The first decade of the twentieth century had already seen its share of automobile races, beginning with the Gordon Bennett Races in France, sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, Jr. who owned the New York Herald newspaper. At the beginning, races were city to city (Paris to Lyon was the first) and after the 1905 the race was known as the French Grand Prix. William Kissam Vanderbilt, Jr. established the first American race event, the Vanderbilt Cup, held on Long Island from 1904 to 1910 and then on to Wisconsin, Santa Monica in 1912 and to San Francisco in 1916.
The races became progressively more daring. In 1907 the Peking to Paris race was held, spanning two continents and over ninety-three hundred miles. That race proved to the world that the automobile craze was not a fluke; however, the next major race would further convince all skeptics of the automobile and its capabilities. Audaciously, after the 1907 race, another race was proposed and this time the race would begin in New York City in the dead of winter and end in Paris, France – via Alaska and Siberia.
The Great Race of 1908
The Great Race of 1908, sponsored by the New York Times and Le Matin, a Paris newspaper, consisted of six teams (though thirteen had actually entered): one from the United States, one from Italy, one from Germany and three representing France.
On the frigid morning of February 12, 1908, the cars lined up in Times Square awaiting the starting gun, a gold-plated pistol. The crowd on hand was estimated at more than a quarter million. George Schuster, a mechanic and Montague Roberts, a race car driver, were the United States team, accompanied by New York Times reporter Walter Williams. Schuster had received a telephone call just twelve hours prior, taking an overnight train to New York City.
At 11:15 a.m. the starting shot rang out and the race was on. The cars headed north toward Albany, but before reaching that city the Sizaire-Naudin suffered a broker differential, forcing its withdrawal near Peekskill. Blizzard conditions hampered the race to Chicago, which took eight days to complete. After leaving Chicago, the racers headed west via a route which would later be called the Lincoln Highway.
The teams had settled into a routine – rise by 5:00 a.m. and drive until 8:00 p.m. Mechanics would work until midnight, repairing vehicles and draining radiators to prevent freezing (antifreeze wasn’t available for automobile use at that time). They forged an agreement whereby leadership of the race would be alternated every five hours; however, that soon fell apart. There was fear that one team would leave in the middle of the night. One of the Frenchmen declared to Roberts that if he wanted to jump a city ahead, Roberts must inform him. Roberts shot back, “from now on you will know this is a race.”
There were very few (if any) automobile-suitable roads at that time – and sometimes no roads at all along the race route. One of the rules of the race was that rail cars could not be used to transport the racers and their cars. However, that did not preclude the racers from driving ON the railroad tracks. The U.S. team was accused of cheating by employing the railroad tracks, and generally speaking the foreigners were disdainful of the Americans. One of the French teams and the German team were forced to pay for horses to pull them out of the muck and mud, complaining that the folks of Indiana swarmed to offer free assistance to the American team. Their cries of foul were mocked in newspaper headlines.
On March 8 in Julesburg, Colorado, the Americans gained a new team member: Hendrick Hansen, a Norwegian and formerly a team member of the French De Dion team. That car had become stuck in a snowdrift and Hansen had been unable to extract it. He and the French team leader argued, ultimately resulting in Hansen being fired. At that time, the Italian Zust was in Omaha, the De Dion was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Moto-Bloc was in Maple Park, Illinois, with the German Protos slightly behind in Geneva, Illinois.
By March 6, all teams were to have arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming – only the United States team arrived on time. Montague Roberts left the race at that point, citing a desire to sail to Paris in May to race in the Grand Prix. E. Linn Mathewson, son of a sales agent for Thomas cars was tapped to drive the car from Wyoming to Utah where professional driver Harold Brinker would take over from Ogden to San Francisco. George Schuster would take on the Alaska and Siberia driving duties, with Roberts returning as the team neared Europe.
George Schuster turned out to the most indispensable member of the American team, sometimes walking miles at night to find gasoline and making all the necessary repairs along the way. In the newspapers, his name was scarcely mentioned, however. When the Americans left Cheyenne they were at least two states ahead of the other four teams. The Moto-Bloc, about to enter Iowa, was experiencing mechanical troubles. Desperately, the team leader decided to ship the car to San Francisco via the railroad (in violation of the rules), but was caught. The owners of the car sent word via telegraph that the race was over – “quit race, sell car and come home.” Now there were four teams.
The U.S. Thomas Flyer team literally “flew” across the country in 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes – the first time an automobile had crossed the country in winter. The summer record was 15 days, 2 hours and 15 minutes. As the Americans were arriving in San Francisco the third week of March, the nearest rival was at least 900 miles away. That was a sizeable lead and the Americans, as it turns out, would lose that advantage.
