In 1877, a lawyer named George Baldwin Selden (1846-1923) of Rochester, NY designed a “road engine” that would be powered by an internal combustion gasoline engine. A patent (number 549,160) for the engine was applied for in 1879. Due to legal technicalities, the actual issuing of this patent was delayed until 1895. History claims Selden kept that patent pending until more internal combustion engines were on the road. During this delay, a number of automobiles companies were already using the engine design.
The Selden patent specifically covered the use of an internal-combustion engine for the sole purpose of propelling a vehicle. The patent eventually wound up in the hands of the Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford, Connecticut. In 1900 this electric car company had started producing gasoline-powered cars with Selden’s engine patent. They agreed to pay Selden $10,000 for the rights of the patent and a royalty for every car based on his design.
To protect this patent, the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) was formed. Several major manufacturers joined this group including Cadillac, Winton, Packard, Locomobile, Knox, and Peerless.
Henry Ford initially applied for membership, but ALAM rejected his application. The Electric Vehicle Company attempted to control all gasoline car manufacturers and did so for a few years while the case went through court. Due to the delay in issuing the patent, the original rights did not expire until 1912.
Several leading automobile companies took licenses under the patent, but others, led by Henry Ford, refused to do so. If you own a car made in the early 1900s, you may find a small brass plaque somewhere near the engine that reads “Manufactured Under Selden Patent.”
You will not find this plaque on any Fords. The case against Ford and other auto manufacturers dragged through court from 1903 to 1911. Few people had heard of Henry Ford, but the exposure the nine-year trial gave him helped sell his Model T. A final decision ruled that Selden’s patent was not being infringed upon because it was valid only for an automobile driven by a Brayton-type engine of the specific type described in the patent.
Selden had yet to build a car aside from his 1877 prototype model. While going through the courts, he did manage to produce two vehicles. The first car was put together by Selden in Rochester, NY. A second car was assembled in Hartford by the Electric Vehicle Company. These two cars currently exist. The Rochester vehicle can be seen at the Henry Ford Museum and the Hartford car is on display at the Connecticut State Library.
The Selden Motor Vehicle Company was officially formed in 1906 after taking over the Buffalo Gasoline Motor Company. “Made By The Father Of Them All” was the company’s advertising slogan. The first Selden vehicle was seen on the road in June of 1907. This four-cylinder car sold for between $2,000 and $2,500. Today, a nice looking Selden has a value of $25,000.
In 1911, Selden received the news that his patent was declared unenforceable. His factory also had a major fire that summer. In the fall of 1911 the company was reorganized with Frederick Law, who had designed the Columbia gas car for the Electric Motor Company, on board as the new Selden designer.
Selden cars had a small following and the company did well producing 850 cars in 1908; 1,216 in 1909; 1,417 in 1910; 1,628 in 1911; 1,211 in 1912; 873 in 1813 and 229 in 1914. The last Seldens were built in 1914. Seldens came in Touring, Runabout, Roadster and Limousine models. All cars were powered by a four-cylinder 30 to 40 horsepower engine