November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
At a time when driving from Manhattan to Yonkers was a supreme challenge, a half-dozen cars pointed their radiators west and set out from Times Square for Paris
The atlas was consulted, and a very specific course laid out, leading from New York west to Chicago and across the prairie. The cars would cross the Rocky Mountains in northern Nevada and arrive in San Francisco, where they would take a steamship to Seattle. There they would change ships for Valdez, Alaska. If a car lost its lead in waiting for passage on a ship, so that other cars caught up, it would be granted its same lead on debarkation, and the other cars held back. The racecars were to drive across Alaska and cross the Bering Strait, then push on across Russia to Europe—to Poland, Germany, France, Paris, the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower. The trip was estimated at six months.
Experts on conditions along the route assured the Race Committee that it was impossible. They were right. The problem was not with the automobile, which had matured very quickly as a sporting machine, even though it was only about a dozen years old as a practical invention. The problem was with climates or roads, or both: The worse the roads, the more effective the weather, after all, and in most places on the route, roads were neither good nor bad, because they were nonexistent. Working backward, the Race Committee made a schedule. In order to cross Siberia before the summer floods turned it into a vast sponge, and Alaska before the spring thaw turned it into a runny mess of mud, the racecars would have to leave New York in mid-February. In a warm, dry office in Paris, that didn’t sound so bad.
The length of the trip was calculated at 19,877 miles, passing through five hundred towns and cities in the United States alone, and the estimated cost for each participant was ten thousand dollars. Since places without roads don’t need gas stations, fueling the cars could have been a great problem. However, the power of the Standard Oil Company, under attack at the time as a trust, was reflected in the fact that according to a newspaper report, “a mere notification” to the company ensured that gasoline and oil would be waiting for contestants at convenient stops all the way along the route, except in Siberia. Le Matin was referring to Siberia when it pointed out in advance that “the chief element of this [fuel] expense will be the transportation of the fuel by dog and reindeer sledges from Irkutsk.”
The six cars that entered represented four nations, all the important automaking countries except for Great Britain. They were all fairly large, open cars, ingeniously laden with gas tanks that held, on average, two hundred gallons.
Italy entered the Brixia Zust, a name commonly abbreviated so that it fitted the entry’s motto: Paris or Zust. From France the De Dion was the pre-race favorite to win, coming from one of the older, more respected auto companies. Like the Zust, it was under reconstruction for a half-year in anticipation of the trip, with additions that included a fitting for a sail and a heater for the occupants, each being a unique accessory among the entries. The Moto-Bloc was a new make of car, built in France, but with an American connection, in that it was designed by Charles Schwab’s former chauffeur. It was a lighter car than some others and had a fuel capacity of only eighty gallons. Another small French car, the Sizaire-Naudin, also started the race. The only American entry was the car with the best name, the Thomas Speedway Flyer. It was grayish white, a handsome combination of a fairly light car and a fairly powerful drive train. At the last moment the German newspaper Zeitung am Mittag sponsored an entry for its country, the Protos, a heavyweight that was rebuilt for the race in a little over two months.
On February 11, 1908, the eve of the race start, all the midtown hotels in New York City were decorated with commemorative flags. Talk of the race was in the air, and that night the devil, a character in the hit play The Soul Kiss , delivered a little special material. Standing under an eerie light, he pointed upstage (and uptown). “What do I see?” he said. “A line of automobiles in front of the Times Building, starting on the race from New York to Paris. Ah. They’ll all come to me …!”
The next morning the first part of his prophecy came true. The six cars were parked in front of the building occupied by The New York Times , the American sponsor of the race. The weather was terrible, even for February in New York. Some of the drivers were already dressed—which is to say, covered except for the eyes—in their Arctic outfits. One hundred and fifty thousand people turned out in the brisk winter chill to watch the start. The one person who didn’t show was the mayor, who was supposed to fire the starting pistol. Someone else snatched the gun, fired it, and fifteen minutes into their six-month race, the cars roared forward. The Sizaire-Naudin, however, roared only as far as Peekskill, forty-four miles up the Hudson, where it plowed into a snowdrift and quit the race.
