The Amazing 1901 Columbia Gasoline Runabout

The lone surviving Columbia Mark VIII gasoline runabout (from the collection of the author)

The car pictured here is the only known surviving Columbia Mark VIII gasoline runabout (circa 1901). This car represents the very first automobile to use a front-mounted, gasoline engine driven through a multi-speed transmission with left-hand "wheeled" steering. In other words, this is the car that set the standard still seen today in most automobiles here in the United States.

This story starts with Hiram Percy Maxim (1869-1936) who was one of those brilliant and curious minds that came along in a time of great industrial expansion here in America. H.P. Maxim was the son of the inventor of the Maxim machine gun (Hiram Steven Maxim) and the nephew of Hudson Maxim, inventor of explosives and ballistic propellents. 

H.P. graduated from MIT and went to work close by in Lynn, MA for the American Projectile Company. It was here, while experimenting with things that exploded, that he is said to have developed his first internal combustion engine (it is written that Maxim was unaware of the work done by Damlier and Benz at the time). In 1894, he would place one of his engines in a three wheeled bicycle and it is this device that would spark the fascination of Col. Albert Pope - one of the nations largest bicycle manufactures. The story goes that Pope hired Maxim on the spot and created a "motor carriage" department at his factory in Hartford, CT, putting Maxim in charge. Maxim would design his first prototype vehicle for Pope's Columbia brand in 1896 - an electric phaeton. They missed the the Chicago Tribune race (1896), but would release their first products to the market in 1897 (the Mark III electric phaeton) and prove the merits of their automobiles by winning the first close-track race in New Haven, CT in 1899. 

The Columbia brand of electric vehicles would become one of the largest manufacturers of automobiles in America prior to 1900. Maxim would continue to improve upon his creations introducing no less than 7 different models in a three year window. Maxim developed his first gasoline prototype for Columbia in 1898 with a electromechanical transmission designed by J.B. Entz (later used in the Owen Magnetic). 1899 saw the release of the Mark VIII gasoline runabout. Columbia's Motor Carriage Company would merge with New York's Electric Vehicle Company in 1900 (Pope would sell out to EVC soon after). Maxim stayed on with EVC and continued to design new models. 

The Columbia Mark VIII gasoline runabout would be shown at the very first Philadelphia Automobile Show in February of 1901. Later the same year, 3 Columbia Mark VIII's were entered in the New York City to Buffalo endurance run (one car being entered by Jacob Astor). The early history of the car seen here is unknown to me, however it ended up spending many years in Henry Austin Clark's Long Island Auto Museum. The car now resides in a fantastic private collection in New England. 

As for Hiram Percy Maxim, he would go on to invent the first "silencer" for firearms after experiments on "silencing" internal combustion engines (we now call these mufflers). He also founded an amateur radio league (ARRL) and the Amateur Cinema League in New York.

The Automobile Review, April 1901

The Columbia Mark VIII when in the collection of the Long Island Auto Museum
Scientific American, March 9,1901


  1. When I was in 2nd Grade, my father brought home a copy of 'Treasury of the Automobile' by Ralph Stein. I read that book cover to cover many times over the years (I still have the book). My favorite car was the Mk VIII Runabout, which I understood belonged to the Long Island Auto Museum. I've always wondered what happened to that gem but the trail grew cold--until now. I still hope to see the car up close and personal; in fact it is on my bucket list. Glad to see that it is still alive and well.

  2. George - Thanks for your comments. Yes, the car is still around and well cared for. I'll have to press the owner to get it out and show it. It is truly a fascinating piece of automotive history. Thanks for following the blog - Steve