Smithsonian Automobile Collection

This introductory text is pulled from the 1957 Smithsonian Publication "Automobiles and Motorcycles in the U.S. National Museum" written by curator Smith Hempstone Oliver.

At present a large number of collections of antique automobiles exist in the United States. Most are small, reflecting the discoveries of private collectors; but more than a few are large, representing considerable effort by either individuals or organizations. None contains so many actual automotive milestones, however, as that housed in the U. S. National Museum, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C.

This collection includes, for example, the Duryea car, built in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is universally considered to be the first American automobile driven by an internal-combustion engine. For those who endorse the claim of Elwood Haynes and the Apperson brothers, it also includes the first vehicle produced as a result of their genius. Neither of these cars would be of much use to the collector who might wish to operate them, but they are the two most important very early gasoline vehicles built in this country.

As most of us know, the internal-combustion-engine vehicle was not the first self-propelled vehicle to travel the public road. Long before the appearance of the first Daimler, Benz, or Duryea gasoline automobiles, steam wagons of various forms were built. Recent acquisitions of the Smithsonian's National Museum that come under this heading are the Roper steam velocipede of the late 1860's and the Long steam tricycle of 1879-1881. While much more recent than the Cugnot three-wheeled gun tractor of 1770, still preserved in Paris, these are very early as far as American development is concerned, and are of unusual interest in themselves. Probably the most elusive of automotive treasures are the early racing cars, which were always few in number. The hazardous nature of their use saw to it that few remained for many years. It is astounding, therefore, that the Winton "Bullets" Nos. 1 and 2 both are to be found in the Smithsonian collection. These machines share with Henry Ford's "999" and the Peerless "Green Dragon" the honor of writing the first chapters in the romance of automobile racing here, a story still being lived on the concrete of Sebring and the bricks of Indianapolis.

Less spectacular, but no less important, are the examples of the first models of such well-known American automobiles as the Oldsmobile, Franklin, Cadillac, and Autocar. These were among the very first cars offered to the buying public by their makers, and on their acceptance the industry was destined to rise or fall. Ask any collector to choose which car in the Smithsonian collection he would like to own, and he would name the Simplex. With the Mercer Raceabout and the Stutz Bearcat, the chain-drive Simplex Speed Car is the most sought after of early automobiles. It represents all that is grand in the cars of the brassbound era a truly mighty engine and beautiful, clean lines. Only a few of these cars remain today, and this is one of the best.

Regardless of the tides of human fortune, the really worthwhile early machines are being preserved. So many important relics from the dawn of the industry have already disappeared that now, more than ever, must those remaining be saved, to be marveled at by future generations.