Chicago’s Auto Show (3-23-1901)

Today it’s known as the Chicago Auto Show.  In 1901 they called it the National Automobile Exhibit.  This is the day it all began.

The automotive industry was in its infancy then–Henry Ford was still two years away from starting his company–and the field was wide open.  New York had recently staged an “auto convention” to display the latest models.  Now Chicago-based Motor Age magazine was staging its own extravaganza.

The show was held in the city’s largest hall, the Coliseum.  Hours were from 10 a.m. through 10:30 p.m.  And on this first day, about 5,000 people came out to see what was going on.


Cars were expensive in 1901–Henry Ford was still seven years away from introducing his low-priced Model T–so most of the crowd at the Coliseum were wealthy.  The Tribune noted the number of rich people wandering among the autos, and predicted this show would soon “rival the horse show as a society event.”

Sixty-five vehicles were on display.  Circling around the exhibit space was a 20-foot-wide wooden track.  This was used for giving rides to anyone who asked.  The exhibitors were anxious to prove that the horseless carriage was both safe and easy to operate.

Visitors could also see a “motor bicycle” in action.  This was the ancestor of the modern motorcycle, and was a big hit.  One reporter wrote that it “sped around the ring with lightning rapidity, gracefully winding its way around the larger vehicles.”

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Opening Day concluded with a race between two cars.  Since there wasn’t room for a real race, the showdown was staged using a “home trainer.”  Each car was placed on rollers that allowed its wheels to spin freely without the car moving.  Each set of rollers was connected to a dial that showed the speed of the spinning wheels.

All activity in the hall stopped.  Everyone gathered round the two dials.  The drivers cranked their engines, and the race was on.  The spectators cheered as the dials climbed higher and higher.

And then it was over.  Charles Jamieson was the winner of the pseudo-race, covering one mile in 58 seconds flat–an average speed of 62 miles-per-hour.

Chicago’s first auto show closed eight days later.  The promoters pronounced it a success, and said they hoped to make it an annual event.





3 Responses to “Chicago’s Auto Show (3-23-1901)”

  1. 1 Garry March 23, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    When I went to the Coliseum in the mid 1960s to see wrestling, wow, was it a dump!
    The outside of the building was interesting, being that it was part of the Confederate’s Libby Prison from Richmond Virginia. I always sat on the east side of the L when it went by there, to see it a few years later.
    But inside, it was a poorly maintained mess.
    I remember walking around the balcony’s outside aisle & having to duck under the upper chords of the building’s roof trusses.
    There were very few cries to save it went it was demolished.

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt March 23, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      I also watched wrestling at the Coliseum. My first memory of the place is from the early ’60s, when a bunch of us went down there to watch the old Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA. Yes, it was a dump!

  1. 1 The History of the Chicago Auto Show | See New Cars | McCormick Place Trackback on February 12, 2018 at 2:14 pm

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