Herbert H. Buffum isn't a household name or even one you encounter in many history books, but he does rank among the first Americans to ever build an automobile. Next week, his personal test car from 1895 -- a year before Henry Ford built his first car -- will be sold at the Bonhams auction in California. It's the world's oldest four-cylinder car, and the oldest American car ever to be put up for sale to the public.
A New England tool and machine builder, Buffum like many inventors,was intrigued by cars around the turn of the 20th century, but unlike most Buffum had the skills to make his ideal machines a reality. Starting in 1894, Buffum built his own four cylinder engine on a chassis from a nearby wagon builder; he would eventually build nine copies of the Buffam Four-Cylinder by 1900.
Over the next eight years Buffam made a run at becoming a volume builder of cars, building the first production V-8 engine and the first true American race car, but grew bored and moved on to building boats. This car stayed with his family for a few decades, then bounced through a few other owners. Today, Bonhams estimate the Buffam will sell for between $250,000 and $350,000, as there were only a few American cars built before 1897. Considering the majority of new cars sold in America come powered by a four-cylinder engine, the primative Buffam can claim to being far ahead of its time.