Automobiles in San Antonio, 1899 - 1916
Houston Street, San Antonio, 1910
Thanks are due to many individuals and institutions for their invaluable assistance with the information and images presented here. First and foremost among them are Lewis and Betty Birdsong who generously allowed me access to Lewis Birdsong Senior's contemporaneous scrap books and photographs. Joe Herring of Kerrville was also extremely generous. The San Antonio Conservation Society, the main library and the Witte Museum and their staff provided invaluable knowledge and access to their extensive collections.
Researching early San Antonio automobile history is not easy. The usual resources, such as city newspapers and directories, are incomplete, contradictory and unreliable. As a result most of the few historians who even bothered, simply skimmed the readily available records and concluded, incorrectly, that San Antonio was very slow to adopt the automobile. More thorough research has now revealed just the opposite. Although the first automobile adverts appeared in 1902, they then disappeared until 1909 when one for an American Underslung racing type, was run on September 1, 1909. From virtually no entries in the city directory in previous years, there was a “sudden” rush of new automobile related businesses in the 1910 edition. From just two names in 1909, the list grew to nineteen the following year. By 1911 this had grown to fifty-seven. This years also saw the first time an automobile related advert in the city directory, for Meister & Becker’s repair shop at 450 N. Flores.
Early San Antonio automobile adverts
1902 advert for the steam powered Locomobile at Barnes & Roach, San Antonio
1902 Staacke Brothers ad mentioning electric vehicles
First auto related advert in the San Antonio city directory, 1909
1909 San Antonio newspaper ad for the American "Underslung" On this vehicle the axles were installed above the chassis) The text reads: Almost any car can furnish you speed on the straightaways. It's the car that eats up hills without slowing down that shows its true mettle on the upgrade, that gives you your money's worth. The American does this and more. Let me show you why. Phone me now and I'll demonstrate.
First car in San Antonio - 1899
The first recorded horseless carriage in San Antonio, an electric vehicle, was delivered to the Staacke Brothers livery service on Commerce Street in 1899. This is the same year that most historians agree the first gasoline powered car arrived in Texas; a St. Louis delivered by its manufacturer in person to Edward Green of Terrell, Texas. The San Antonio newspaper report does not give the name of the manufacturer of the Staacke’s electric but described it having four bicycle type wheels, steered by a tiller and capable of seating two persons. As the Staackes were agents for Studebaker it is reasonable to suggest it was one of this company’s initial and brief foray into electric powered cars. (Studebaker soon adopted the internal combustion engine.) It is most likely - though a specific record has yet to be found - that San Antonio was visited by an even earlier electric vehicle. Montgomery Wards, then a mail order company, toured a couple of specially made electrics around Texas in 1897. As San Antonio was the second largest city in the state and hosted an enormous international trade fair every year it is likely that the vehicles were brought here but definitive proof has yet to be located.
First automobiles in San Antonio
1900 Haynes-Apperson automobile
Curved Dash Oldsmobile belonging to the Cavender family at the Central Texas Museum of Automotive History, Rosanky, Texas - now closed
"In My Merry Oldsmobile" sheet music cover
"1908 Oldsmobile" sin a New Mexico museum
he first gasoline powered car in San Antonio arrived in 1901. Because automobiles were so expensive at this time, often costing more than most houses, the earliest examples in any given city was usually acquired by a doctor, who could justify the cost as he could now make double the number of house calls than with horses, of which some local physicians owned three teams, or a banker. It was a member of the latter group, J.D. Anderson who was head cashier at the City National Bank at 224 W. Commerce Street. (Head Cashier is the equivalent of Chief Financial Officer today.) From his imposing residence at 728 San Pedro near Cypress Street, then the most prestigious residential part of town, now graced by a Walgreens facing a McDonalds, he drove his $1,795.00 (the equivalent of $45,000.00 in today’s money) Haynes-Apperson, built by the second US automotive company after the Duryeas, to work. Not all nearby residents were pleased. In fact a delegation requested that the council ban the beasts because they scared horses and children.