When the Thomas Flyer reached Buffalo, it was home, in the city where it had been built. The Thomas Company had entered the race in order to prove that it made the best car in the world, but it first had to prove it had the best car in Buffalo, because the estimable Fierce-Arrow was made on the other side of town. Pierce cars, being naturally impeccable, came in first every year that they entered the sedate, almost armchair rallies called the Glidden Tours. They were held, prudently, in the summertime in places like New Hampshire. When Percy Pierce competed in them, he brought his fiancée. Not so the Thomas Flyer; it was almost uncouth. And it was definitely uncouth honking into Buffalo on February 16, all covered in mud and leftover swamp water and chased from the east by foreigners. Buffalo seemed to love it, coming out in crowds to rival those in Times Square just to cheer the Flyer and, while they were at it, the De Dion and the Zust, not far behind.
Fitted out for twenty thousand miles, the New York to Paris cars were more like pack animals than thoroughbred racecars. Each car carried three or four men but became especially associated with one of them. The Thomas Flyer was Montague Roberts, athletic and easygoing. The De Dion was G. Bourcier St. Chaffray, quirky and conniving. The Zust was Emilio Sirtori, animated and popular. The Moto-Bloc was Baron Charles Godard, quick-tempered. The Protos was Lt. Hans Koeppen, on leave from the German army, determined and … yet more determined.
The Thomas Flyer was the first through to Ohio, where the residents of one tiny town threw apples, oranges, and bananas into the car as it passed; one man tossed in a bottle of port. At the moment, the Moto-Bloc was traipsing along near Geneva, New York. Ominously, Lieutenant Koeppen in the Protos was completely broken down and losing time.
“I wish we were now in Alaska, for it will surely be easier and more pleasanter going than this,” he said in his dispatch to the Zeitung am Mittag . He sounded glum, possibly because he was losing and possibly because the kaiser himself was said to be following the progress of the race closely. In which case, not just the lieutenant was losing; Germany was too.
St. Chaffray, in the De Dion, was also losing, but was he glum? He was not, explaining from Ohio why he chose to stop chasing the Thomas one evening. “We are heroes, but we eat,” he confirmed. “The Thomas people are under the snow at this very time when I have the pen in hand. We shall drink to their health a good glass of water. They drink now the snow.”
Word of the approaching cars was passed along telephone and telegraph wires, making a whiz-bang holiday for five hundred small towns in the United States alone. One tiny Indiana village took a little bit more than its share of the glory, really, posting a sign for the sake of the Thomas: GOOD LUCK ON KENDALLVILLE-TO-PARIS RACE .
Baron Godard was outraged. “Parbleu!” he exclaimed, probably getting himself some attention in Indiana. “One … place, we stop for dinner at the house of a peasant—I think you call him farmer.” The dinner cost three dollars. “‘What for you charge me three dollars?’ I tell the peasant,” the baron continued. “The farmer say, ‘You folks eat my two chickens; they play in the kitchen with my children.’ Oh! that is too much; what for he cook his pet chickens?”
By the time the racers reached Chicago, the cars were spaced apart, so the city was able to honor each contestant equally. As Montague Roberts whisked across Illinois, the De Dion and Zust were behind by a matter of a day or so. The Moto-Bloc was in there someplace. But in the case of the Protos, it was no longer a matter of how many hours it was behind, or how many days; it was how many states. The car broke down a lot, and when it reached Chicago, ten days behind the Thomas, it was broken again. Furthermore, Lieutenant Koeppen’s two teammates declared an ultimatum: Either he was going to leave the race or they were. They claimed that they didn’t like the way he was garnering all the publicity. But as it was hardly the sort of publicity anyone would want—ever explaining which part the Protos was waiting for—the team probably had other problems. Lieutenant Koeppen couldn’t just leave the team though. In the first place, he would be in trouble with the German army, which had given him a special leave of absence, and in the second place, he had sunk his own meager fortune into the effort. He was still a long way from Paris, but he had to continue. He couldn’t go on without a teammate, however, so he acted swiftly, if rather desperately, telegraphing an opera singer he knew in Germany. She gave him the name of her husband’s ex-chauffeur, then living in America. Finally Lieutenant Koeppen and his new chauffeur left Chicago on the trail of the Thomas, but they found themselves continually held up in Iowa—not just by the muddy “gumbo” that had caught the other cars but by something even stickier: German-American social clubs in nearly every town that insisted on celebrating the Protos with banquets. And speeches.
Montague Roberts had just been given the nickname Get Here Roberts when he withdrew from the Thomas team in Cheyenne to fulfill a previous obligation to drive in a trophy race back East. By then he’d driven the car for forty days, and he’d driven beautifully, knowing when to press the car forward to make time and when to take it easy to stay out of the ditches as much as possible. As he left, the Thomas had a commanding lead of a week over the Zust; his replacement was a young man named E. Linn Mathewson who was associated with the Thomas dealer in Wyoming.
