Life is full of surprises. It’s a truth that came to light again earlier this year while I was scouring a collection of vintage farm equipment. Tucked away in a shed at the back of the property were several old wagons. One, in particular, immediately caught my attention. The front axle was bordered by steel joints attaching the wooden wheels to the axle. While there were multiple patents and even other brands with similar designs, this gear carried all of the earmarks of an early Champion brand wagon. Originally built in Owego, New York, the place this wagon calls home today is more than a thousand miles from where it started.
The Champion Wagon Company dates to 1888 when it was re-organized from the original firm going by the name of Gere, Truman, Platt & Company. Both firms built the same basic “Champion Wagon” with the unique steering system. In this design, both the front and rear axles have several important features. First, the front axle is engineered to allow only the wheels to turn while the axle remains fixed. It’s a technology that was truly distinctive on a farm style wagon and an idea that early automobiles capitalized on. However, with multiple patents on similar wagon and carriage technology dating at least as early as the mid 1850’s and 60’s, the roots of this system are firmly fixed in the horse drawn era.
One big advantage to this ‘auto-steer’ design is that it provides a more stable foundation for the box and load since the front axle and bolster are always aligned and in the same position, fully supporting the width of the box. The design was also touted as one that turns easier and tighter while simultaneously helping reduce the effects of the tongue whipping and jerking the horses on rough terrain. Also mimicked by early automobiles, both sets of bolsters and axles are equipped with coil-style springs to help dampen the shock of rough roads and uneven terrain.
Complementing the value of original literature promoting these designs, it was good to get an additional firsthand perspective of this century-plus-old design. Not only do these types of encounters help us all to better understand the needs of the day and how the products were marketed, but they consistently show how the early wagon industry provided a springboard of innovation to America’s first automobiles.
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