Early automobiles in San Antonio
1906 Cadillac at Mission Concepcion, San Antonio
Early automobile at San Jose mission, San Antonio
Ford Model T at Hot Wells spa resort, San Antonio
Mrs. Birdsong, her mother and sister in a Curved Dash Oldsmobile
Early automobiles and a bicycle at the Alamo Plaza post office, San Antonio
1902 saw the arrival of at least two more horseless carriages. In January a steam powered Locomobile appeared and Louis Heurmann became the make’s sales agent in the city. The vehicle was described as “gliding noiselessly under complete control.” And in the summer bicycle shop owners Lewis Birdsong and Frank Crothers acquired one of the first mass produced vehicles in the world, the single cylinder Curved Dash Oldsmobile, which sold for $650.00. It was delivered in a crate to their residence on Marshall Street by a horse drawn wagon straight from the railroad. Although neither man had ever seen a car they made their living repairing racing bicycles plus, like many young men enthralled with the spirit of the age, they had been studying automotive developments in magazines such as the American machinist and the Scientific American which ran an article on the gasoline powered three-wheeler built by Karl Benz in 1885. In no time they had it assembled and running, though exactly where they acquired gasoline is a good question. Quickly becoming familiar with its simple controls driving it backwards and forwards within the confines of their yard they took it out onto the street. The Curved Dash Oldsmobile was not a complex machine to operate. It had two forward gears and reverse. It rode on twenty-eight inch wheels with wooden spokes and pneumatic tires. Its brakes operated on both the differential and the rear wheels. Before long the young men grew restless sedately puttering at twelve miles an hour along local streets including South Alamo, one of the few paved streets at that time so they headed to the race track at the International Fairgrounds where they had so often ridden their bicycles to glory. (See chapter on bicycles for details.) Here they were able to scud along the bumpy tracks, used mainly for horse racing, at the unheard of speed of 30 MPH.
Crothers & Birdsong
Crothers & Birdsong business card
1904 Crothers & Birdsong newspaper ad for the Curved Dash Oldsmobile
LF Birdsong during tour of Texas in a 1904 Curved Dash Oldsmobile. Note early licence number.
Birdsong and Welcome Smith during 1904 Curved Dash tour of Texas
First car sold in San Antonio - 1902
On September 16, 1902 the pair sold the vehicle, to a Mr. G.E. Vaughan. Established as the city’s first automobile agency, they soon sold more “Merrie Oldsmobiles” to several more customers including Fred Cook who was elected to the position of president of San Antonio’s first automobile club in the fall of 1903. In 1904 Birdsong and a companion, Welcome Smith, toured Texas in a Curved Dash, just the kind of publicity stunt beloved by Oldsmobile. They camped where necessary and often were the first horseless carriage in many communities.
San Antonio Automobile Club, founded in 1903
San Antonio Automobile Club vehicles gather in 1903 on Alamo Plaza before heading to New Braunfels, one of the first club drives
San Antonio Automobile Club crossing Cibolo Creek on their way to New Braunfels in 1903.
1914. Chauffeur driven air-cooled Franklin leaving the San Antonio Automobile Club building, located on the North Loop on grounds now occupied by the International Airport. Chauffeurs - from the French word meaning to heat were often chosen not only for their driving skill but also for strength, as starting a car with a crank handle took a lot of effort
San Antonio Automobile Club - 1903
The San Antonio Automobile Club was formed in October 1903. With thirteen original members in attendance at the Phoenix Club, Fred Cook was elected president. Also present were Birdsong, Crothers, H.W. Staacke and J.D. Anderson.. Their first outing, to the Medina River near modern Von Ormy, set out from the Birdsong & Crothers store at 214 East Houston, where the Majestic Theater now stands. Twelve cars took part. Five were Curved Dashes. The others were a Pope-Toledo, a Thomas, a Ford, a Locomobile Steamer a Woods Electric, a Haynes-Apperson and a French import, a Richard Brazier racer The thirty mile trip on unimproved roads proved successful. On subsequent outings the club negotiated huge boulders at Cibolo Creek to visit New Braunfels and its mayor, Harry Landa, one of the town’s first automobilists. The club also brought in election results from outlying districts to the San Antonio Express which posted them along with national results received by wire service for the first time on a large electric sign on the exterior of the building, much to the delight of the enthusiastic crowds gathered there. San Antonio was at the cutting edge of many new technologies as the new century dawned.
