Van Wagoner (automobile)

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Van Wagoner
Automobile Manufacturing
GenreElectric and gasoline run-about called the Van Wagoner and later renamed to Syracuse
FateManufactured by Syracuse Automobile Company that discontinued production in 1903. Later models produced by Century Motor Vehicle Company
Area served
United States
Key people
William H. Van Wagoner, automobile designer

The Van Wagoner was an American electric automobile manufactured between 1899 and 1903 in Syracuse, New York, by the Syracuse Automobile Company. It was advertised as "built on a simple plan that does away with several levers and push buttons" and could purportedly be "controlled with one hand."[1]

During 1900 the model was renamed to the Syracuse and was produced under that name until 1903. There were a number of reported problems with the car in 1901 because the rear brake compressor periodically gave out.[1]


The Syracuse Automobile Company of Syracuse, New York, produced the small electric two-seater from 1899 to 1903. The car was originally known as the Van Wagoner, after the original designer William Van Wagoner; however, the name was changed to the Syracuse in 1900.[1]

Bicycle champion[edit]

William Van Wagoner, originally from New Jersey, was involved in bicycle racing long before he designed an automobile. As early as June 1888, he was a "bicycling champion" in Providence, Rhode Island, in the third annual 25 mi (40 km) bicycle race for the championship of the Rhode Island division on the 0.5-mile (0.8 km) oval at Roger William's Park.[2]

By 1899, like many bicyclists of the day, he transferred his interest in bicycles into automobile design and the manufacture of early automobiles.

Electric and gasoline automobiles[edit]

Van Wagoner and Charles F. Saul finished an experimental machine and began production of a "full line" of both electric and gasoline propelled automobiles. The firm was planning to begin production in late August 1899 and employed "100 hands." Saul was a well-known carriage builder and president of the Barnes Cycle Company where Van Wagoner was superintendent.[3]

The firm had built several experimental wagons during the prior two years, starting in 1897. An "electric wagon" was completed in mid-August 1899 and "put to the streets" that week. According to the business partners; "It has been tested daily and gives its manufacturers complete satisfaction."[3]

Van Wagoner showed a reporter from The Herald the wagon and it was described as a light vehicle, commonly known as a run-about wagon. It was equipped with a square box and "has a very pleasing appearance." Bicycle wheels with wood rims were used and the vehicle was equipped with heavy, pneumatic tires and wire spokes. The experimental machine was powered by a storage battery of 28 cells and had strength equal to about two horsepower, with a marginal overdraft. The range of the machine was approximately 30 mi (48 km) and weighed about 850 lb (386 kg). The firm claimed that it would manufacture an entirely different machine for the market.[3]

Century Tourist - 1903

The new vehicle for the market had several features which were "covered with patents belonging to the firm," all of which had been applied for. Power was transmitted to the rear axle in the case of both the electric and gasoline machines. The firm "will seek to do away with the numerous levers and push buttons" which characterized many of the automobiles of the day. The wagon was "steered, started and run at any speed, stopped or reversed with a single lever operated with one hand."[3]

On August 30, 1899, the new partners announced they would begin manufacturing the vehicle "just as soon as a building is secured and machinery installed." Work on the initial gasoline machine was "well under way" and testing was planned for the near future. The company planned on making two machines exactly alike in appearance, the only difference being in the propelling power. The company would also manufacture "everything used in equipping an automobile with the exception of tires and sundries which are sold by specialty companies."[3]

Van Wagoner and Saul determined by September 1, 1899, that "gasoline was far superior for long distance driving than electricity."[4]

Century motor vehicle company[edit]

By May 21, 1901, Van Wagoner was manager of the Century Motor Vehicle Company in Syracuse. The company's machinists, who were members of Machinists Union No. 381, went on strike and Van Wagoner made an announcement to The Post-Standard reporter that the company was going to "shut down immediately" for an indefinite period. He expressed that they were a new company, still in their infancy and could not afford the "new schedule." Fifty men lost their jobs.[5]

The next day, on May 22, Van Wagoner announced that a number of men employed at the factory on East Water Street who had been locked out had already returned to work and that the factory would be "running again today." He said that a number of the non-union men had signed an agreement to go out with the union machinists if their demands were not granted. Many of the men had since "asked to be reinstated" and the plant had run the day before with a few of the men working.[6]

