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Mr. Waters Builds a Buggymobile

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In the late 1800s, tinkerers all across the country envisioned a buggy powered not by horses, but by a gasoline engine.

At the close of the 19th century, the buggy and carriage business was still thriving. Horses, mules and oxen were still the motive power for virtually all vehicles on our roads. But all across the country, tinkerers, mechanics and inventors were consumed by the possibility of building a horseless carriage powered by a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine.

An early inventor/advocate of gas powered vehicles, Hiram Maxim, said:

It has always been my belief that we all began to work on a gasoline-engine-propelled road vehicle at about the same time because it had become apparent that civilization was ready for the mechanical vehicle.

On an 1899 visit to Baltimore, young Gilbert S. Waters of New Bern saw the future.

In 1899, at age 30, Gilbert Waters traveled from his home town of New Bern to Baltimore. There he saw steam powered automobiles on the city streets, where four were currently in operation. Waters and his father already had a successful buggy company in New Bern, The G. H. Waters and Son Buggy and Carriage Factory, and the young man thought he might be able to transform one of their existing horse-drawn buggies into a self-powered vehicle.

Back in his shop at the corner of Broad and Bern streets in New Bern, Gilbert Waters went to work on a gasoline-powered vehicle. (Steam and electric-powered vehicles had been around for some years, but the gasoline engine seemed promising, especially with petroleum being sold at five cents per barrel.)

Waters completed his vehicle in 1900 and called it the Buggymobile. It was possibly the first horseless carriage built in the south. The Buggymobile was a standard spoked-wheel carriage with no top. But instead of a horse in front for power and steering, it had a one-cylinder, 5-horsepower engine under the driver’s seat, and it had a steering tiller to direct the front wheels. Bicycle chains transferred engine power to the wheels, and the vehicle had a bicycle bell in order to warn pedestrians of its approach. (Bicycles at the time had become wildly popular across America, chain-driven safety bicycles having recently replaced old-fashioned penny-farthings.)

In 1900, the first Buggymobile livened up the streets of New Bern.

When the word spread around New Bern that Waters was going to test drive his new creation, a sizeable crowd gathered to gape. For months there had been whispered comments around town that the young man must be insane to think he could create a buggy that moved without a horse. Most in attendance predicted failure, but in this, they were to be disappointed.

As Walters later described his successful inaugural run:

On my first test I raced down Main Street at 12 miles an hour.

In a 1928 article for the Raleigh News & Observer, Gertrude Carraway interviewed Waters about his experience, and she described the first run:

Mr. Waters worked for some time over the engine. Finally he cranked and with a loud noise the motor started successfully. Climbing up into the high buggy seat, he started the machine. To the amazed surprise of the spectators, the car moved forward. Many of them could scarcely believe their eyes. They ran along by the side of the slowly-moving car, to be sure that they were seeing correctly. When it stopped, they dared the inventor to try to start it again. To their surprise, it did start again successfully. The New Bern inventor had won his struggle.

Inventing the Buggymobile turned out to be the easy part of starting a business.

Based on his successful test run, the next logical step – at least to Waters – was to seek financial backing with an eye to going into business.

G. H. Walters, the inventor’s father and business partner, discouraged him. They already had a thriving manufacturing business in the tried-and-true buggy and carriage trade. Their company was selling nearly 100 vehicles a year, and the elder Waters saw no reason to jepordize that. Who knew how the public would accept this startling new invention?

Unwilling to be stymied, the determined Waters pitched his business idea to local bankers in hopes of a loan. They all turned him down. One told him:

Buggies without horses will never be practical…and they would be too expensive and dangerous anyway.

It is unlikely that any of the parties in those discussions knew that in August of the previous year a young engineer had launched the Detroit Automobile Company after securing $150,000 in funding. The engineer was Henry Ford.

One of the bankers who turned Gilbert Waters down for a loan commented years later that:

If I had known then what I know now, Mr. Waters and I might both have been among the rich men of the country now.

Gilbert Waters' dream of a business selling motorized buggies died, but the Buggymobile lived on.

Unable to secure funding for production of his invention, Waters resumed work at the family buggy factory. But in 1903, he produced one more Buggymobile. He later described the vehicle and the experience of running it down the streets of New Bern:

It was a great success for the time. It weighed 540 pounds and went so fast I could hardly steer it at the height of speed. It went 25 miles an hour when I was in it by myself. If I took along another person, it would go only 20 miles an hour. If three people were in it, it would go only 15 miles an hour.”

When I used to ask a person to go for a ride with me 25 years ago, I would often get funny answers. One of the most prominent and wealthy men in New Bern emphatically refused to risk his life with me.

Riders used to hold tightly on to the seats, when they did go. Most of them looked scared to death. One fat woman that weighed two or three hundred pounds screamed bloody murder from the time she got in the car until the time she landed safely back home. Neighbors thought she was being murdered.

Elderly Gilbert Waters sits in his Buggymobile
The Buggymobile and its inventor

Waters continued for many years  – into his late seventies – to take the Buggymobile out for spins around New Bern, and on a 1939 radio show in New York City, he told his interviewer:

It runs as good as it did 36 years ago. I can still hit 35 miles per hour with it, and I get 40 miles to the gallon.

Gilbert S. Waters passed away in 1950. His 1903 Buggymobile is on permanent display at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

1906 Buggymobile on display at the North Carolina Museum of History
At the North Carolina Museum of History

Photos of Gilbert S. Waters courtesy of NC Archives and History.

I recommend John Ireland’s book Entering the Auto Age: The Early Automobile in North Carolina, 1900 – 1930 (NC Division of Archives & History, 1990). The book is available at the University of North Carolina Press.

The 1928 News and Observer article about Gilbert Waters is available on line.

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