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The First Auto Show – 1900

With the New York International Auto Show in full swing this week, it’s interesting to take a look at the humble roots of this show. Back to a simpler time before air fuel ratio sensors and 02 sensors. The very first of its kind was held in 1900 at Madison Square Garden. The weeklong event displayed 31 brand new vehicles and a variety of accessories to customize each “horseless carriage.” Even more interesting is this excerpt from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 13th, 1900 describing the show:

“During the Automobile Show at Madison Square Garden, November 3 to 10, there will be contests of many kinds. The usefulness of the automobile in all kinds of going and under all conditions will be fully tested, and everybody will have an opportunity to see how the experienced chauffeur gets out of trouble. All the contests but these on Friday will be for vehicles on the show, and the programme, under the directions of the technical committee and the contests and exhibition committee of the Automobile Club of America, C.J. Field, chairman, will be as follows–

-November 3: Brake contest and obstacle contest for steam vehicles.

-November 5: Brake contest and obstacle contest for electric vehicles.

-November 6: Brake contest and obstacle contest for gasoline vehicles.

-November 9: Obstacle contest between electric cabs for hire, competition of electric delivery wagons.

-November 10: Championship competition and obstacle contest between winners in steam, electric and gasoline, -championship between winners of stopping competition in steam, electric and gasoline.”

The focus was more on pitting the different engine types against one another in feats of agility and power, versus the different styling and technological features we have today. There was a special ramp built to test the vehicles power for driving up inclines, and to prove how rugged and durable the Oldsmobile runabout was, they drove it from Detroit to NYC. Patrons were charged 50 cents for admission, yet despite the steep price (about $13 in today’s cash) about 48,000 visitors attended throughout the week.

The Oldsmobile runabout, or “Curved Dash,” was the world’s first mass produced car. It was built between 1901 and 1907 and sold for $650. General Motors bought Oldsmobile in 1908 and produced more than 35 million vehicles under that name before it retired it in 2004. None of the automobile makes displayed at the first New York Auto Show exist today.

Interestingly enough the gasoline powered engines were the least popular vehicles at the first show due to their noisy and noxious qualities. They ran on “light spirits” such as stove gas, lamp oil, alcohol, and of course gasoline. Gasoline was once an unwanted byproduct of producing kerosene (the oil used for light and heat at the turn of the century) and cost only 15 cents a gallon. It was quickly discovered that gasoline was the superior fuel and provided far greater horsepower, so its popularity took off.

It’s interesting to look back at how far auto shows and the cars showcased in them have come, but the basics are still the same. If you’re planning on attending the New York Auto Show this year, think back on its humble beginnings – if you can remember while drooling over the new 2013 SRT Viper.

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