On May 27, 1902, he took a trip to Auburn, New York, in a vehicle he designed that was manufactured by Century Motor Vehicle Company. He was joined on that "unpleasant day" by John Maxwell, casket manufacturer from Oneida, New York. His goal was to try for a record of driving one mile in 58 seconds.[7]

Expert opinion[edit]

On August 20, 1902, local entrepreneur, George M. Barnes, vice president of Commercial Bank of 414 West Onondaga Street, owned a 700 lb (318 kg) Dos-à-dos backed steam automobile carriage. While the machine was being groomed for a "spin around the city," it caught fire. The reason was a mystery. When the blaze touched the gasoline, a sheet of flame shot upward and the heat caused the throttle valve to open. The driverless car "dashed away and raised ructions in the yard." Such antics by cars were pronounced "extremely rare" by Syracuse automobile dealers and manufacturers. Barnes had telephoned his residence late that afternoon to have the automobile put in readiness for a drive. John Kennedy, who had charge of the machine, hauled it down upon the barn floor and prepared to fire it up for the run. The tanks were filled with fifteen gallons of gasoline. A fire was started and steam produced when the discovery of fire in the wrong place was made. Kennedy and several other men caught hold of the machine and were dragging it slowly into the yard when it ran away.[8]

A Dos-à-Dos style Electric Automobile (carriage) from 1900

The fireman arrived and in five minutes the flames were quenched and the machine was backed into the barn. The gasoline in the tanks had burned up the body of the machine and upholstering were destroyed. What remained was a skeleton. The carriage originally cost $1,200 and the damage estimated by its owner was $150 to $200. The machinery was not injured, however, the entire body needed to be replaced. Barnes had been driving the car for a year without problems.[8]

Herbert E. Maslin, who was interested with Barnes in the manufacture of steam carriages, also was at a loss to account for the fire. He declared he had never heard of such a thing and had never heard of complaints in regard to "any of the company's autos."[8]

William Van Wagoner, manager of Century Motor Vehicle Company discussed the incident; "In my judgment, the fire must have been from one of two reasons. First, if the machine was put into the barn with the main burner lighted, it would have been extinguished automatically when the steam in the boiler reached its given pressure, but what is known as the pilot light would have remained burning. If there happened to be a leak in the gasoline tank or pipes, allowing the dry gas to escape until liquid gasoline forced its way down into the burner and was ignited by the pilot light, an explosion would have ensued. The accident could have happened if the big burner had been automatically extinguished and the pilot light blown out accidentally by a gust of wind, allowing the gas to escape and come in contact with a bare light in the barn."[8]

Automobile road races[edit]

On September 1, 1901, Van Wagoner left for New York City with C. R. Woodin of Berwick, Pennsylvania, in Woodin's new automobile, a two-seated steam carriage that he entered in the endurance race of automobiles held under the auspices of the Automobile Club of America. During the contest, Van Wagoner operated the vehicle. The purpose of the trip was to "become familiar with the road."[9]

In a machine "manufactured and adjusted" by himself, Van Wagoner, chauffeur, took part in the 100-mile (161 km) endurance test of automobiles under the auspices of the Long Island Automobile Club held on Long Island on April 26, 1902. There were 81 entries. It was first announced that Von Wagoner won, however, the Associated Press announced later in the night that as nearly as could be determined, the machine driven by J. C. Chase had carried the honors, but that it would be several days before the "authentic figures would be perfected and corrected." The first man to win was disqualified for making the run inside the time limit. Ten others lost because they disregarded the 15 mph (24 km/h) rule.[10]

The 2,200 lb (998 kg) Van Wagoner automobile was built at the Century Motor Vehicle Company's plant in Syracuse. It apparently did win the endurance race on Long Island. A special dispatch to The Herald said: "Automobiles were raced on Long Island today. Gasoline and steam vehicles of every size and many horse powers ran over 100 mi (161 km) of smooth but dusty roads within a square, the diagonal of which was less than 12 mi (19 km). The linear measurement of a 100 mi (161 km) within this square was accomplished by a series of angles and curves as curious as the outline of a South Sea island. Within this tract of land and roadway track of many sharp and obtuse curves nearly 100 motor cars whizzed, snorted and cavorted." The idea of the race was to prove the greatest touring capacity of the motors. It was a "non-stop" contest and any stops made were penalized. The winner was decided by figuring percentage on the time, the number of stops, if any, and the weight and class of the machine. The prizes were blue, red, yellow and white ribbons.[11]