In Wyoming at the end of March, the De Dion dashed after the Thomas and the Zust, while the others lagged. Bourcier St. Chaffray, heading the De Dion effort, had the spirit of his countryman Tocqueville in him, and along the way he made pointed observations on American society. Many of his comments fell into two categories: Americans were more egalitarian than Europeans, yet they were much more money-mad. No sooner did St. Chaffray note that there is only one class in this country, with no visible difference between rich and poor, than he wondered why the primary interest that little boys had in the New York to Paris race was how much the drivers would get for winning. (Nothing.)
The mileage was carried out like the score of the race, and after a month and a half, the distances covered and the locations were: Thomas Flyer 3,832 (San Francisco); Zust 2,718 (Nevada); De Dion 2,536 (Utah); Protos 2,325 (Wyoming). Baron Godard, in the Moto-Bloc, had become so hopelessly lost in the fields of Marshalltown, Iowa (1,191 miles), that he was out of the race. The Thomas Flyer was so far ahead that even the ship schedules worked out conveniently, bringing it, and it alone, to Valdez, Alaska, for the next stage of the race. Valdez is a port on the southern coast; the plan was to go from there to Fairbanks, which is in the middle of Alaska, give or take two hundred miles, and then due west to Nome, on the west coast. The people of Nome possessed a total of two automobiles, according to a young man who had helped found the city a few years before. The more practical transportation there, and certainly back in Valdez, was the dogsled, driven by “mushers.” In mid-April the Valdez mushers were loading up with assorted merchandise for their first selling trip of the year, buying, for example, crabs, (at five cents apiece) from the local Indians to sell in Fairbanks (for one dollar). They were the big rigs of Alaska, and they were going the same way as the Thomas: north.
Lieutenant Koeppen was at the time speeding along at a phenomenal rate toward Seattle—which would have been good news except that he was sitting on a train, while the Protos remained in Utah. It was broken, but that is needless to say, and stuck in a snowstorm, but that is needless to say. Of greater interest was that Lieutenant Koeppen was going to Seattle to buy parts and that his Chicago teammate had suddenly diagnosed in himself some medical condition or other that would keep him from continuing in the Protos around the rest of the world. Cables soon flew back and forth between Seattle and Germany.
Directed to skip Alaska, Schuster and the Thomas team loaded their car on the first ship bound for Seattle. Meanwhile St. Chaffray in the De Dion and Sirtori in the Zust had boarded the first ship bound for Japan. And Lieutenant Koeppen had finally figured out, on his trip to Seattle, how to keep the Protos from breaking down so much: He loaded it onto a train. After arriving on the coast, he and the car shipped out for Russia, skipping Japan, which the Race Committee had designated optional. All agreed that the Thomas would retain its fifteen-day lead when the cars collected in Russia and that the Protos would sustain a fifteen-day penalty for taking a shortcut on the train. Still, having broken the trail all along the way, the Thomas found itself following up the rear by the time it finally arrived in Seattle to catch its ship west.
Although the cars were not required to go across Japan, after studying the schedules the De Dion and Zust teams realized that they could pick up some time by doing so. They landed at Yokohama, in the middle of the main island, and drove across the mountainous central region to Tsuruga, from which they could sail for Vladivostok. About a week later the Thomas took approximately the same route.
And so Russia, to he properly dramatic about it. For all the mutterings about upstate New York in February being just like Siberia, there is only one Siberia on this planet: vast, seemingly empty, unimaginably full. It reached more than five thousand miles east from Vladivostok, crossing over bogs, windy plains, and two major mountain ranges and through forests. The weather could be expected to be bitter cold, desert hot, and almost tropically wet, by turns. Wild animals still presided over almost all of it in 1908, including wolves, bears, and tigers.
Since the racers would have to cross Manchuria first, the list of predators should have included one other, the bandit, and in this case it was the genuine article and not just another flinty-eyed Indiana innkeeper. Three bandits who were captured at the time told officials that word had spread about the rich automobilists planning to cross the countryside alone and that speculation was rife in the ranks as to just what a rich automobilist might be worth in ransom money.