The plan was to ship the car to Seattle via freighter (two-day trip) and then onto a cargo ship sailing for Valdez, Alaska where the race was to continue across Alaska and then across the Bering Strait to Siberia. The Thomas Flyer arrived in Valdez on April 8, but upon further investigation Schuster concluded that the only was to cross Alaska would be to dismantle the entire car and take it across via dog sled. Race organizers had originally envisioned “being able to drive over frozen rivers and dogsled trails to the Bering Strait, from which they would somehow find a way to cross to Siberia”, according to the New York Times. Schuster’s findings prompted the Parisian committee to give up the Alaskan leg of the race – the Americans were ordered to return Seattle.
From Seattle, the teams and their cars would sail to Vladivostok and continue to Paris. The other teams had caught up, and by the time the Americans arrived back in Seattle, the other teams had already departed for Russia. The Americans who had once had a commanding lead were now the last to head across the ocean to Russia and a couple of weeks behind the competition. Even as the Italian and remaining French teams worked their way across Japan the committee decided to extend an allowance of 15 days to the American team because of the unfortunate detour they were forced to take in Alaska. Essentially, if the rival Italian or French teams had arrived first in Paris, they still would have lost the race. The Germans had also received a 15-day penalty for transporting their car via rail from Ogden to Seattle.
The Russians weren’t convinced the teams could make it across Siberia, advising them to transport the cars via the Trans-Siberian Railway, warning:
[You] shall be met on the road by Chinese brigands, Manchurian tigers, fever, plague, pestilence, famine—to say nothing of the mud after three months of rain, mosquitoes as big as locusts and other similar delights.
The drivers, however, were undeterred and determined to start at the same time two days later. Gasoline was scarce in Siberia and it was decided that the French De Dion team was finished. Schuster was determined to press on, however. He received a telegram from the Thomas factory in Buffalo, New York asking whether they should send Montague Roberts when he reached the “good roads” of Europe. George was incensed – if he was good enough to drive through Siberia with all its difficulties, why not through Europe? He sent a reply: “July 9: Arrived today. Expect to reach Paris on July 24. Schuster.”
By this time Schuster was only leading the German Protos team by a day, and unfortunately, he kept getting lost. The language barrier and misunderstanding of hand signals led to a wrong turn which cost him fifteen hours – and then the Flyer bogged down in mud, requiring extensive repairs. The German team had now surged ahead, leading by three days, with the Italians three thousand miles behind.
On July 26 at 6:15 p.m. the Protos arrived in Paris after five and a half months and 21,933 miles. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the Germans received a tepid reception from the French. Meanwhile, Schuster was dining at the Imperial Automobile Club of Berlin and being congratulated for his good showing – like “sorry, old chap but our team won.” Schuster didn’t bother to mention to them that the German team had been penalized 15 days for the illegal train transport and that they had an extra 15 days’ allowance because of the Alaska detour. The Americans could take their time reaching Paris and still win.
On July 30, Schuster and his team arrived in Paris to shouts of “Vive le car Americain!” Amusingly, the car was stopped by a policeman who demanded their arrest for having no lights on their car. Americans in nearby cafes rushed to protest but the policeman would not relent – rules are rules – no lights meant arrest. A quick thinking bicyclist rode up next to the Thomas and placed his bike, which had a headlight, on the hood of the car – problem solved!
George Schuster insisted that Montague Roberts be on hand when the team arrived back in New York on August 17 in Times Square. According to one historian, the race “marked the rise of the American automobile to prominence. Before 1908, most people thought Europeans built the better cars.” Car sales soared in the years following the race. Asphalt was invented in 1910 and ground was broken in 1912 for the Lincoln Highway which would stretch from New York to San Francisco.
Schuster never collected the $1,000 prize money until 1968 when the New York Times finally awarded it to him. Even though Schuster felt entitled to compensation from the Thomas car company, he was never paid but promised a job as long as the company remained in business – unfortunately, the company went bankrupt in 1912. George Schuster died at the age of 99 in 1972.
For years after the race, it was assumed that the Thomas Flyer had ended up as scrap for the World War I effort. Miraculously, the car was located in March 0f 1964 and authenticated by George Schuster. According to The Old Motor Magazine, there were three things that convinced Schuster of its authenticity:
The first was the initials M.B. carved into the front rider’s seat. They stood for Minnie Byers, a girlfriend of the carpenter. George had seen him inscribe the initials in the wood frame. The second was two holes Schuster had hand drilled into the chassis while making a cracked frame repair in Siberia. The clincher came when the flywheel was inspected. He recognized holes which had been drilled into the flywheel and pins he had driven into the clutch adjustment stud during repairs made in Moscow.
The car was soon restored to its original Paris condition — even the broken headlight which almost prevented the car from entering the city. A “seat belt” which was literally a man’s belt was nailed back on the front rider’s seat. Schuster had installed it to prevent the rider from falling out while bouncing along Siberian roads. The car is now on display at the National Automobile Museum.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!