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On This Day: Charles Brady King Drives First Automobile in Detroit

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Charles Brady King
One of King’s groundbreaking horseless carriages
Photo: Michael Barera via CC

Detroit is known the world over as the Motor City, owing to its long association with the automotive industry. But did you ever wonder just who it was that definitively put the “motor” in Motor City? In many ways, it was a man named Charles Brady King. What’s so special about him, you might ask? Well, this humble mechanical engineer has gone down in history as the first person to drive an automobile in Detroit. How’s that for special?

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Charles Brady King and his magnificent machine

In addition to being a skilled mechanic, Charles Brady King would ultimately go on to found King Motor Cars. Although a footnote in automotive history today, the company found early success in the burgeoning motorcar industry. But as with all innovators, King had to start somewhere.

As part of his ongoing motorcar experiments, King purchased a one-cylinder gasoline Sintz engine and attached it to a carriage. He then attached the simple engine to a pedal and a muffler installed on the carriage’s frame. On the inauspicious day of March 6, 1896, King embarked on Detroit’s first automotive joyride. Behind the wheel of his contraption, he traveled from St. Antoine Street to Woodward Avenue at breakneck speeds of up to 7 miles an hour.

However, this story has one more fascinating wrinkle. On the day King took to the streets of Detroit, following along on bicycle was King’s buddy, a man named Henry Ford. It was a full three months before Ford’s first automobile hit the streets.

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On the morning of March 7, one day after his historic drive, King was interviewed for an article in the Detroit Free Press. In it, he was quoted as saying the following: “I am convinced they [horseless carriages] will in time supersede the horse.” An amazing 120+ years later, it’s pretty safe to say that his prediction came very, very true.