The First Car in San Francisco

In 1894, the first automobile appeared in San Francisco, at the California Midwinter International Exposition. The Philion, as it was known, did not command as much attention as its flamboyant inventor and owner Achille Phillion, who drew large crowds to his show on the fairgrounds in Golden Gate Park.

A narrow beam attached to a pole in front of Edmund Swain's Mechanical Arts building stretched across to another pole with a corkscrew path leading downward. Phillion mounted a large inflated ball, then expertly rode it across the beam and down the curves to a delighted audience.

Philion, a Frenchman who moved to Akron, Ohio after his marriage to a local girl, spent the years between 1887 and 1892 building, and ultimately patenting, his coal-powered steamer. His major purpose in constructing his machine was to attarct crowds to his shows in the Akron-based circus. The giant ball used in his act was made by the B.F. Goodrich company, which was based in Akron.

In 1893, Phillion decided to take his balancing act to a much larger crowd in Chicago, where he performed before the fairgoers at the great Columbian Exposition in 1893.  When Michael de Young proposed to open San Francisco’s first world’s fair in 1894, Phillion and his steamer made the trip to the west coast.


Phillion’s steamer attracted little attention, since there were so many more wonders on display at the Midwinter Fair: the “Haunted Swing,” “Dante’s Inferno,” and the notorious belly dancers from the Near East.

Many years after the exposition closed, Phillion’s machine made some appearances in the movies. A film entrepreneurs acquired the vehicle, which made appearances in The Magnificent Ambersons and Excuse My Dust. Later purchased by the Harrah Automobile Collection, the Phillion Steamer today reside in the National Auto Museum in Reno, Nevada.

Note that the driver sits behind the passengers, who ride on the elevated seat at the front of the vehicle.

-- Arthur Chandler, February 11, 2017