Today in Hillsborough County there are approximately two cars for every three people. In June 1900 there was exactly one car — the first to appear in the county and among a handful within the state.
Rumors that someone in Tampa had purchased an automobile began circulating the previous August. The automobile industry was still in its infancy during this time. The first modern, gasoline-powered car was built by Karl Benz in 1885 in Germany, which was followed eight years later by the first American-made car, built by the Duryea brothers in 1893.
By the mid-1890s, the editors of The Tampa Tribune were predicting that the new automobile craze sweeping Europe, particularly France, and the northeastern United States, particularly New York City, was not just a fad. Though no cars were known to be in Florida, an 1899 editorial guessed, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the horse would go the way of the dinosaurs. Though they would not be extinct, the horse-drawn carriage would rapidly be replaced.
On August 13, 1899, the Tribune ran a story titled “Yes, It Is True,” confirming the brief story in the previous day’s paper that two automobile orders had been received by Thomas Henderson, manager of the Tampa Harness and Wagon Company. One order, made by an anonymous businessman, was for a vehicle large enough to accommodate 25 passengers and would “be for hire to pleasure parties, for excursions to suburban resorts, and, when the contemplated improvements at Sulphur Springs are made, will probably be put on a regular run to that resort.”
The other order, which was greeted with more excitement, was made for a private car by J. H. Mills, a partner with the C.W. Kennan Co., which manufactured and distributed paints and other coatings. Mills’ car was to be “one of the latest improved variety, and will roll along over Tampa’s paved streets and roads with the ease and speed of greased electricity.”
No further mention is made of either automobile, but neither likely made it to Tampa. The first car in Florida appeared in Jacksonville in January 1900. Word reached people in Tampa via a one-sentence news brief under the heading “New Year Side-lights,” which simply stated “Jacksonville is reveling in its new automobile.”
Tampans had to wait five more months before they could see one of the new horseless carriages rumble over their streets. Cigar manufacturer (and partner to Vicente Martinez Ybor) Eduardo Manrara was the proud owner of that first car, a Stanhope-type that was powered by steam. The car arrived by another mode of transportation that was relatively new to the area — express train — on June 14, 1900. Manrara ordered his car through Frank Bruen of the Tampa Gas Company.
An article in the Tribune pointed out that though this was the first car to appear in Tampa, it was Manrara’s second. His first car was at his home in New York City. A previous article that discussed cars in more general terms stated they were sold for between $2,000 and $5,000 at the time, which amounts to $55,000 to $138,000 in today’s dollars — a telling indication of the wealth earned by Manrara in the cigar industry.
That the two announced orders for cars between 1899 and 1900 went through two very different companies is an indication of how early this was occurring in the history of the auto industry. Another indicator is that Manrara’s car arrived in Tampa unassembled. Bruen spent most of June 15 supervising the assembly of the new car at the J. W. Roberts plumbing shop.
That day’s Tribune described the car in great detail. “The motive power is steam, the fuel being gasoline, which is stored in a patent tank under the seat. The technical name of this style of horseless carriage is ‘locomobile.’ It attains a lively speed on a good road.”
The car had one couch-like seat “accommodating two persons comfortably.” The writer continued, “The introduction of the automobile in Tampa means a stimulus to the good roads movement. Everybody will be on the lookout to-day for the novel vehicle.”
The next day’s Tribune announced with a front page article what Tampa’s citizens doubtlessly already knew — the new vehicle was a moderate, though thrilling, success. The first drive took place without Manrara at the tiller (there was no steering wheel) or even as a passenger. Bruen operated the vehicle on its test run, with Tampa Gas Company foreman Edward Peterson at his side. The duo left from the Roberts plumbing shop on the corner of Florida Avenue and Zack Street and headed north.
The car was followed by about 200 children, mostly boys, as it made its way north on Florida through downtown to the edge of Tampa Heights, just north of Scott Street. There, at a “point opposite ex-governor [Henry] Mitchell’s the locomobile suddenly refused to locomote.” Bruen and Peterson were unable to fix the problem so the car had to be towed back to J. W. Roberts’ shop by “an ordinary, old-style horse.”
Though this first experiment failed, Manrara’s car, and the automobile in general, triumphed over the horse and carriage. Road conditions lagged behind the expansion of the auto industry, and it wasn’t until after World War I that the state began in earnest to develop roads that would connect Florida’s major cities.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at (813) 228-0097.