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An Everyday Journey Through Motoring History, Facts & Trivia

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On This Day


Tuesday 20th May 1952

65 years ago

John William Lambert (92), the American automotive pioneer and inventor, who built America's first successful automobile in 1891 according to Antique Automobile and the Encyclopædia Britannica, died. In the 1880s Lambert heard of Karl Benz building an automobile in Germany and it drove him to build a gasoline engine that would operate a "horseless carriage." Stationary gasoline engines were extremely heavy in those days and too much for a "horseless carriage." It so happened that a John B. Hicks had made a patent application in 1890 on a stationary gasoline engine. Lambert contacted Hicks and through Hicks was introduced to a Mr. Wacholtz, a German engineer who had worked with Hicks. On December 20, 1890 Wacholtz made a contract with Lambert to make a lightweight automobile engine. The license granted to Lambert a shop right or license to manufacture gas engines embodying the improvements invented by the said Hicks as above stated for the use only on land vehicles other than railway or tramway cars. Benz's automobile was belt driven from an engine. Lambert felt if he could make a lightweight gasoline engine that did not operate with belts to propel it he would have a valuable transportation vehicle that could be utilized in the United States. Lambert hired Wacholtz to work with him on building a balanced motor containing three cylinders. He agreed to pay for all the expenses of the development of such an engine. The machine was done by Lowell Machine Works of Cleveland, Ohio. One of the reasons the engine was fabricated in Cleveland was because they had gasoline available there. He also had the design and the body of "horseless carriage" done there. Also the running gears for the automobile were fabricated there. Lambert went to extremes to have the engine made lightweight. This was the first experience Lambert had with building an automobile engine. He originally agreed to spend $200 for the machine work to produce the automobile engine, however after spending $3,300 Wacholtz was not able to produce a working engine in Cleveland. Lambert stopped the work at this stage of fabrication and shipped the non-working engine and incomplete automobile to a small machine shop that he owned in Ohio City. This way he could then devote his personal attention to the engine and automobile when he could from his businesses he was running there. The automobile consisted of two clutches and two chains, which were connected to a jack shaft. The two clutches gave two speeds forward and there was no reverse speed used. The single front wheel of the tricycle designed automobile was steered by a foot lever and a hand lever. This direct steering method provided that the arms could be rested and the steering done by the feet, and vice versa. One item that needed to be solved for completion and a working engine was a means of carburation. Lambert heard of a means of vaporizing gasoline by Gottlieb Daimler of Germany. He went to New York to see the engine that was operating a boat. After seeing this complicated carburetor Lambert developed what he called the "vaporizer." This was a simpler carburetor than Daimler's, which he was then able to get the engine working the way he intended it to. The automobile was completed soon after he had it Ohio City. There was a great deal of secrecy surrounding the developments of Lambert's automobile. Operational tests were conducted with the window blinds pulled at the farm implement showroom where he ran it. Outside road tests were conducted at night on roads that were not used. That was a good thing since many times there were long intervals between being able to get the automobile started again after it stopped. It turned out that the villagers didn't even know what Lambert was working on since it was such a new concept. They didn't realize the significance of Lambert's horseless carriage.[6] Lambert is said to have had the first automobile accident. One time when he was testing his "horseless carriage" at night in a secret run he drove his vehicle into a tree stump and ran into a hitching post.He made up sales brochures for his "horseless carriage" in January 1891, however not a single person bought one. He decided after extensive work on this automobile that the idea of a "horseless carriage" was way off into the future and was discouraged to continue. His father and brother encouraged him to sell his businesses in Ohio City and move to Union City, Ohio where they were and made stationary gasoline engines – which had an established market already. There in 1892 he started the Buckeye Manufacturing Company and the Lambert Gas and Gasoline Engine Company to make stationary engines and farm machinery implements.[6] Later in 1893 Lambert started the Union Automobile Company in that city. Lambert moved to Anderson, Indiana from Union City in 1893. He then moved some of his machinery from his Union City plant at that time. Lambert incorporated the Buckeye Manufacturing Company and Lambert Gas and Gasoline Engine Company that year.

John W. Lambert's first American gasoline automobile

John W. Lambert's first American gasoline automobile

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