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"Ken McCutchan is a life-long resident of Vanderburgh County, Indiana, descended from pioneer families that entered the area in the early 1800s. He is veteran of WWII, having served with Army Corps of Engineers in both North Africa and Europe. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Composition and Modern Language from the University of Evansville, a certificate in French Language and Culture from the Sorbonne in Paris, and an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from the University of Southern Indiana. His other books include: The Adventures of Isaac Knight, From then Til Now, Saundersville, An English Settlement, At The Bend in the River, and Dearest Lizzie. Mr. McCutchan's books may be purchased at Willard Library in Evansville, IN.
The Automobile Comes to Evansville    - History

by Kenneth McCutchan

The automobile made its inauspicious debut in Evansville on July 12, 1896, before an audience of curious citizens, barking dogs and frightened horses.

It was brought to the city as one of the special attractions of the Robinson Circus.

A newspaper reported that “as a novelty it is a success, but as a useful vehicle it seems it cannot be generally adopted on account of the noise.”

However, it wasn’t long before people here became intrigued by the idea of a horseless carriage, and several attempts were made to build them.

The first car manufactured in Evansville, called the Zentmobile, came out in 1903.

The builders were Willis Copeland and a mechanic named Schuyler Zent, who had patented a new design for standardized wheels.

Because of poor promotion, only a few of the cars were sold, and the operation closed after about a year.

Next, William McCurdy, who had been building quality buggies at his Hercules plant, turned to manufacturing bodies for the Sears Motor Buggy.

The bodies were shipped to Chicago, where the engines were installed.

Some of the other early attempts to manufacture cars in Evansville were the Single Center, a chain-driven car, and the Windsor, which was the first to have a friction transmission.

Later came the Simplicity and the Traveler.

The Simplicity was of particular interest because it offered a new transmission consisting of a flywheel operated from a front-end engine that meshed with a fly-wheel on the drive shaft.

The stockholders in that company were the mayor of Evansville, Charles Heilman, and two prominent citizens, Otto and Charles Hartmetz.

A number of Evansville people bought this car, but soon learned that they had bought trouble.

The car ran well on nice days, but refused to run in rainy weather. This was because there was no housing around the transmission, and the gears slipped when they became wet.

Sterling Brewery converted one into a truck to be used to haul beer to the taverns. It ran well in the morning but often stalled in the afternoon. By then enough melted ice had dripped through the floor of the truck to wet the transmission.

As the years passed, new and improved cars came on the market, and it became a sort of status symbol among the well-to-do to own an automobile. The newspapers frequently carried in the society columns announcements that Mr. And Mrs. So and So motored to Newburgh on Sunday, as if it was a notable event.

Of course, motoring all the way to Newburgh in those days was somewhat of an adventure. The unpaved road was full of ruts and mudholes.

Tires in those days were fragile, so a motorist could expect to have a flat or two before he got home.

The human animal seems to have always had an appetite for speed, and it was such that brought Walter Ludwig into court on June 6, 1911.

City Judge Philip Gould lectured him on his recklessness and warned him that, if he ran over someone and killed him, he would be charged with murder.

Ludwig’s crime was that he had been racing through the streets of Evansville at the breakneck speed of 18 miles per hour.

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