Los Angeles’ First Automobile

First auto Los Angeles

Believe it or not, this is the first automobile in Southern California. S.D. Sturgis built it in his shop on 5th Street in Los Angeles with help from J. Philip Erie, the man credited for being the first to drive an automobile on a Los Angeles street.

This photo was taken the same year the automobile was completed, which was 1897. Erie is seen posing with Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman, who sits in the back.

By 1904, Los Angeles had 1,600 cars. Care to guess the speed limit back then? Six mph on business streets and eight mph on residential ones.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Gas-powered carriage didn’t have much speed to burn

by Steve Harvey, Los Angeles Times

…Created by engineer J. Philip Erie and machine shop owner S.D. Sturgis, it was the first gasoline-powered vehicle to take to the streets of Los Angeles.

But you had to get up early to see it.

The Erie-Sturgis made its debut at 2 a.m. on May 30, 1897, an hour when the streets would be deserted “except for a few sleepy policemen and wildly careering milkmen,” The Times said.

The automakers wanted to avoid horses, which might be scared “because of the noise of the gasoline motors and the gasoline explosions.”

For Erie, it was the culmination of a dream he’d had for two years after heading west with the idea for a “motor carriage.”

He took out 30 patents and raised $30,000 for the prototype.

“The innocent-looking black tally-ho has about 25 miles an hour concealed in its vitals,” The Times said admiringly.

Though German engineer Karl Benz had been granted a patent for a gasoline-powered auto in 1886, the concept was still novel to the dusty little pueblo of Los Angeles.

A Times caption writer labeled a drawing of it “The New Motor-Cycle.”

Erie, Sturgis, their wives and a few other acquaintances gathered in the early morning hours to make the test run.

The vehicle was rolled out of Sturgis’ shop on West 5th Street, then pushed down a long alley out onto Broadway.

“The gasoline engine was set to working [and] with a twist of the lever” by Erie, the driver, the intrepid group set off southward on Broadway. (They were on their own in case trouble struck; the Auto Club wouldn’t be founded until 1900.)

The carriage turned left on 6th Street and handled the “awful 6th Street pavement so smoothly that the passengers scarcely felt any motion at all,” The Times marveled.

Erie turned right on Main Street, “crossing car tracks and chuckholes innumerable without any trouble,” and turned on 7th Street. From there the passengers rumbled about a mile eastward to Erie’s house near Hollenbeck Park, “stopping occasionally for repairs.”

They passed several horses who displayed “not the slightest fear of the novel spectacle.”

The test run, The Times said, was “a gratifying success in every way.” And the newspaper assured readers “that in all probability it will not be long before a factory is established in Los Angeles for the manufacture of motor wagons.”













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