Horseless Carriages, Tin Lizzies, and Flivvers


It doesn’t seem possible that the automobile has only been around in the U.S. for a little over 100 years but that’s a fact. The automobile is so ingrained in our lives that we can’t remember a time when we rode horses to get places. I thought it’d be fun to take a look back.

In the 1900 there were 8,000 vehicles in the entire U.S and only 144 miles of paved roads.

Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company in 1903 and set up shop in a converted wagon factory. That was the same year the Model A came out, but it was quickly abandoned until the 1920’s when it was reintroduced. I always get confused as to whether the Model A or the Model T was first, but the Model T didn’t arrive on the market until 1908 according to Wikipedia. The Model T was affectionately called the Tin Lizzie and the Flivver. Henry Ford produced over 10,000 of these cars the first year. It was extremely popular and reliable. And while the Ford wasn’t the first vehicle to be built it was certainly the most widely driven car.

But the car industry started slowly because of various factors. Roads were little more than horse paths and difficult to navigate. There were no gas stations, no mechanics, and no road signs. If a car broke down, the owner would have to wait for a horse to come and pull him back into town and usually crude repairs were done by blacksmiths or bicycle shops. One site I found stated that a driver averaged at least one flat tire each outing. That must’ve been frustrating.

The first drive-in gas station in the U.S. (and my source said the world) was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913.

In the beginning, the average speed limit was 12 mph in open country and 8 mph in town. That gradually changed and by 1930 the speed limit had increased to a whopping 30 mph.

With the advent of vehicle travel, people saw the need for laws, speed limits, and common rules of the road. The Department of Motor Vehicles was founded in 1917 to help address some of these problems:

  • Good brakes, a horn, and lamp were required on all cars.
  • Drivers were required to stop to allow teams of horses to pass. Also drivers were required to assist in leading horses past their motor vehicle.
  • At intersections drivers had to come to a stop and blow their horn before slowly proceeding.
  • Drivers must keep to the right at all times.
  • A minimum age of drivers.

But despite all the rules and regulations that came about folks were thrilled with their vehicles. An entire line of clothing and accessories came about due to this exciting new way to travel. Drivers and passengers alike bought special hats, gloves, dusters, goggles, and boots. Many horseless carriages didn’t have tops so that allowed dirt, bugs, and grime to collect on the travelers thus the need for protection.

And everyone in town knew who owned what car so the cars were soon tokens of their identity. Having a vehicle elevated a person’s social status.

Regardless of the perks though, there were certain drawbacks. Often the cranks flew backward when someone was trying to start their car and broke their arms. And then there jump seats where sometimes passengers rode and when the vehicle hit a bump or pothole in the road they would fly out and land in the dirt and wouldn’t be missed until the driver reached home. I thought this was pretty funny. I can just picture it.

Listen to what the Literary Digest printed in 1899:  “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

Have you read any romances that featured horseless carriages or tin lizzies? The only one that comes to mind is RUNABOUT by Pamela Morsi that came out in 1994. I’m sure there are others. Maybe you know one.

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

18 thoughts on “Horseless Carriages, Tin Lizzies, and Flivvers”

  1. Hi Linda, great post as always! My uncle has a terrific collection of antique cars and often drove in parades wearing period dress.

    I don’t recall a book with such a vehicle in it. One of my favorite pix is one of my grandfather in a horse and buggy off to court my grandma, about 1916. Very cute!

    Good one! oxoxoxox

  2. I don’t know about romances, but I just read a wonderful book where the invention of the ‘horseless carriage’ was a major part of the storyline – Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. There is a line in the book where a character expresses a very similar opinion about automobiles (the new name for them!) never really catching on.

  3. Great post, Linda. Henry Ford may not have made the first car but he was certainly responsible for making cars available to average Americans. I’ve used automobiles in several of my post-1900 books.
    I inherited a book from my mom, published in 1918, called “The Motor Maids Across the Continent.” It’s about a group of young girls who travel all over in a red roadster. The book’s part of a series. Not a romance, but a great authentic glimpse of the past. Used copies are still available on Amazon. Great research.

