Portion of a porcelain enamel Washington, D.C. license plate; link to site home page.

Early Motoring in the District of Columbia

Photographs by Howard S. Fisk, Automotive Editor of The Washington Star

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Apperson roadster parked at the Automobile Club of Washington office.

The Automobile Club of Washington was organized on September 21, 1905. Its office was located at the intersection of Georgia Ave. and Piney Branch Rd. in the northwest quadrant of the city, where this photograph, taken on May 23, 1912, shows Mr. P.G. Orme with an Apperson roadster. Mr. Orme was a partial owner of the Emerson & Orme Co., an automobile dealer in the District of Columbia. The car and its white-on-black porcelain enamel D.C. plate are believed to have been new, or nearly so, when this photograph was taken.

The most well-known vehicle produced by Apperson, the Jack Rabbit speedster of 1907-1913, was similar to this roadster but without the top assembly. A common and distinct characteristic of both styles of single-seat Appersons is the vertical oval fuel tank mounted directly behind the seat. Note that it has filler caps on both ends to accommodate fueling from either side of the car. The Apperson was built in Kokomo, Ind., from 1902-1926.

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Four gentlemen working on the repair of the touring car at left.


Touring car with early D.C. and Maryland license plates propped up on blocks while under repair.Photographer Howard Fisk, not an automobile owner when photographs in these galleries were taken, often traveled with Mr. Edwin Terry. Based upon notes taken by Mr. Fisk that have been preserved with the output of his camera, we know that these images were created on a September 5, 1909, trip the gentlemen took to Benedict, Maryland. Located in eastern Charles County on the Patuxent River, Benedict is about 35 miles southeast of Wahington. Where along their route this activity occurred is unknown.

Exactly how many individuals and motor cars participated in this excursion is also a mystery, but the three visible cars are known to all have been part of the traveling party. The vehicle on the left, with District of Columbia plate no. 291, and the roadster in the center with Md. plate no. 5182 both belong to Mr. Terry, and it is a reasonable assumption that on this day Mr. Fisk was the operator of one of them. The car on the right, a Speedway pictured in gallery 10-3 (link) on 17th St. in the District of Columbia four days after these photos were taken, belongs to Mr. Abe Cohen.

Detail of early District of Columbia and Maryland license plates.During the journey a problem that required immediate attention apparently developed with Mr. Terry's large and (based upon its appearance) relatively old touring car. Although exactly what transpired is undocumented, it appears that the motorists located a garage that undertook repairs either at the roadside, or perhaps adjacent to the repair shop. The rear axle assembly has been removed from the car and disassembled, with the back of the car propped up while repairs are undertaken.

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Scene from the Washington Times Sociability Auto Run of May 24, 1910

Close image of license plates from scene above.Advertising revenue has always been critical to the success of news outlets, and in the early years of the twentieth century newspapers were the only game in town. With the advent of the automobile came automobile dealers and corresponding secondary parts and accessories markets, and thus was born a new class of advertisers, many of which preferred large display ads. Some papers added entire sections devoted to news of individuals and businesses involved with the new technology, and they routinely did whatever else they could to promote their interests.

Especially popular at the time were long-distance excursions, local events, and races sponsored by newspapers, auto clubs, auto manufacturers, and others (including wealthy individuals) with an interest in the success of the horseless carriage. In fact, the first organized auto race in the nation was the Chicago Times-Herald race of November 1895, in which the winning entry completed a 55-mile course at an average speed of five miles per hour.

Pictured above are Capital-area residents that turned out in their Edwardian-era finery (along with the requisite driving coats and goggles for the gentlemen) on May 24, 1910, for the Washington Times Sociability Auto Run. Based upon the formal dress and name of the event we may conclude that it was more about socializing than motoring, but no doubt the vehicles were put to at least mild tests of performance and endurance in the spirit of this prosperous age.

Flying from each of the cars are pennants provided by the sponsor emblazoned with the name of the event. Also displayed are, of course, District of Columbia and state license plates. Fastened below D.C. porcelain enamel plate no. 2076 appears to be a homemade Maryland plate no. 1310. This was, however, just about the time that uniform, state-supplied plates were being introduced in Maryland. Note also that, like many cars of the era, those pictured are fitted with smooth, treadless tires.

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Buick coupe being ferried across the Potomac River in Oct. 1909.

Shown crossing the Potomac River twice (above and below) on an excursion from Washington, D.C. to Harper's Ferry, W.V. via Leesburg, Va. is a Buick coupe registered to Mr. Edwin Terry, who is believed to be the gentleman visible in both images. It was, of course, Mr. Fisk that occupied the passenger seat on this Oct. 17, 1909, journey.

Close-up images of the back of the Buick highlight the most interesting plate-related content of the larger images: somewhere along the route, presumably as the vehicle entered Virginia, a plate of that state was added to the D.C. and Maryland plates already (and apparently more permanently) displayed. The undated Virginia porcelain plate appears to have been hung from the vehicle's leaf spring on a piece of rope. Mr. Terry's various license plates may have been carried in the leather pouch fastened to the spare tire.

Note the silhouette of the front plate visible in the lower photos. This Buick is believed to be the same one shown (from the front) in the roadside repair image above (link).

Close image of license plates from scene above.
Close image of license plates from scene below.

Buick coupe on a bridge across the Potomac River in Oct. 1909.


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Scene of collision between horse-drawn and horseless carriages

One of the ever-present dangers in the early days of automobile travel was the possibility of colliding with a horse-drawn vehicle. These unfortunate encounters occurred relatively frequently and usually had tragic results. This photograph was taken on Nov. 10, 1910, after a Washington roadster collided with the wagon visible in front of it. A lantern marks the accident scene to warn other travelers.

The Washington was a short-lived make produced by the Carter Motor Car Corp. of Hyattsville, Maryland. This particular vehicle was registered to Mr. Frank L. Carter of the Carter Motor Company in the District of Columbia, but whether he was related to auto manufacturers A. Gary Carter and Howard O. Carter is unknown.


Link to introduction to Fisk photograph gallery

You are presently in Gallery 10-1
Link to gallery 10-2

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This page last updated on December 31, 2017

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