MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of The National Automotive History Collection
Posted: 10.31.2016

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If there was one great automotive pioneer in our country that made his mark within the automotive industry, that would be the late Mr. Charles Brady King.

Mr. King was born to an Army General at Camp Reynolds on Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay area, on Feb. 2, 1868. His father was General John King of Sackets Harbor, New York and his mother was Matilda Davenport King of Detroit, Michigan.

In 1882 when his father retired from the army, the King family came to the Detroit area to make it their home. Just five years later, Charles Brady King entered Cornell University studying for a M. E. degree but left college after two years upon the death of his father in 1888. Soon after his father’s death, Charles returned to Detroit and was quickly hired as a draftsman.

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In 1893, the Russel Wheel and Foundry Company placed him in charge of their exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There he was able to study the great and innovative engineering exhibits that would later help start his career in automotive. On a historical note, one of his own inventions, the Pneumatic Hammer, was on display at the exhibition for the viewing public to see.

As Charles’ journey would continue, his long and successful career within the automotive industry began to take shape as he began to design and engineer his own automobile.

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His many great inventions that related to the automotive industry have contributed significantly to the development of Detroit and America. It should also be noted that during this time period, innovation in Detroit was happening concurrently with the likes of Henry Ford and R.E. Olds.

It was about 1900 when Mr. King crossed paths with Olds himself having been hired onto the engineering staff of the Olds Motor Works in Detroit.

By the time Mr. King was ready to make serious automotive history, he was already well known and respected in the community for being a gifted engineer and inventor.

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Then on March 6, 1896, Mr. King lit the fuse that sparked a revolution by driving a unique automotive machine from the late John Lauer's machine shop which was located at 112 St. Antoine Street in Detroit. The automotive machine went down Jefferson to Woodward and then proceeded up that street with Charles Brady King at the controls.

The car had four cylinders and a speed of about 20 miles per hour. Some have said that this was the beginning of an era which put the whole world on four wheels. Charles B. King himself said at the time, “I am convinced that they are here to stay.”

Charles Brady King not only had an historic role in the development of a new way for transportation, it was also the first automobile ever to be run on the streets of Detroit. The Detroit Free-Press made this statement in 1957 “Mr. King was the first of that line of mechanical geniuses and businessmen who, by putting the world on wheels and eliminating time and distance, brought opportunity and wealth to this city and millions of its people.”

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In 1910, he organized the King Motor Car Co., located at 1300-1324 Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, and designed the King Car which had a number of new technologies never before seen on an automobile. The new features included the cantilever spring, the center control gear shift, left hand steering and the mounting of the front lamps on the tie rod between the fenders.

The King automobile was thoroughly enjoyed by the motoring public and it had gained immediate popularity, however in 1912, Mr. King decided to dispose of his interest in the company. Later, he would be able to retain and secure all of his patents.

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Moving on from the King Motor Car Co., Charles Brady King would devote his time to experimental and inventive work which he thoroughly enjoyed. One of his patents, the Centre control gear shift (Pat. No 1134681, April 6th 1915), was sold to the Reo Motor Car Company.

In conclusion, Mr. King was a great industrialist and an automotive genius, but he is mostly remembered for being the first recorded person in history to drive an “automobile” down the streets of Detroit with his assistant Oliver E. Barthel. Charles Brady King died at his home in June, 1957 at the age of 89 years of age.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for contributing this story to the MotorCities Story of the Week Program.

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. (Bibliography: Detroit Free Press, June 1957. “He opened the eyes of Detroit to riches;” Janicki, Ed. “Charles Brady King: He put the first automobile on Detroit streets;” King, Charles. “Random pages from my record book 1891-1901” 10/01/46.)