On May 27, 1902, Van Wagoner took a trip to Auburn, New York, in a vehicle he designed that was manufactured by Century Motor Vehicle Company. He was joined on that "unpleasant day" by John Maxwell, casket manufacturer from Oneida, New York. His goal was to try for a record of a mile in 58 seconds.[7]

State Fair parade[edit]

On September 8, 1902, fifty vehicles, "brilliantly lighted and profusely decorated" with American flags and multi-colored bunting paraded the business streets of Syracuse in entertainment of the city's New York State Fair guests. The following day, a series of automobile races on the State Fair track were planned. According to reporters; "The speed attained by some of the Syracuse vehicles will, it is promised, amaze not only the people of the city but the thousands who are expected to be present from Central and Northern New York."[12]

President T. D. Wilkin and Secretary-treasurer, Frederick H. Elliott of the Automobile Club of Syracuse worked hard for the prior week "perfecting arrangements for those special features of entertainment." Notices were sent to club members asking them to participate in the event and invitations were also sent to owners of automobiles in nearby places and to those not members of the club in the city requesting them to lend their efforts toward making "Automobile Night" in Syracuse an event long to be remembered.[12]

Plans for the automobile races were underway and it "was understood" that Van Wagoner "will send his machine for a fast mile." His flyer is said to have negotiated the distance in 57 seconds. The automobiles seen in the parade represented nearly all the prominent models of the day including the giant touring cars owned by local entrepreneurs, Lyman C. Smith, Hurlbert W. Smith, George S. Larrabee, G. D. Warner, and T. D. Wilkin.[12]

Automobile association[edit]

On May 22, 1903, the Automobile Club of Syracuse took their first tour which extended from the city line in Wolf Street along Plank Road in South Bay, New York, where automobiles covered the distance in 40 to 60 minutes and lunched at Crownhart's Hotel. The members of the club in addition to Van Wagoner included some of the most prominent citizens in Syracuse; Hurlburt W. Smith, John Wilkinson, Forman Wilkinson, Lyman C. Smith, T. D. Wilkins, O. N. Hine, Dr. Charles J. Walsh, M. C. Smith, Herbert H. Franklin, Bert E. McKevett, C. Arthur Benjamin, George M. Barnes, Theodore F. Young, Julian Brown, E. R. Keating, and J. A. Seitz.[13]


  1. ^ a b c Wise, David Burgess (1992). The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Automobiles. Atlantic. ISBN 9781555218089.
  2. ^ "Cycling Champions at Providence". Boston Daily Globe. Boston, Massachusetts. June 28, 1888.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Hundred Hands - Partnership to Manufacture Automobiles". The Evening Herald. Syracuse, New York. August 30, 1899.
  4. ^ "All in a Day's Work". The Syracuse Journal. Syracuse, New York. September 1, 1899.
  5. ^ "Few Men Will Go Out Here - One New Company Announces that it Cannot Afford the New Schedule". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. May 21, 1901.
  6. ^ "Century Plant to Start Again To-Day". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. May 22, 1901.
  7. ^ a b "And On This Day". The Auburn Bulletin. Auburn, New York. May 28, 1902.
  8. ^ a b c d "Auto Plays Lively Pranks". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. August 20, 1902.
  9. ^ "Van Wagoner Enters the Automobile Run". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. September 1, 1901.
  10. ^ "Syracuse Chauffeur in Endurance Test". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. April 27, 1902.
  11. ^ "Best Automobile - William Van Wagoner's Machine Won the Test". The Evening Herald. Syracuse, New York. April 27, 1902.
  12. ^ a b c "Automobiles in Parade and Races". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York. September 8, 1902.
  13. ^ "First Tour of Automobile Club". The Herald. Syracuse, New York. May 22, 1903.

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