When I was studying art history, some of the works I liked best were the ones never really meant to be seen — rough sketches from artists done in early planning stages of larger works, done to get a rough idea of feel or composition. That’s the context I like to view Henry Ford’s first car — a rough sketch. What really makes the Quadracycle appealing to me is that, like many rough sketches, it kind of sucks.
Ford’s Quadracycle often gets treated with a certain amount of reverence by historians, since it was the first car built by the man who would go on to found a massive automotive empire that still exists to this day. And this absolutely makes the car significant — what it doesn’t make it is particularly good, or influential.
Ford was by no means the first to build a car. The Quadracycle was an early internal-combustion-powered car, no doubt, but steam automobiles had been around (and in active, real use) for over a century, and internal combustion automobiles had been experimented with at least since Lenoir’s Hippomobile in 1863.
Ford wasn’t really breaking new ground with the mechanical design of Quadracycle, because a lot of that he got from a magazine. Yep, like someone following instructions on how to build a basic 3D printer from a bunch of Instructables, Ford read an article in the November 7, 1895 issue of American Machinist describing an engine designed by a huckster named Pennington.
Pennington’s engine wasn’t good, by any stretch of the imagination (it had no real carburation or cooling), but it was relatively simple and could be made with pretty minimal equipment. This is what excited Ford, and what led him to build a similar engine, and then to build a very rudimentary car around it.
So, this is the key thing about the Quadracycle: Ford built it because he read a magazine article about an engine that was so crude, he thought “fuck it, I could make that!” And then he did.
The rest of the quadracyle is about as basic as it gets: four bike wheels, a simple, wagon-like frame, some wood panels that look like they were stolen from furniture, and a little seat on top. Steering is by tiller, there’s a 2-speed transmission that barely works (the engine doesn’t really have the torque to do anything with the second gear), and the whole thing vibrates so much from the crude engine (which is ethanol-powered, making an alleged 4 HP, but I’m skeptical it was that much) that the most amazing technical achievement of the car is that it doesn’t shake itself into a pile of parts every time it’s run.
The one I drove was actually a replica built for the Lane, but a very good replica, built to the exact specifications of the original. Well, the original three, since Ford made three Quadracycles. The Lane’s mechanics have done an astounding job keeping the long-stroke, horizontal-inline twin working, despite the flawed design. One of their mechanics even hand-makes custom spark plugs for the engine!
As far as driving it goes, your average Wal-Mart-class Rascal would kick the shit out of it in pretty much very way. It’s quite literally an engine stuck in a wheeled bench, and it drives and handles just like you’d expect. You could make something that performs as well or better in a weekend with an old lawnmower engine and a few junkyard trips.
I don’t say these things to demean the Quadracycle, however. When Ford built it in 1896, there were no easy ways to do any of this. Even making something this crude represents quite an achievement, especially because it’s so crude. The Quadracycle showed that making a car was something that could be realized and wasn’t some rare, exotic thing. Just by existing and working at all, it gave Ford the confidence and inspiration he needed to start a company that would produce non-terrible, non-crude cars, at least until Ford decided to revisit this idea with the Pinto.
The Quadracycle is a sketch of a car. Crude, maybe a little ridiculous, and not necessarily an improvement on walking if you plan on going anywhere with a slope steeper than a bowling lane. But it was this shaky, rattly drive that eventually led to cars like the Ford GT, so significant props must be donated to this spindly pile of vibrating crap.