Historical Markers
Duryea Drive Historical Marker
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Duryea Drive

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Intersection of Clymer and 13th Streets at Park Drive, Reading

Dedication Date:
May 17, 1951

Behind the Marker

Duryea automobile
The pathbreaking four-horsepower Duryea automobile, which completed its first...
In the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for the residents of Reading to witness a rather strange sight: Charles Duryea motoring a brand new automobile from City Park out to Mount Penn, where he drove his vehicle up the steep winding road to the top of summit. Duryea drove this road often. It was the final test for each motor vehicle manufactured by his Duryea Power Company. Every car Duryea produced in Reading had to make the drive up Mount Penn; those that failed returned to the shop for further refinement.

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Charles E. Duryea, Reading, PA, circa 1904.
In the late 1800s, Berks County was a major center of horse-carriage construction and the Pennsylvania iron industry. Pennsylvania German expertise in wooden assembly and blacksmithing dated back to the early 1700s. Reading, the county seat, was a railroad center, with machines shops, skilled workers, and iron and steel foundries ideal for the manufacturing of motor carriages. In 1900, ironmaster Herbert M. Sternbergh, the son of one of the richest men in town, attracted pioneering automaker Charles Duryea to Reading by promising to finance a company for the manufacture of automobiles.

In 1900, Charles Duryea was one of the nation's most famous automakers. Just seven years earlier, he and his brother Frank had designed and built what some believed to be the nation's first gasoline-powered vehicle. In 1895, they had formed the Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, Mass., and sold the first twelve cars manufactured in the United States. By 1898, the brothers had gone their separate ways. After scouting for a suitable location for automobile manufacture-and one with the necessary financial backing-Charles Duryea moved to Reading, Pa., in February 1900.

This brochure depicts two images of Buggyauts for sale. The four passenger image is shown topless and sells for $750.00. The top sells for $50.00. The image of the two passenger car is complete with top and sells for $700.00. The top adds $30.00 to the price.
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1907 Brochure for the Duryea Buggyaut.
In 1901, Duryea and Sternbergh incorporated the Duryea Power Company "for the manufacture of iron, steel, bath, any metal or wood or both, including automobiles, motors, propellers, and part of either." Initially, however, he did not find the promised support. "Men, money, and machines," Duryea would later recall, marker "were not forthcoming." When an upsurge in the bicycle business filled all available factory spaces, Duryea was forced to begin operations in an old tannery by the river, which flooded and nearly ruined him in March 1902. Duryea persevered, however, and was soon manufacturing about one three-wheel, three-cylinder, gasoline powered automobile each week. Most of his early buyers were doctors, who enjoyed the power, reliability, and heady 20 mile-an-hour top speed of his vehicles.

By 1905, Duryea's fifty workers were manufacturing sixty cars a year, including the four-wheel Phaeton, which soon sold for $1,600. Duryea's automobiles were a success, but a fight among the company's partners led to collapse of the business in 1907.

Image of an automobile in the snow
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A Duryea GEM, Reading, PA, circa 1916.
Undaunted, Duryea designed a new automobile with significant design innovations, including a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine, which he named the "Buggyaut." Manufactured in a garage at 32 Carpenter St., the Buggyaut was an inexpensive auto with large wheels designed for rural markets and unpaved roads. To make the car affordable, Duryea introduced a simple body design, mounted on the side bars of the chassis, in usual buggy fashion, that made the Buggyaut light and easy riding. The two-passenger model, complete with top, sold for only $700, but the Buggyaut never achieved the success that he had envisioned. In 1914, Duryea closed the garage and left Reading.

In 1916, eight years after Henry Ford introduced his Model T, Duryea made another attempt to produce his own "car for the people." With financing from Keyser Fry of Reading, he created the Duryea GEM, a cross between an automobile and a motorcycle, with a newly designed engine and suspension. Advertised as the "Biggest Idea in the History of the Motor Car and the Last Word in Automobile Construction," the Duryea GEM combined the comfort and stability of an automobile with the simplicity, handling, and economy of a motorcycle. It was also extremely affordable, costing only $250 and boasting an impressive 65 miles of driving per gallon of gasoline. Once again, however, lack of funding forced Duryea to drop the project, and no more than a dozen were built.

A man sits in the driver seat of a truck that is parked in front of Marvel Flour store. His truck is filled with sacks of flour. A dapperly dressed man stands at the corner of the street leaning against a tree.
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A Mack Brothers Motor Car Company 5-ton truck, Allentown, PA, 1905.
The GEM would be the last automobile made by Charles Duryea. From there, he moved to Illinois, Michigan, Philadelphia, and then back to Reading. He would die in Philadelphia, on September 28, 1938.

After Duryea left Reading, auto-making continued in Pennsylvania. Indeed, between 1900 and 1934, eleven companies manufactured and sold automobiles in Reading, including Middleby (1908-1913), which set up shop in Duryea Power Company factory, and luxury automobile maker Daniels. Philadelphia, Lancaster, and other Pennsylvania cities also spawned automakers, ranging from one-time tinkerers to larger manufacturers that included the Pullman in York, the American Bantam Car Company in Butler, which produced markerthe first jeep, Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, and Mack Truck in markerAllentown

In the 1910s, however, the industry would concentrate in Detroit, Mich., where Henry Ford became the first to realize Duryea's vision of inexpensive automobile mass production when he began manufacture of his Model T, in 1908. Ford produced Model Ts at its Broad and Lehigh Plant in Philadelphia from the 1910s until 1927, when it opened a new Ford assembly plant in Chester, Pa., which supplied cars to East Coast dealers and for export until 1961.

Today, Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles hosts an annual Duryea Day Antique and Classic Car Show, which features vehicles from an extensive collection of automobiles manufactured in southeastern Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.
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