Woodward Avenue: Automotive History in Detroit, Michigan

Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Photo by Ken Lund (flickr.com)

On Thanksgiving Day in 1895, 89 racers came to Chicago, Illinois for the first motor-car race in U.S. history. A blizzard had passed through, dumping eight inches of snow and forcing organizers to shorten the race route to 50 miles. Drivers were required to wrap twine around their wheels for traction in the snow.

Only six cars made it to the starting line.

Ten hours later, the first-place winner trundled across the finish line. It was the Duryea Motor Wagon, one of only two cars able to complete the route. The Duryea brothers won $2,000 and sold the first American-made gasoline car—and 12 more Motor Wagons—in the following year.

The race had drawn popular attention to the automobile in the U.S., and the automotive industry put the rubber to the road. Here’s a look at early automotive history in the U.S., and how Woodward Avenue in Detroit– now designated an All-American Road— became a central part of it.

Early Automotive History

Before that snowy and sluggish—but nonetheless sensational—race, European carmakers had been working on perfecting the automobile, too. Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, Nicolaus Otto, and Emile Levassor were all instrumental in the development of the modern car. At the turn of the century, the 1901 Mercedes became “the first modern motorcar in all essentials.”

Duryea Motor Wagon, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

By that time in the U.S., the Duryea brothers and many other car manufacturers were steadily putting cars on the road. Then, in 1908, came two of the most well-known names in automotive history: Henry Ford and William Durant, of Ford and General Motors, respectively. The Ford Motor Company and General Motors were both built in Detroit, Michigan, changing the ways of the American lifestyle and earning Detroit the nickname “the Motor City.”

Woodward Avenue History

Ford and General Motors were not only built in the same city, but mere blocks from the famous street known as Woodward Avenue. Originally a well-worn Native American path called Saginaw Trail, it became a gravel road in the 1820s. By 1909, Woodward Avenue boasted the first mile of concrete highway in the world.

With Henry Ford’s house only four blocks off of Woodward and Chrysler only three, the Avenue, also known as the M-1, became a natural hotspot of automotive heritage. Today, it’s protected as such, designated an All-American Road under the National Scenic Byways Program. Cruise its 27 miles and take in all the history along the way.

Here at Scenic America, we value these historic places and want them to see them persist. We work to preserve the Scenic Byways, landscapes, and towns that define our nation’s visual character. Donate today to help us protect our beautiful places and the heart of our country’s character!