We continue with our latest obsession of trying to identify Ottawa’s earliest automobiles. Today we have a great candidate.

It’s Professor Achille Phillion’s magnificent steam-powered “quadricycle.”

According to the newspapers, Professor Phillion drove his quadricycle around Lansdowne Park during the Central Canada Exhibition in September of 1891.

That date would make Phillion’s steamer Ottawa’s first car by several years — if you think Professor Phillion’s vehicle should be regarded as a car at all. 

Four wheels, steam-powered, self-moving and driven by a Professor? How can it not be a car?

About the Professor

Let’s start with the good Professor and ask what was he a “Professor” of? 

The answer is that Phillon was not a professor of anything — so far as university is concerned.

Instead, Phillion was the kind of professor you find at the circus. He was in fact an “equilibrist,” meaning a high-wire performer, famous for an act in which he balanced on a huge rubber (sometimes wood) ball as it rose to the top of a tower, at which point fireworks exploded as he shot back down to the ground, balancing on the ball as it circled round and round down a spiral chute.

Almost every notice of Professor Phillion in North American newspapers calls him “the Frenchman,” implying he was from France. Most accounts add a story that revolved around the stereotype of a Frenchman for the time, according to which Phillion fell in love with a beautiful American maiden named Bel Melvin and left his home country to be with her — in Akron, Ohio.

So romantic! Except for the Akron part. And except that Phillion wasn’t from France according to an Ottawa Citizen story from 1891. The newspaper says he was an “Ottawa boy made good,” and it appears that he really was from Ottawa, where he moved from St. Martin near Montreal.

Possibly, our neighbors to the south didn’t quite grasp the difference between a Frenchman and a French Canadian? More likely the misunderstanding was deliberately promoted by Phillion. Much better to be a Professor from France than a hick from Ontario if you are going to be in the circus!

About the Invention

According to the American newspapers it was in Akron, Ohio, that Achille Phillion not only perfected his rubber ball act (Akron is the home of B.F. Goodrich, after all), but also built his quadricycle in 1892.

Such a great story if it were true. Achille Phillion, Ottawa boy, inventor of one of the earliest automobiles in North America, and builder of one of the oldest-surviving cars on the continent! Go, Canada!

Unfortunately, that is not what Phillion told the Citizen in September of 1891. Instead he explained that he had seen the quadricycle for the first time just one month earlier in Elmira, New York, where its actual inventor J.W. Shoots had put it on display. Phillion bought it on the spot, according to the newspaper, then sent it to Winkler Brothers (carriage-makers) in South Bend, Indiana, where it was rebuilt with a more attractive appearance.

Phillion then brought the quadricycle to Ottawa where it would be operated for the first time since the rebuild. To make sure it ran properly, Phillion brought inventor Shoots along with him, suggesting the Elmira story is true. No circus-fibbing to the newspaper with the actual inventor right there?

About the Car

Phillion’s car is described as “quadricycle,” a sort of generic term used for self-powered vehicles built in accordance with bicycle practice, which typically meant the use of spoked bicycle wheels and light tubular framing. Some early quadricycles really were two bicycle frames welded together to make cheap instant frames for experimentation.

Amazing as it seems, Professor Phillion’s quadricycle still exists. It’s in the collection of the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. This is great for us because it means there are pictures.

Phillions Quadricycle

Professor Phillion in his steam-powered quadricycle in a picture that helps to show how small the vehicle was. I’m not sure who the engineer is manning the boiler in this undated photo, but he was needed keep the steam up, boiler filled with water, engines running and everything properly oiled.  

What the pictures show is a rather flimsy-looking contraption with two small bicycle wheels at the front and two larger bicycle wheels in the back, although they look like they have metal tires. The driver sat on a bench up front, using a wheel between his legs to steer. Behind the driver was boiler, then two small steam engines connected to the back wheels by belts. Behind the engine and boilers was the fuel tank. On top of the tank sat the “engineer,” who was needed keep the boiler running, steam up, and engines going, with everything properly oiled. The engineer could apparently also steer the vehicle if necessary.

Phillion told the Citizen that his quadricycle could go as fast as 25 miles an hour. 

The Show

Phillion’s steam quadricycle must have been an impressive sight for the people who first saw it at the Central Canada Exhibition Grandstand on September 25, 1891. They were used to steam locomotives carriages pulled by horses, but none of them had ever seen a carriage move by itself. Steam carriages occasionally belched a little steam and clanked a bit, but were generally very quiet. It must have seemed as if Phillion’s carriage moved by magic. 

Before seeing the quadricycle, however, the people first watched a series of circus acts featuring the ancient sports of the Greek and Roman times.

Then came Phillion and his steamer, which went “pretty fast” around the track in front of the Grandstand, according to the Citizen.

Phillion and his steamer were followed by Professor Hopper and his dog circus, which featured two clown dogs, dogs that laughed, dogs that cried and and dogs that sang, as well as dogs that walked the tight rope, jumped through fire, did the waltz, swung on the trapeze, turned somersaults, rolled barrels, played leap frog and pushed baby carriages dressed in women’s clothing.

Professor Hopper and his dogs were followed by a high-wire artist who was also a sharpshooter. The sharpshooter was followed by an “aerial contortionist.” The contortionist brought the whole afternoon of hilarity to an end. 

The Circus Context

I mention all these circus acts because I think they are relevant to the context in which Professor Phillion’s quadricycle was understood, and I think this context is relevant to the question of whether his vehicle should be regarded as Ottawa first car.

My answer is no. 

Why not? My argument is that what we think of as an automobile is something more than a self-powered vehicle on four wheels. A front-end loader has four wheels and moves by itself and we don’t think of it as an automobile. A tractor moves on four wheels and we don’t think of it as a car. Instead we say, “well, that’s not what they are for.”

Precisely. Our understanding of “automobile” has a lot to do with purpose.

Professor Phillion was a circus performer and the quadricycle was a prop in his circus act. The purpose of the vehicle was entertainment, not transport.

There’s no idea at all that his vehicle would be duplicated or mass-produced in order transform the way people move around. It existed to delight and amaze.

With more space I would argue that Phillion’s vehicle should be seen as the end of a centuries-old “Wizard of Oz” tradition of people being delighted at exhibitions and fairs by surprising automata, pianos that played by themselves, for example.

That’s how the people of the time would have seen it — and not all as the beginning of a transportation revolution.  

Check out this video on Achille Phillion and his steam quadricycle from the National Museum of Automobiles in Reno, Nevada. I disagree with some of the findings because of what Phillion told the Ottawa newspapers in 1891, but it’s entertaining and fills in details about Phillion’s life, and the afterlife of his Quadricycle.