Early automobiles in San Antonio and South Texas
1911 REO in San Antonio
1911 Electric vehicle in San Antonio
Model T at the San Antonio Chinese school
Bearded San Antonio gentleman and wife in early automibile
1904 Cadillac in a 1940s San Antonio car collection
1907 Brush in a 1940s San Antonio parade
In 1904, as the number of cars in San Antonio grew, it became mandatory for all local vehicles, motorized and horse drawn, to be registered with the city and display identification numbers. While a minimum size for the numbers was established, a number of different methods were allowed, including having them stenciled on the front of the radiator. The ordinance also stipulated a maximum speed within the city of 6 MPH, leading to, on March 24, 1904, the first speeding ticket and court fine, issued to a Winton being driven by a factory rep on Commerce Street at an estimated 18 MPH. Also in 1904, San Antonio, following a change in the Texas constitution, issued its first bonds for road improvements, to the tune of $500,000.00. This would be followed in 1907 with more bonds of $250,000.00 for the same purpose.
Rear of Birdsong & Potchernick's car agency. The main entrance was 214 E. Houston
Early Studebaker on a 40,000 mile reliability drive at Bloomberg Auto in San Antonio
Woodward Carriage Company, 1910 - 1913, San Antonio
San Antonio GMC Truck dealership advert
Air-cooled Franklin in the Battle of Flowers parade
In 1905 the first motorized vehicles took part in the Battle of Flowers parade. In 1906 there was an interesting accident involving the wife of Judge Vanderhoeven who dragged a pedestrian the length of Alamo Plaza before someone jumped aboard the electric vehicle and brought it to a halt. She abandoned the car right then and there. The pedestrian was compensated with a new suit of clothes. The car itself still survives as part of the Witte Museum’s extensive transportation collection.
Low cost Brush, sold by Birdsong & Potchernick, San Antonio
1908 Maxwell, one of the brands sold by Birdsong after he let Oldsmobile go
L.F. Birdsong in a Maxwell on Blanco Road, San Antonio, c. 1910
L.F. Birdsong in a 1910 Franklin on College Street, San Antonio
George McEntire, one of L.F.Birdsong’s best customers, & friends quail hunting from a Franklin
Car costs and the introduction of the Ford Model T
Cars were still prohibitively expensive for most people. The Maxwell sold for $1,400.00 and the more modest Ford Model C cost $650.00. Even so, when it became state law in 1907 for all cars to be registered with the county of residence, some 20,000.00 were to be found in Texas. Recognizing the market for lower priced vehicles, several people in the area, such as Joseph Bader in Comfort, set up a small shops to rebuild worn out cars into drivable vehicles using a mix and match approach, including some new items but mainly refurbishing parts otherwise headed for the scrap heap due to age, obsolescence or accidents, of which there were a great many. Bader’s operation was so successful he moved to a larger location in Kerrville but the introduction of the low priced Ford Model T and the Brush soon reduced demand. He stayed in business performing automotive repairs, however, for many years.
Interior of Bader's shop in Comfort, Texas
Interior of Bader's shop in Comfort, Texas
Exterior of Bader's shop, Main Street, Comfort, Texas
Joe Bader at the wheel of one of his rebuilt cars
Kerrville gained its first new car agencies, first Buick, then Brush, around 1910. Prior to this one of the first “new” cars in Kerr County was built by a local high school student, Harry Dietert, who go on to have a prominent career as an automotive metallurgist in Detroit. His first car was a dinky one seater but, realizing he could carry a girlfriend, he built a larger two seat model. Miraculously this still exists. It is owned by Joe Herring, who was most helpful in providing pictures and information about Kerrville transportation history. The can be found at the offices of the Herring Printing Company. In New Braunfels, when Joe Sanders returned from the First World War to Dittlinger’s Flour Mill in New Braunfels, he became the company’s chief mechanic, tending to the growing truck fleet. As early as 1917, almost all of the mill’s output was being moved by truck rather than rail. He also became the Dittlinger’s chauffeur, taking them not just on local trips but also on lengthy sojourns across the west to places like the Grand Canyon. Nonetheless, he did not yet earn enough to own a car of his own so he built one in his spare time, using parts from any number of worn out vehicles. It was a two seater roadster and he drove it for several years until better pay and lower priced cars allowed him to replace with it with a bought vehicle.
