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First Automobile in Southern California

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, and the first time a “motor carriage” appeared anywhere in Southern California. It had been built in a machine shop on West Fifth Street by shop owner S.D. Sturgis for engineer J. Philip Erie. Erie had conceived the idea of the vehicle some two years prior and now, $30,000 later, the finished prototype was ready for a test drive. Erie and Sturgis decided to make the initial drive in early morning hours because there was some concern that their contraption would 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 Sturgis and six other passengers headed south on Broadway. They then turned left on Sixth Street, right on Main Street, then left on Seventh Street to eventually make their way to Erie’s home near Hollenbeck Park. Along the way, they had to stop “occasionally for repairs.”

Contrary to any concerns, they did pass some horses, but horses seemed unbothered. According to the Sunday Herald, the motor carriage never moved very fast, though, barely moving faster than pedestrians. The newspaper reported that the vehicle’s engine failed to make use of all four cylinders, operating on only one cylinder. It never achieved the hoped-for 25 mph. Overheating was also a problem.

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 raise further interest in additional financial backing. Having little left of those funds he had 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 this first motor vehicle in Los Angeles.

By 1904, 1,600 motor vehicles cruised 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. The county led the world in per capita ownership of automobiles and continues to do so today.

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.

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

Also see First Production Motor Vehicles in California.

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