Above: Alfred I. DuPont and 1901 DeDion Bouton
In early November 1900, Alfred I. DuPont’s first car, the first one in Delaware, broke down. Within 3 months he bought his second, this one a French made vehicle from DeDion Bouton. “It is a neat machine and is especially designed for a woman’s use,” pointed out The Morning News [Wilmington]. “The machine is very easily operated, requiring very little strength.” Though you’ve probably never heard of this firm, in 1901 DeDion Bouton had become the largest manufacturer of the automobile in the world.
In May that year Wilmington watchmaker George K. Rudert (1861-1942) announced he was going to build a steam driven automobile. He showed off his first newly finished model locally in early December on the corner of 8th & Market Sts. Rudert got as far as patenting a steering device for vehicles in 1906. But by 1926 he was still listed in the Wilmington City Directory as a watchmaker, and had fallen off the car industry’s radar entirely.
In June 1901 the Smyrna Times indicated that an ‘automobile line’ was to be constructed between Lewes and Rehoboth. It would be the state’s first road built for cars specifically.
By May of 1902 Alfred DuPont owned four automobiles and was considered the leading Delaware champion of the new industry. His fourth, a red Darracq & Company touring car, had a 10 horsepower engine.
“Automobiles are becoming to be [sic] a familiar sight upon the streets of Wilmington,” noticed the Evening Journal in late April, 1903. “They still attract attention but the curiosity exhibited by the people several years ago is no longer noticeable.”
Car manufacturers of this era were already diversifying their makes and models for different levels of buyers. “One must not think that ‘red demons,’ ‘green flyers’ and the various other titled machines are only to be mentioned in connection with the Goulds and Vanderbilts,” explained the Evening Journal. “Wilmington is also gradually coming to the front with a general assortment of ‘knock-a-bouts,’ ‘comfortables’ and ‘racers.’ “
In 1903 a “Good Roads” movement rose across the nation, advocating for states to expand and improve the country’s transportation infrastructure. The Delaware General Assembly responded by appropriating $30,000 for a State Aid Law to begin paving the state’s roadways. New Castle County got its first 8 miles of macadam surfaced road, Sussex County paved a mile, and Kent County…did not bother to utilize the new fund.
In September 1904 the ‘autoists’ of Wilmington formed an automobile club with the goal of helping shape public policy on roadbuilding, rules and regulations surrounding the use of the new vehicles.
Delaware instituted its first motor vehicle registration in 1905. The annual fee was $2, and the owner had to provide their own license plate.
By 1906 the idea of a car dealer emerged. Early car dealers, such as F.L. Hardesty of Felton, sold vehicles on the side. Hardesty primarily ran a funeral home.
Corporate vehicle fleets were not available in this early automotive era. And so in January 1907, Milton mail carrier Gray purchased the first auto, out of his own pocket, to be used for Delaware mail delivery.
The state issued operator’s licenses for the first time in 1907. 313 vehicles were registered statewide, mostly in New Castle County. Delaware began taxing autos in 1907; registered, paid up vehicles were allowed the use of all public roads for one year.
The horse and buggy could still be seen on roads jostling with the new fangled automobile for a couple more decades yet. But once the old gray mare was gone, she wasn’t being replaced.