts enjoy building replicas of this iconic car. The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit has a Quadricyle as a part of their exhibits, and you can see replicas of the Quadricycle in other places.

This car was the beginning of Henry Ford's iconic business. Without this first successful automobile, perhaps the Ford Company might never have been created, and the assembly line gone undiscovered. This car was the beginning of affordable automobiles for the American public, and the beginning of a new age.

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