  4. Sandra Brown wrote Hidden Fires in 1982 as Laura Jordan and in 1994 reissued it under her own name. There are only three or four pages about the horseless carriage but it has always been one of my favorite books. I have the one by Laura Jordan and the one by Sandra Brown in my bookcase. They are both keepers.

  5. Tanya, I always love the old cars in the parades. It’s my favorite part. And it’s always neat when the people dress up in period clothes to ride in them. I remember that pix of your grandfather from a guest blog you did a long time ago. It was so special. I know you treasure having that to look at and wonder what they were thinking at the time the pix was made.

    Hope you your day goes well!

  6. Hi Elisabeth……I’ve never read the book you mention but it sounds great. And that it was a Pulitzer Prize winning book says how wonderful it was. I’m going to have to try to find it.

    Have a great day and thanks for stopping by.

  7. Hi Elizabeth L……..glad you enjoyed my blog. That book you inherited sounds like a good one. I love to find books published during the time the stories take place. It gives authentic glimpses into the past that are far better than dry research books.

    Hope you have a special kind of day, my Filly sister!

  8. Hi Goldie…….thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the horseless carriage. I’ll have to look for the book you mention. I’ve never read anything much by Sandra Brown. Looks like I’m missing out. I didn’t know that she wrote anything except contemporary. Amazon here I come!

  9. Off hand I can’t think of any in a story but my father who was born in 1913 (and has passed) told us that he had a Model T back in the day. I wish he had had a picture of it.

  10. One thing always strikes me as ironic is that cars were considered to be so much cleaner than horses and carriages. Well, yes, in one way. No manure on the streets! But who could have imagined air pollution?

    Waving at fellow filly Elizabeth . . . didn’t you write a book about a lady pilot who drove a car. I think it was “On the Wings of Love.” I seem to recall the heroine speeding along at 25 miles an hour!

  11. Linda, what a great post! I absolutely love the thought that when a car broke down they had to wait for a horse to pull them back home. What a great image. I can’t think of a historical western off the top of my head that has a Model A or T in it, but whenever I think of one of the first cars, I think about the “Great Gatsby”. Love your post, as always, friend. Hugs, P

  12. Hi Linda, loved your post. I wrote a book about a coast to coast tin lizzie race titled Ribbons in the Wind. That was awhile back when I was writing for Topaz. The driver was a woman and it was based on a real race that Henry Ford created in hopes of encouraging communities to build roads. BTW: I’m getting ready to start a historical western where a hero drives a horseless carriage.

  13. Hi Catslady…….I’m back from my appointment. Sorry to be gone so long. I’m glad you enjoyed my post today. I loved bringing it to you. I, too, wish you had a picture of your dad’s old car. That would be a real treasure. Our dad’s were born around the same time. My dad was born in 1914. He’s no longer around though. We hold on to our memories don’t we?

    Enjoy your day!

  14. Hi Vicki…….glad you found my blog interesting. Yes, people never knew how much cars would pollute the air. I doubt it would’ve changed anything though if they had’ve known. Everyone wants what they want and there’s no changing their minds. One thing of interest that I found out in writing this blog is that there were lots of electric and steam engine cars before the gasoline guzzlers came along. Seems so strange to me that here we are 100 years later and we’re just trying to go back to the electric cars. Blows my mind.

    Hope your day is full of wonderful things!

  15. Hi Phyliss…….glad my blog was a fun one for you. Quite a few things tickled my funny bone when I was writing this post. I can just picture a proper lady all decked out in her pretty dress flying out of the rumble seat when the car hit a pothole and landing in the dirt on her behind. I can just see her blowing a strand of hair out of her face and glaring after the car with steam coming out of her ears. That would make a funny scene to write.

    Hope you’re making lots of progress with your Valentine story!

  16. Hi Margaret…….I vaguely remember Ribbons in the Wind but can’t recall the race you referred to. It sounds like a great book and one I’d love to find on Amazon. Good luck with the new story you’re about to write that features a horseless carriage. I can’t wait.

  17. This is so wonderful that you blogged about the Model T Ford yesterday. I am a HUGE fan of the cars so much so that my newest novel is entitled Men in Ts. Unfortunately it isn’t out yet but it’s coming.
    Be on the look out for MEN IN Ts…It’s the book you all have been waiting for.

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