BY TERRI BRYCE REEVES, Editor
Many people are under the impression that Henry Ford invented the automobile, but the
legendary automaker known for mass producing affordable cars, was not at the head of the race.
Charles and Frank Duryea of Massachusetts built their first car in 1893 and Charles B. King of Michigan was seen driving his in 1896, six months before Ford’s first car was complete. In Europe, Carl Benz produced the first practical three-wheeled car powered by an
internal-combustion engine in 1885.
But in America, there is another, little-known inventor that deserves our recognition.
John W. Lambert of Ohio City, Ohio.
In 1891 – two years before the
Duryea brothers made their car —
Lambert built and test drove his
“Buckeye” in this tiny town with
a big-sounding name. And in full
disclosure, my great grandfather,
James A. Swoveland, was often by
“Grandad,” as we called him,
is credited with being the first
passenger in the first gasoline powered
automobile in the nation.
Not only that, he was involved in
the first car accident in America.
Little did he realize what kind
of trend he would set.
Grandad was 20 years old and about to
graduate from Ohio Northern University
with a pharmacy degree, when the
horseless carriage mishap occurred.
Lambert, then 30, had done much of his
experimenting at night in a secret location, as
Grandad would later testify in a sworn
affidavit now held in the Smithsonian Institution.
The single-cylinder auto was built on a buggy chassis with two large rear wheels and a
single front wheel from a wheelbarrow. Lambert
steered it with a lever.
Finally, it was time for a road test down
Main Street. Sitting high on the buttoned-leather
seat under the fringed top, Lambert unveiled
the secret project he had built inside his granary.
As the combustion engine burped and belched along the roads, people gawked, dogs barked and horses shied away.
During one of these outings with Grandad on board, Lambert hit a tree root, causing the
vehicle to careen out of control and smash into a hitching post. Injuries were minor. The car was later destroyed in a 1904 fire but not before being documented by Van Wert
photographer Walter Lewis in August 1891.
My great grandfather’s affidavit and that photo were part of several pieces of evidence that Antique Automobile Editor L. Scott Bailey used to conclude – after a five-year
study — that Lambert’s Buckeye was indeed the first practical gasoline-powered auto in the U.S. that was available for sale. (The wording is important as many early inventors worked on various renditions of the car.)
Lambert would go on to patent
the first complete gasoline engine
as well as 600 other inventions,
most affiliated with the automobile
In the meantime, Grandad
would live to the ripe old of age
of 97, being involved in many
other “firsts” in Ohio City. He
helped establish the town’s local
telephone exchange in 1900,
helped organize the Farmer’s
Bank, and owned a drugstore,
a weekly newspaper, a grain
elevator, coal yard, livery stable
and plenty of real estate.
“Yessiree Bob,” he would tell me as a kid, “it was a rootin’ tootin’ ride.”