The U

Tuesday 15th December 1896

The U.S. government awarded Patent Number 573,174 to inventor Stephen M. Balzer of New York, for a gasoline-powered motor buggy that he built two years earlier. Balzer never mass-produced any of his cars, but his “experimental” vehicle was one of the first functioning automobiles to be built in the United States. Today, the Balzer car is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was the first gas-powered car in the museum’s collection. In 1894, Balzer was working in the machine-manufacturing business by day; by night, he was building an internal-combustion motor car that he hoped would make him famous. The Balzer car had a three-cylinder, air-cooled rotary motor. It was open at the top and sides, so it looked a bit like a park bench held awkwardly aloft by four pneumatic bicycle tires. Unlike other autos of the era, the Balzer’s rear wheels were much larger than its front wheels–they were 28 and 18 inches across, respectively. This design quirk helped the car to keep its traction and its maneuverability. (Some modern-day tractors still use this wheel configuration.) Though his car could not go faster than 4 miles per hour, New York City police officers still insisted that Balzer be accompanied on his test-drives by an assistant marching ahead of the sputtering vehicle, warning pedestrians out of the way by waving a giant red flag.

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