This Forgotten Automotive Pioneer Changed Car History – But He Kept Changing Lanes

Charles B. King had a simple dream. It was about movement. It was a matter of velocity. It was a way of life that changed the way of life for everyone in the bustling and growing city of Detroit.

Historians speak of Henry Ford’s influence, but few remember the king. Maybe it was because he was so different. Perhaps it was because he was a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the word. Or maybe it was because he was so tired of accomplishments (boredom, perhaps), that moving on was the only stimulating aspect of life.

King loved many things: painting, designing, writing poetry, playing music, and designing interesting creations. “A visionary,” the Detroit Free Press once called him.

But few knew he was the first person to design, build and drive a car on the streets of old Detroit. He was one of the most technically competent pioneers in the automotive industry and one of the few men who could imagine that the car would transform life in a city known for its cars.

This is perhaps King’s biggest secret: If he hadn’t visited Chicago and then moved to Detroit, it might never have become Motor City.

In a way, it was a miracle that King ended up in Detroit. Born in California in the mid-1860s to a father who was a Union Army general during the American Civil War, he received his mechanical engineering education from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, but he had a million ideas of what to do with his life.

King moved to Detroit in 1889 at the age of 21, but it was not until a visit to the Chicago Exposition in 1893 that he realized a way to channel his ideas.

There he spotted Gottlieb Daimler’s self-propelled car. Imagine, after hundreds of years of horse-drawn wagons, there were suddenly no more horses.

King set out to build his own horseless carriage, and after learning that the New England Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank, had already built and tested an automobile, there was no time to waste.

On March 6, 1896, 10 years after Carl Benz patented Germany’s first gasoline-powered automobile and three years after the Duryea brothers’ first vehicle, King became the first driver of a gasoline-powered automobile in Detroit. Everyone knows Ford’s Model T, but Henry Ford was riding a bicycle back then.

Three months before Ford took the wheel, King had his own memorable first drive, a spin that began when he steered his vehicle down St. Antoine Street to Jefferson Avenue, then headed down north on Detroit’s famous Woodward Avenue to Grand Boulevard. After that, he turned around and drove home, only to be greeted by a policeman who threatened to give him a ticket for disturbing the peace.

The journey took place under the eyes of hundreds of spectators delighted with what they saw.

Residents woke up to the Free Press story: “The first horseless carriage seen in this town was on the streets last night… It was the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and his progression on Woodward Avenue around 11 a.m. caused a lot of comments, people crowded around him, which hampered his progress. The aircraft appeared to be operating well and was traveling at five or six miles per hour at equal speed.

“I am convinced,” King told the Detroit Journal, “that in time the horseless carriage will replace the horse.”

It would only take him about 20 years to prove him right. King mentored Ford, Ransom Olds, Jonathan Maxwell, Henry Joy and others. In fact, he supplied parts, instructed and helped Ford on its first quadricycle at the same time as King was working on his own car.

In 1903 King became chief engineer of the Northern Motor Car Co., where he designed the “Silent Northern” two-cylinder automobile which featured many innovations and the first running boards. For the 1907 Northern, he designed air brakes, an air-operated clutch, and other innovations for which he was granted patents. He was wildly successful, but boredom was starting to set in.

Five years later, King left the company and spent two years in Europe studying automotive design. He returned to Detroit in 1910 and started the King Motor Car Co. The King “Eight” (V-8) was nicknamed “The Car With No Regrets”.

In fact, at the 1912 New York Auto Show, the King automobile was the only one with left-hand drive, which quickly became the industry standard. At that time, he already had more than 40 automotive patents to his credit.

That year, however, he left his business, devoting his time to working on many other experiments and inventions. Said King to a colleague: “I did what I wanted, now I want to be stimulated again.”

Twenty years later, after many other projects and inventions, he returned to his automotive roots and became a founding member of the Automobile Old Timers, the original name of what was to become the Automotive Hall of Fame.

It was an effort to remember the early days of the automotive industry and to honor its pioneers and leaders. King was inducted into this institution in 2009. Not that he would care. There were too many pictures to paint. Too many things to create. And too many songs to play.

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