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A Minnesota Century
By Lorna Benson
March 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0 | Slide show

In 1896, a new contraption appeared at the Minneapolis bicycle convention. The mysterious machine looked like a horse carriage but it was powered by electricity and could reach the dizzying speed of 15 miles an hour.

Just over 100 years ago, skeptical citizens in Minneapolis and St. Paul predicted this new "automobile" was just a passing fad, but a sickly 15-year-old boy in Northfield, Minnesota, began drawing up plans for his own model.

IN THIS MONTH'S INSTALLMENT of our Minnesota Century series, the story of Lincoln Fey. Against the wishes of his father and above the taunts of neighbors, he produced one of the state's first automobiles in his family barn. Years later, he recalled the experience in a written memoir.

Fey: Since early boyhood I was troubled with asthma, which made it difficult to ride behind horses. This gave me the idea that horse-drawn vehicles should not be the only way to travel. It seemed queer that the railroad trains had to have steel rails on which to travel. Why couldn't a vehicle be constructed to travel on the road?

I became more and more interested in the idea and found myself spending most of my spare time in the doorway of the Fox and Ferry machine shop in Northfield, watching their machine and moldings operations carefully. I decided right then and there that it was possible to build a gasoline-driven vehicle.
Lincoln Fey probably never even saw a picture of an automobile before he began drawing up plans for his first model. Americans lagged far behind the Europeans in developing the automobile. But by the late 1880s, bicycle improvements like pneumatic tires, wire wheels and chain-drive systems convinced many people that horseless transportation had a future.
Forest: The bicycle gave people the opportunity to move around on their on independently. They liked that.
Jim Forest edited Northern Lights, a newsletter published by the Antique Automobile Club of Minnesota.
Forest: Bicycle was hugely popular. At the end of the century, everyone just had to have one. Well, they were ready then for something to follow that - a device that would go on its own power.
At first, automobile production was concentrated in Michigan. In 1896, the same year Lincoln Fey got started in Northfield, Henry Ford produced his first automobile in Detroit, Michigan. R. E. Olds finished his first car in Lansing one year earlier. But in frontier states like Minnesota, the new machines were a tough sell.
Forest: At first, automobiles were relatively expensive, and it was looked upon as a rich man's sport. No practical use, because there weren't any good roads, in the east, the roads were better. As you moved out into the Midwest - open spaces and no roads - it was pretty difficult to convince people that you could even use these things.
But in Northfield, Minnesota, 15-year-old Lincoln Fey was convinced. With a small amount of money in his pocket and some encouragement from his older brother, he got to work.
Fey: I first built a tricycle, using tandem-bicycle wheels with one driving wheel in the rear and two wheels in front for steering.

The designing of my first gasoline engine required a lot of thought and study. There were such questions to decide as the size of the crankshaft and bearings, length of connecting rod, size of piston and pin, thickness of cylinder wall, compression space, and a great many others which I had to take into consideration.

When it was finally complete, I began building the tricycle's frame. I was due to enter high school in the fall of 1896, but I hated the idea. I was so enthused over my work that it seemed almost impossible to waste the time in school. I was forced to work on the tricycle nights and Saturdays, assembling it in our barn.

Toward the spring of 1896, when the machine was almost complete, my brother and I pushed it out in the street for a test-run. The engine started and I got into the seat. My brother chucked in the clutch cone with a stick, and away I went down the street. When I made the first turn, I nearly tipped over because the steering gear was so sensitive.

The tricycle gained speed in every block and I was due for a smash-up because the street was about to start going downhill. I decided to try to make a turn at the next crossing. Swinging gradually over to one side of the street, I attempted to make the turn, but to keep from tipping over headed the tricycle up over the sidewalk and into a snow bank.

My brother had been following and came up running all out of breath and aglow with excitement. This was one of the most thrilling moments of our lives. The vehicle was pulled out of the snow bank and we spent a good deal of time trying to start the engine again, but with no success, so we pushed the contrivance back to the barn.

Many times I ventured the prediction to my parents that we would see the time when horse-drawn vehicles would become a thing of the past. But Dad, being a lover of horses, couldn't see it that way and cautioned us continually to leave anything that used gasoline alone or we would be blown up.
Lincoln's father was not the only skeptic. All the earliest autos had problems. They rarely started, most had horrible brakes, and only a few allowed the driver to back up. The tires blew out constantly, the engines stalled often and the steering was apt to fail, forcing drivers to spend as much time under their vehicles as in them.

The machines lurched along loudly, spewing smoke and steam.. Horse-loving citizens called the frightening contraptions "devil wagons" and organized a strong resistance early on.
Forest: A community passed a law that if you were driving an automobile on the road and you met a horse drawn vehicle, you were required to drive your auto off the road and into the trees or brush and in some cases they specified that you had to dismantle the automobile and hide the parts. How they enforced that I don't know.
Lincoln Fey's first car sold quickly. Within weeks of the first test run, a mill worker from a town twenty miles west of Northfield offered to buy the machine for $65. The engine still broken, Lincoln packed it up in a large crate and sent the tricycle to its new owner by train.
Fey: With spring in the offing and a capital of $65 in the bank, a bright future appeared. We began work on drawings for a new motor with a two speed transmission, composed of bicycle chains and sprockets, spilt-ring clutches on a jack shaft and final chain drive. The machine was ready for a test run in the winter of 1898. On account of frightening horses and receiving unjust comment from illiterate bystanders of the community, we didn't take the machine out until midnight. We pushed the carriage over to the drinking fountain in the square and filled the water tank. The engine started, and away we went with a lantern tied to the front of the rig as a head light. The machine continued on its run without a hitch for three hours, covering most of the streets in town. My brother and I were two very happy lads. We were well pleased with the performance of the rig; it functioned perfectly except for a little undue vibration. And we got quite a kick out of the fact that people the next day were having considerable trouble getting information as to what that thing was going around town last night.

I decided then and there that none of my vehicles would have a horse hitched to them even if I had to rebuild them where they stopped. And this I lived up to.
The Fey brothers sold their second automobile for $175 to another experimental car builder in town. Altogether, the Feys built four automobiles, each one more sophisticated than the last. Their final car was an impressive five-seater, with an air-cooled, four cylinder engine. It even had a modern steering wheel.

Lincoln Fey never built another car. He sold his small operation to a car manufacturing outfit in Minneapolis and lived out his life as an inventor in Northfield. In 1944, he patented a new type of boat anchor.

In the meantime, men like Henry Ford and R.E. Olds began mass-producing their automobiles and changed the American landscape.