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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Austin Touring Car

Austin Touring Car

GRHC - July 18th, 2012

Hundreds of small factories across the country attempted to build "horseless carriages" during the early 20th century, but few lasted more than a year or two. Grand Rapids had its share of "backyard tinkerers" but only one was successful, the Austin Automobile Co. owned by James Austin and his son Walter. The company was in business from 1903 to 1921.


The invention of the “horseless carriage” spurred hundreds upon hundreds of small factories and “backyard tinkerers” across the country to produce a machine motivated by its own power. From 1900 to 1950 there were no less than 5,000 different makes of automobiles produced in the US.

Grand Rapids was no exception. Of the many companies that tried their luck, only one survived for any length of time. James E. Austin and his son Walter S. operated the Austin Automobile Co. from 1903 to 1921. The cost of an Austin was between $4500 and $7000. The other companies, about a dozen, lasted only one or two years.

James Austin, a Canadian, arrived in the US in 1848. In pre-1900 census records he listed himself as an inventor. Father and son experimented for three years in a shop at the foot of Louis St. where they worked and studied the automobile problem. The new Austin Automobile factory was located on the east side of S. Division between Oakes and Cherry.

The Evening Press reported in May of 1903, “Three weeks ago a strong looking, symmetrical, almost noiseless machine glided out of a local carriage painting establishment and went spinning down Division St. Walter S. Austin was at the steering wheel of this 16 horsepower scarlet beauty. It represents the first self-propelled vehicle designed and built in Grand Rapids that has shown itself to be a commercial success.”

Full Details

TitleAustin Touring Car
KeywordsWYCE; radio; Grand Rapids; Historical Commission; history; Austin Automobile Co.; horseless carriage; James E. Austin; Walter S. Austin
Pubdate StringJuly 18th, 2012

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