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First Automobile in Southern California

First Automobile, Los Angeles, 1897

First motor vehicle driven on Los Angeles streets being driven by J. Philip Erie with passenger William H. Workman. Courtesy of California Historical Collection at USC Library.

The first gasoline-powered vehicle built west of the Mississippi River appeared on the streets of Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 30, 1897. It was the first time a “motor carriage” appeared anywhere in Southern California. The vehicle had been built in a machine shop on West Fifth Street by S.D. Sturgis for J. Philip Erie, a wealthy civil engineer and inventor from New York. Erie had conceived the idea of the vehicle some two years prior and now, $30,000 later ($1 million in 2022 dollars), the finished prototype was ready for a test drive. Erie and Sturgis decided to take the vehicle for its initial drive in the early morning hours because of concerns that their contraption might frighten horses.

At 2 a.m., the “motor carriage” was pushed out of the shop, down an alley, and then onto Broadway. After starting the motor, Erie and his wife, with six other passengers, headed south on Broadway. They turned left on Sixth Street, right on Main Street, then left on Seventh Street towards the river. They made their way to the First Street bridge, crossed into Boyle Heights, then eventually arrived at the Erie’s' home on the corner of East Fifth and State Street, near Hollenbeck Park. Along the way, they had to stop “occasionally for repairs.”

Contrary to concerns, they did pass some horses, but horses seemed unbothered. Although Erie declared that the gasoline-powered vehicle could achieve a speed of 25 miles per hour, according to the Los Angeles Herald, the motor carriage never moved fast, barely moving faster than pedestrians. The Los Angeles Times reported that the vehicle’s engine failed to make use of all four cylinders, operating on only one cylinder. Overheating was also a problem, as the asbestos wrapped around motor parts, appeared to burn away as quickly as paper.

Erie-Sturgis Motor Carriage, Los Angeles, 1898

Diagram of internal mechanics of the Erie-Sturgis Motor Carriage. Automotive Manufacturer, Volume 39, February 1898.

Although, the “motor carriage” was taken out for a few additional short trial runs, Erie could not seem to attract enough investors to manufacture his new motor vehicle. Having little left of the funds he initially raised, Erie abandoned the project by the end of the year and turned his focus to mining. There is no known record of the fate of L.A.'s first motor vehicle.

Nevertheless, by 1904, 1,600 motor vehicles were cruising the streets of Los Angeles. The maximum speed limit was 8 mph in residential areas and 6 mph in business districts. By 1915, Los Angeles County counted 55,217 motor vehicles, about a third of all motor vehicles registered in California. Even then, the county led the world in per capita ownership of automobiles and continues to do so today.

Sources: Steve Harvey, LA Times, Dec 19, 2010 and the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

Traffic, I-405, Los Angeles

Traffic on I-405 facing north. Courtesy of the Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project & Library of Congress.

Also see: First Production Motor Vehicles in California.

Earle C. Anthony and Automobile, Los Angeles, Circa 1897

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