On March 24, 1898, Robert Allison a 70-year-old Schuylkill County industrialist, became the answer to a huge part of early automobile trivia. That day, he purchased the first commercially manufactured automobile at the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Cleveland.
Allison was born in Middleton, Teesdale, Durham County, England, on Dec. 25, 1827. When the Scottish immigrant first came to Port Carbon, the place had very few inhabitants.
He attended school until age 12, when he began working in the mines in summer and going to school in the winter. At the age of 17 he became an apprentice at the Haywood & Snyder Machine Shops in Pottsville. After two years there, he accepted a position as foreman in the machine shops of Tobias Wintersteen in Port Carbon, where he worked until 1862.
With the outbreak of the Civil War a year earlier came a demand for heavy industry and the manufacture of war materiels. He and a partner began the Franklin Iron Works at Port Carbon which he continued to manage until his retirement in 1901.
Being a mechanical engineer, Allison benefitted from his years of hard labor and experiments. His inventions included the Cataract steam pump, the hydraulic feed for diamond drills, percussion rock drills and compressed air engines. He made shipments of these instruments and machinery to clients throughout the world.
In the 1890s, Allison took advantage of the bicycling craze, starting with a repair shop before branching into making his own bicycles.
Many bicycle makers also became early automobile makers, including the Winton Company of Cleveland, which was incorporated in 1897.
After first hearing of the new trend to motorized travel, Allison was anxious to purchase a horseless carriage. He began travelling the country and interviewing automobile inventors and early manufacturers. Most, however, were still in the inventing stage and could not agree to deliver a machine that was guaranteed to run.
By 1897, Winton had already produced two fully operational prototype automobiles. In May of 1897, the 10 horsepower model achieved an amazing speed of 33.64 mph on a test around a Cleveland horse track.
Many people, however, were still skeptical of the new horseless carriage. To prove the durability and usefulness of the new machines, Alexander Winton made an 800-mile endurance run from Cleveland to New York City.
Their first automobiles were built by hand. Each vehicle had fancy painted sides, padded seats, a leather roof, and gas lamps. B.F. Goodrich made the tires for Winton.
After seeing an advertisement in the Scientific American in 1898, Allison visited the Winton shops. He found one automobile finished and three nearing completion. He was immediately given a demonstration ride across the city.
After the demo, he quickly made a cash deposit to seal the deal for sale of the first American built gasoline car. The single-cylinder car sold for a thousand dollars. This transaction could thus be called the beginning of the American automobile industry.
That same afternoon, another engineer from New Jersey purchased the second car. On April 1, 1898, the first four automobiles made were shipped and by the close of that year, 20 of Winton's manufactured cars with a single cylinder sold for a thousand dollars each.
Winton sold 100 vehicles in 1898, making it the largest manufacturer of gas-powered automobiles in the United States.
Ironically, Allison also became the first person to trade in an automobile when Winton bought back his first car and then donated it to a museum near Cleveland, Ohio. It later ended up in the Smithsonian Museum.
Allison was well-known in his community serving as director of the Schuylkill Trust Company, the Pottsville Gas Company, treasurer of the Port Carbon Electric Light Company, trustee of the Miners' hospital at Ashland, and had a financial interest in the Turkey Gap Coal & Coke Company of West Virginia.
In early 1912, under the headline "The Pioneer Autoist," the Tamaqua Courier noted that Allison was the subject of a Philadelphia newspaper article after his purchase of a 1912 model Ford Runabout from R. J. Mills of Pottsville.
Reflecting on Allison's purchase of the first Winton car 14 years earlier, the Tamaqua writer pointed out how Allison and that first auto "attracted great attention wherever he drove with the car."
Even at the advanced age of 86, the writer said Allison "drives his big touring car and his Runabout almost daily."
Allison's interest in early automobiles never waned despite his advanced years. The writer pointed out that at the time, the Port Carbon engineer's stable of 10 cars included five Wintons and five Fords.