Joe Bader in one of his rebuilt cars in Kerrville, Texas
Bader's Kerrville newspaper ad
Several Bader automobiles in Kerrville, Texas
First automobile agency in Kerrville, Texas
San Antonio automobile agencies evolve into dealerships
Agencies differed from dealerships as we know them today in that folks ordered their cars through the agent and it would then be delivered from either the factory or from inventory kept in large cities, most often Houston in Texas. This meant local businesses could survive on very slight sales without having to keep a large selection of vehicles on their books. Agents often made more money from the sale of parts, performing repairs and selling fuel than from new car sales. By 1912, when New Braunfels gained the Gerlich Auto Company which sold Fords, the situation had changed. With increasing numbers of sales and the introduction of credit plans, it became possible for dealers to run larger operations in smaller towns
Harry Dietert's first "car." The Smith unit on the rear wheel was usually used to convert bicycles into motorcycles
Harry Dietert's second car, the 1915 Harry Mobile
Harry Dietert and wife in a Brush, may years later after a successful career as a metallurgist in Detroit
1914 Maxwell in La Coste
1916 touring car in Del Rio
When Ford replaced its popular Model N with the T in 1908, the company opened a factory owned outlet in a building right behind the Alamo. With just two employees, they did finish work on new cars and serviced older models as well. The Ford Motor Company led the way with establishing an independent dealership network and, before long, the San Antonio outlet was sold to Clifton George. It was acquired by Gillespie in the late 1920s, in part to help with George’s debts incurred by the construction of the Medical Arts Building, now known as the Emily Morgan Hotel. Relocated ultimately to a location at Culebra on Loop 410, Gillespie was acquired by the Red McCombs Automotive Group in 2009.
First Ford dealership in San Antonio right behind the Alamo
1918 image of the Alamo with the original Ford outlet, now owned by Clifton George. The official address was 720 E. Houston. The medical arts building, now the Emily Morgan Hotel, would not begin construction until 1924.
Postcard od Alamo Plaza showing automobiles and a streetcar.
Building cars in San Antonio
There were a number of attempts to build cars in San Antonio and South Texas. A number of companies - see list on linked page - were created but only a few actually produced any vehicles. George Lutz tried to get a company building steam powered vehicles off the ground in 1898 but only managed to create one prototype before the company failed. There were several attempts to make or market cars in San Antonio. The Commercial Motor Car Company, which also had a Houston address, opened and closed its doors in 1910. The Texas Motor Car Company offered the Tex in 1915 and 1916. The Blumberg Motor Manufacturing Company, which also operated in Orange, Texas, opened for business in 1915 and lasted until 1922. The most successful attempt to create a "San Antonio" vehicle, Lone Star, was started in 1919, Its story is told in the "Automobile 1917 - 1944" chapter.
Alamo Plaza, 1915. Note Ford dealership sign behind the Alamo
The original Ford dealership at 720 E. Houston, behind the Alamo, was acquired by Herpel-Gillespie in the mid 1920s. The original dealer, Clifton George, sold out to raise funds for the Medical Arts building, now the Emily Morgan Hotel.
Ford dealership building behind Alamo now run by Herpel-Gillespie
Ford dealership interior, around 1924
First San Antonio road rules published in 1910
The San Antonio City Council introduced its first ever set of written road rules in March 1910, at more or less the same time the police department acquired its first automobiles and motorbikes. Rule No. 1 states “Vehicles going in opposite directions shall pass each other on the right.” It turns out this most basic rule was imposed, not by the federal government, but by local jurisdictions. Having said that, I am not aware of anywhere in the USA where this was not the rule. Interestingly enough most American cars had the driving position on the right so the driver was on the pavement side. When Henry Ford put the driver of the Model T on the left it added to the car’s initial popularity immeasurably. It took a surprising amount of time before all manufacturers followed suit. The 19010 rules did not require all motorists to stop their engines for all passing horse drawn traffic. However they were obliged to pull over if requested to do by someone with agitated animals. Before long adverts offering to train horses and mules to calmly cope with motorized traffic began appearing in local newspapers.
Automobile Racing in San Antonio
Galveston beach automobile race viewing area, 1908
Chain drive race car at Galveston beach, 1908
L.F. Birdsong at far right, Houston race track, c. 1904
Racing was an important club activity. San Antonio did not attain a proper race track until 1909. Until then club members such as Birdsong and Anderson took their cars to Houston where they achieved considerable success. While Birdsong could race his Curved Dash without alterations, Anderson stripped his Richard Brazier of as much of its bodywork as possible. Although a limited amount of racing was conducted in San Antonio it was not until high banks were added to each end of the oval at the International Fairgrounds that thrilling higher speeds could be achieved here. A very young local driver, Tobin DeHymel, achieved considerable success at both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the beach at Galveston before being killed in a crash in his home town in 1910.
