Before the boom of Ford, there was C.R. Patterson. Many may not be familiar with his name, but he’s made significant contributions to the automotive industry. Born enslaved in 1833, Charles Richard Patterson was the first and only African American automaker who carved very substantial contributions to the automotive industry today.
Patterson escaped the slave plantation and traveled to Greenfield, Ohio, to begin a new life. While in Ohio, he dedicated himself to learning blacksmithing skills and went to work for a carriage-making business. With time dedicated to the industry, he developed a professional partnership with J.P. Lowe, another local carriage manufacturer. Together, they ran a crafted horse-drawn carriage company for over 20 years. Patterson eventually bought out Lowe and was the sole proprietor, naming the business C.R. Patterson & Sons. Patterson’s carriages were top of the line, with exclusive carriages having sliding doors for their storm buggies. This innovative design has resulted in dozens of patent licenses by other manufacturers.
Patterson’s son took over in 1910 after his death and pioneered the company to become a major automobile manufacturer. In 1915, C.R. Patterson & Sons debuted their first car, the Patterson-Greenfield automobile. This new vehicle offered closed touring and convertible-top roadster models. Their automobile encompassed some of the trendiest features of that time, such as the electric starter (first coined by Cadillac), electric lighting, and a split windshield. Their vehicle was priced between $685-$850 and marketed to buyers who wanted luxury for a fair price. Though innovative and reliable, Patterson’s hand-built business model was no match to Ford’s quick assembly lines. After only three years, C.R. Patterson & Sons ended production.
Today there are no longer any vehicles by Patterson-Greenfield. However, their sliding door carriage design has revolutionized the sliding door for vans produced over the next few decades. This multi-generational success story is one that should never be forgotten. It’s a story that has secured its place in automotive history for a lifetime as the first and only African American-owned automobile company in United States history.