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A Lead Foot in the Gilded Age

A Lead Foot in the Gilded Age
May 27, 2021

A Lead Foot in the Gilded Age

Henry Clay Frick’s reputation as one of America’s wealthiest industrialists is well known. Frick’s wealth could afford him the nicest homes, the most lavish vacations, and the fastest cars. The last of those got him in trouble with the Pittsburgh Police Department so many times they delivered him an ultimatum that if he didn’t reduce the speed of his car to eight miles per hour he would be "hauled before a police magistrate and punished for violating a city ordinance." In 1902, the Pittsburgh Leader covered the controversy, calling out the "Steel-Coke King" and his "$10,000-a-year chauffeur" for speeding through Schenley Park as if it were a race track.

 "Frick Must Curb Speed of His Auto." Pittsburgh Leader. May 29, 1902.

The car in question was the first car Mr. Frick ever purhcased, a Mercedes-Daimler flyer, nicknamed by Pittsburghers who saw it the "Dust Cloud" for the dirt it kicked up in the air. The article states that Mr. Frick wanted the fastest car in the Unites States and bought "Dust Cloud" for $15,000 in Paris. He returned with the car and his new chauffeur in question, Georges Despres, who served as the Frick Family's chauffeur from 1901 to 1920, moving with them to New York in 1905. According to Mrs. Frick's household records, Mr. Despres salary was $125 a month in 1901.

George Despres and the Mercedes-Daimler "Dust Cloud," October 1901. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Mr. Frick thought the speeding accusations were "ridiculous," telling a Leader reporter "We didn’t frighten anybody, nor did any policeman attempt to stop us…No person was in danger." While police officers were investigating the incidents of Mr. Frick’s speeding, they received a dozen complaints about the vehicle. One man said the car nearly ran him and his carriage off the road. Many automobilists at the time claimed city ordinances on speed were only for street cars, carriages, and trains, not automobiles, which were rare. The early twentieth century saw a debate over controlling the speed of automobiles as they became ever more popular and affordable, and their risks more widespread.

 "Frick Must Curb Speed of His Auto." Pittsburgh Leader. May 29, 1902.

Learn more about the history of automobiles at the Car and Carriage Museum, where Cast in Chrome: The Art of Hood Ornaments is on view through October 31, 2021.
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