Carol Jean Lambert poses with her books about her great-grandfather, John W. Lambert, inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile. (Submitted photo)
Carol Jean Lambert poses with her books about her great-grandfather, John W. Lambert, inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile. (Submitted photo)

OHIO CITY — More than 100 years ago, a man named John W. Lambert was in his workshed putting the finishing touches on something entirely new. The project was an automobile powered by a gasoline engine. Why gasoline? Lambert was asked years later. He replied, “Because it was available and cheap.”

It was 1891 went Lambert completed his invention. Now two books about Lambert and the family business are available, penned by John W. Lambert’s great-granddaughter, Carol Jean Lambert.

She actually wrote the books more than a dozen years ago, but they were just published within this past year. One book, ‘Who Invented America’s Gasoline Automobile?’ is Lambert’s story told in fictional form, as a story.

She shared, “It’s a story, you know, about who is John Lambert as a person and what were his motivations? An underlying mystery I had in mind was, how come he didn’t champion his own accomplishment of being the first inventor to come up with the first gas-propelled automobile? So I thought the story answered that in several nuanced ways.”



Of five literary agents, three expressed an interest in the book, but only as a non-fiction effort.

So I sat down and wrote the non-fiction, the second book, “Something New Under the Sun.” By the time I finished that book, two years later, the publishing industry had the bottom fallen out, so I put the manuscripts away. I actually wrote these books over a dozen years ago. Last year, I figured out a way to self-publish them through Merrimack Media.

The two books are each available at the Van Wert County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in downtown Van Wert, at amazon.com and at Lambert’s website, caroljeanlambertbooks.com.

In all the research, both online and on site in Ohio and Indiana, Lambert learned a lot about her great-grandfather.

“He was a sweetheart, and ferociously curious, and that’s inspiring to me a few generations later, personally. One of the things that was a big part of his life was the family that he was from. He was one of ten children. His father was a successful manufacturer from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,”Lambert revealed.

She always wondered why he never publicized his accomplishment so that everyone would know him. “Everyone knows the Wright Brothers,” she mused. “Why doesn’t everyone know John Lambert?”

Part of that reason could be that John Lambert did not market his vehicles right away. He continued to refine the gasoline engine, for which he received many patents during his lifetime. Overall, he received more than 600 patents for his inventions, many for developments in his engine, but also for items like the lawn rake he invented, patented, and sold while he was in his 70s.

While he was not trying selling his automobile, the Duryea Brothers in Massachusetts, not far from where Carol lives now, began selling their version of the automobile. In Indiana, Lambert’s friend Elwood Haynes did likewise. After World War I, Henry Ford set up the assembly line process and mass-produced the automobile. Who was first? Antique Automotive made the definitive decision in 1960, declaring after much controversy and research, that America’s first car was built by John Lambert. The then-30-year-old Lambert completed his car in January 1891. Later that year, he had the first automobile accident also, when he ran over a tree root in the road and hit a hitching post.

Lambert only lived in Ohio City (or as it was then called, Enterprise) for six years, moving to the area at the age of 25, probably due to the large amounts of available timber in Van Wert County that could be used to build wooden farm equipment for the family business. He ran a granary in the village, and built a saw mill north of town.

“While he was there, he married his wife and they started their family,” explained Carol Lambert. “My grandfather was born in Ohio City. His name was Alvin Ray, and they called him Ray. He was three years old when the car was built, so as a toddler he rode in that car.”

She noted that in those six short years, Lambert devoted himself to being an integral part of the community as well.

“He built the town hall, a little theater that went along with that. He built the town jail. He bought property and built houses. He had a lot to do with establishing Ohio City as a village,” she said. Now there is also a festival in Ohio City each year honoring Lambert. That celebration is slated for July 17-20.

As for his invention, Lambert stated that her great-grandfather saw it as a luxury item. “It was good for salesmen and for doctors to get around, but it really wasn’t something for everyone. It really was a luxury item. Certainly that was true when he went into car manufacturing ten years later. He built luxury automobiles for people of means, which is what the industry was.”

One of baseball’s original Hall-of-Famers, Honus Wagner was a satisfied Lambert owner. He even wrote a testimonial letter about his Model H Lambert that the company used in its advertising, bragging about the vehicle’s hill-climbing ability in hilly Pennsylvania.

The Lambert and their engines were manufactured in Anderson, Indiana, and Union City, Ohio from 1902-1917. “When World War I started, the War Department took over the manufacturing plant,” she noted. “The Lambert family stopped making cars and were making munitions for the military and also partnered with another company to make fire trucks for the military.”

After World War I, there were no more new Lambert automobiles, and James Lambert moved on to new inventions and new ideas. As many were taking credit for building the first car, Lambert stayed out of the fray.

Carol mused, “I think that’s part of the reason he kept his mouth shut because he didn’t want to be a part of that.”

His name was out of most major discussions about first until with some lobbying by his son Ray helped the country know about the contributions and innovations by a young man living in a village that was renamed Ohio City, in northwestern Ohio. By 1960 the evidence was in, and Lambert was declared the first with a gas-powered automobile. But the debate over who was first never interested John Lambert.

“He didn’t seek fame,” Carol Lambert said. “He just wasn’t interested in it. He was more interested in being in his workshed fiddling around with whatever project was before him.”