San Antonio newspaper race track improvement image, 9/2/1909. The test ran: With a surface for speeding the big cars that cannot be beaten in the country, all that the fair Grounds race track needed was a set of banks at the turns. The large picture shows the large bank at the south end of the track as it looks since a great deal of work has been done on it. The smaller picture shows a big car taking one of the banks at 60 MPH.
San Antonio newspaper race track improvement image, 9/2/1909.
Race car in San Antonio, 1910, exact location not known
Young men with a Model T stripped down for racing
San Antonio Car Clubs and the first area road maps
As often the wealthiest and most forward thinking citizens in the community, early motorists and their numerous clubs both campaigned for improved roads and help create maps for motorists using existing routes which were often little more than tracks and trails. Club members traveled in pairs from easily identifiable spots such as the Colorado River Bridge in Austin. While one drove the other carefully noted distances and landmarks. Club president Dr. Richard Goeth, who was obliged to own three teams of horses to accommodate his medical practice in Boerne before talking a job with the Southern Pacific, helped create a number of local maps for the automobile club..
Dr. Richard Goeth, SA Auto Club president
1909 Texas road map cover detail, made in part by Richard Goeth
1909 Texas road map detail, made in part by Richard Goeth
Mr. Steves Ford Model T was donated to the Witte Museum
Albert Steve's 1915 Ford Model T while it was on display at the Central Texas Museum of Automobile History in Rosanky
1909 Ford Model T at a recent T show in San Antonio. Black did not become the only color available until mass production ramped up in 1912
1908 Cadillac belonging to Wade Smith at a charity event in San Antonio
1908 Overland in a New mexico museum
In 1916,just in time for the First World War, the Federal Government enacted the first Federal Road Aid Act which would transform the national road network. In order to receive federal monies Texas was obliged to form a state department of transportation, something that had been resisted for years. Low cost make Chevrolet introduced a modern style H pattern stick shift transmission which in due course would allow General Motors first to challenge then overtake Ford, which stuck with its awkward pedal operated planetary gears until 1927. The automobile had come of age but the changes it would bring with it were just beginning.
Early Automobiles and motorcycles in South Texas Towns
Early cars at the Boerne fairgrounds
San Antonio, Uvalde and Gulf train in Charlotte.
Comfort, Texas, service station vehicle
Early Harley Davidson motorcycle issued to the postmaster in Comfort, Texas at the beginning of mail delivery as opoosed to people coming in to town tp pick up their mail at the post office
Early Harley Davidson motorcycle in Comfort, Texas
Early Harley Davidson motorcycle in Comfort, Texas
Early cat at the first drug store in Crystal City, Texas.
Early cat at the Cross S land office in Crystal City.
Good roads delegation driving through Cuero
Early automobile in Del Rio, 1916, Texas
1915 Model T in El Paso
First car in Hondo, 1906
Ford Model T depot hack. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. The Peterson Brothers bought this company, changed the name to the Kerrville Bus Company in 1929, which now trades as Coach America
Early motorcycle in Kerrville, Texas
1914 Maxwell in La Coste, Texas
1912 touring car near Medina Lake during its construction
Early sedan near Medina Lake, 1915
Landseekers near Pearsall stay near to the railroad tracks
Early utomobile steaming a little on an unpaved road in Seguin, Texas
Tourists from Seguin exploring America in an early automobile
Seguin hunters bring back their game on their Ford Model T
Early Seguin automobile dealership
Farm kids near Seguin. Note goat standing on the hood of the Ford Model T
Images from the San Antonio Light Auto Section, Sunday Sept. 17, 1916
Road service advert from the San Antonio Light, Sunday 9/17/1916
Tire advert from the San Antonio Light, Sunday 9/17/1916
Oakland automobile advert from the San Antonio Light, Sunday 9/17/1916
Ford advert from the San Antonio Light, Sunday 9/17/1916
Ford dealership advert from the San Antonio Light, Sunday 9/17/1916