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Automobile Innovation In Pittsburgh

1931 American Austin Coupe, American Austin Company, Gift of G. Whitney Snyder

If you ask most Americans about the history of automobiles in the US, most people would make the connection to Detroit, and the longevity of Ford, Dodge, and Chrysler.  The development of the automobile in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania coincided with the rapid industrial growth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; a time where manufacturing and entrepreneurship evolved into mass production for high profits. Most notably, industrialists and inventors worked to perfect motorized carriages and vehicles to dominate local markets where some were more successful than others.

It is estimated the first cars appeared in Pittsburgh in the 1870’s and were owned by extremely wealthy businessmen, some of which included Henry Clay Frick and Howard Heinz. Others built their own motorized vehicles utilizing primarily steam engine components and wagon designs.[1] The automobile industry grew steadily in Pittsburgh and Western PA as demand for an automobile became more prevalent among wealthy constituents. In 1896, Empire Motor Company became the first automobile producer in Pittsburgh, which specialized in 2-cylinder engines. The following year, Pittsburgh Motor Vehicle Co. (later known as Autocar) experimented with a variety of three-and four-wheeled vehicles.[2]

1940 American Bantam Convertible Coupe, American Austin Company, Gift of G. Whitney Snyder

For the next decade, companies experimented with automobile construction for consumer use. In 1903, the Synnestvedt Machine Company tested an electric vehicle with a steel frame, though were only successful for a short time. German immigrant B.G. von Rottweiler sought to create a “high powered racecar” though settled for what became the 60 horsepower Pittsburgh Six. In 1907, von Rottweiler established the Fort Pitt Motor Manufacturing Company, where he continued to experiment with new Pittsburgh roadsters and higher power cars until 1911.[3] Other companies utilized a more modern approach to car construction; outsourcing labor and materials. Westinghouse Corporation built a plant in France to capitalize on the interest in European vehicles (including DMC and Peugeot); though the cost of the vehicle was out of reach for most working-class families.

Following the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908, mass production of automobiles became a realistic possibility and encouraged working-class families to purchase vehicles. Affordability, style, and craftsmanship to appeal to a wider audience soon dominated the car-making industry. Unfortunately, long-term, sustainable success eluded many Pittsburgh automobile companies. Successes in the region included the American Austin Car Company, who formed in 1929 in the former Standard Steel Car Company plant in Butler, PA. The American Austin debuted in 1930 and earned approximately 52,000 orders, though the Great Depression damaged the company’s ability to fulfill orders and complete sales to families who continued to lose money.[4] The company reorganized as American Bantam in 1935 and produced cars under the Bantam moniker, including the Bantam BRC, which was the first prototype for Jeep. In 1938, the company introduced the American Bantam, and continued for another three years, which became one of the last cars produced in the Pittsburgh region.

1917 Model E Touring Car, Standard Steel Car Company, Gift of G. Whitney Snyder

While the region continued producing parts from companies based around the country, the local industry could not compete with the large-scale successes of those based in Detroit due to a number of industrial and economical factors. Today, the city features the Vintage Grand Prix, held in mid-July every year, as well as permanent exhibitions at the Heinz History Center and the Frick Art & Historical Center to retain the memory of pieces of Pittsburgh automotive history.

The photographs in this piece are used with permission from the Frick Art & Historical Center’s Car & Carriage Museum.

[1] A steam-powered wagon, built by Isaac Mills, Jr., was said to be the first automobile in Pittsburgh. Mills discontinued use of his machine as it became too difficult to keep out-of-the-way of other wagons and carriages. Sourced from Ingersoll, E.P. The Horseless Age: The Automobile Trade Magazine, Volume 9 (Ingersoll & Heldt: New York) 339.

[2] “The Frick Car & Carriage Museum-Focused On Pittsburgh” ConceptCarz, February 2007.

[3] “The Pittsburgh Six & The Fort Pitt Motor Mfg. Co.” American Automobiles. 2012.

[4] “Bantam Car/Jeep” Butler History, Accessed March 9, 2017.

1911 Penn 30 Touring Car, Penn Motor Car Company, Gift of G. Whitney Snyder