On the brink of such a morass of unknown quantities, the De Dion and Zust cars hesitated at Vladivostok. The De Dion withdrew from the race. The Protos not only surged ahead but did not even wait to allow the Thomas its fifteen-day head start. On arrival the Thomas Flyer team lost no time (except for two days in clearing customs) in following; the new goal was to reach Paris first, regardless of the time allowance. Suddenly the world had a real race. The Thomas and the Protos were within hours of each other and fighting hard. It wasn’t always easy to tell how hard, though. Over miles of mushy bogland the Thomas rolled gingerly forward, following two team members wading out in front to look for the way. The excess of water came from melting snow. It was now May, and nearly all the snow would be gone from Manchuria by June. When the team stopped in a village called Manchesuria, they were even shown where the melting snow had revealed the bodies of thirty men murdered and dumped, probably by bandits, over the winter. It wasn’t funny.
The Thomas pushed on nonetheless, and it was making progress on a dry stretch of terrain when Schuster stripped the gears. The team members hadn’t seen another automobile since leaving Japan, and they hadn’t seen another person all day. Replacement parts were a couple of days away, at best, so Schuster left on foot, leaving the other three members of the team to guard the car. One night they heard footsteps coming toward them. They were terrified, but it turned out to be a group of Cossacks, delivering extra ammunition and bayonets, along with three guard dogs and the admonition that the team’s campfire, the only cheery thing as far as the eye could see, was bound to draw bandits.
The Protos wasn’t breaking down much in Russia, nor was it getting stuck the way it always had in America. The Thomas team soon found out why: Lieutenant Koeppen and his two new co-drivers were going for broke and traveling over railroad beds. In the first place, that was expressly forbidden by the rules of the race. In the second place, trains coming in the other direction were not used to seeing approaching traffic, and on at least one occasion the Protos was almost hit by an eastbound Trans-Siberian train. (The Trans-Siberian Railroad, the pride of Imperial Russia, was only three years old in 1908.) George Schuster soon decided that there was no choice but to drive over the rails as well, and Grand Duke Sergius arranged special permission for the cars to use the Russian rails, on a schedule and with safety precautions.
A half-hour later Schuster was back behind the wheel. He wanted to drive, he had to drive, and the car settled into its former pace, a stout heart apparently being an advantage for only the first ten or twelve thousand miles. After that perhaps it just got in the way.
The Zust was not out of the race, as everyone assumed. After a long delay in Vladivostok, the riding mechanic, Henri Haaga, took over the driving, and the Zust team set off doggedly after the front-runners. The Italians were thousands of miles behind, but they were hopeful nonetheless, and the mood in their car was certainly more affable than that in the Thomas.
The deepest lake in the world is Baikal, in southern Siberia, a pristine world unto itself—and very pristine back in 1908. But the occupants of the Thomas Flyer didn’t care about that; they were just out to catch the 6:00 A.M. lake ferry in Missovala on June 20. After a harrowing night on the road, and sometimes off it, they arrived at dawn, only to learn that there was no such thing as a 6:00 A.M. lake ferry in Missovala. There was, however, a freight train that led directly to a ferry, and with the help of a hobo, they found the train station. They had been traveling for hundreds of miles in the same foul mood, complaining of mosquitoes ever buzzing in their ears, of days too hot and nights too cold, of inns too fetid (by far), of bridges too flimsy, of officials too stubborn and, everywhere they went, of horses that bolted, herds of stupid animals that stampeded, and villagers who ran into their houses and locked the windows. But the next sight irked them as nothing else had.
Lieutenant Koeppen and his crew were just finishing up loading the Protos onto the ferry train, and in the nick of time too, since the train was due to leave in four minutes. So it did. As it glided away, though, Lieutenant Koeppen promised that he would not dream of taking advantage of his twenty-hour head start but would await Schuster on the other side of the lake.
Lieutenant Koeppen did not wait on the other side of Lake Baikal, as he had said he would. He was away like a shot. Eventually the Thomas managed to catch up and take the lead for about a half-day. Then it broke down, and the repair took days. The Protos forged ahead and was first into Moscow, a big city at last, where it was hailed in triumph. Nobody there really knew about the Thomas’s time allowance, which it got in Valdez, which is in Alaska, which is really very far from the Imperial Automobile Club, which is where Koeppen and his team were the guests of honor at a banquet the night they arrived in Moscow.
That was only the first in a veritable tour of the banquet facilities at Imperial Automobile Clubs across Eastern Europe. In another week, a mere heartbeat by comparison to the ordeals in the past, the Protos was rolling down Unter den Linden in Berlin, a hero come home. While he was home, Koeppen wrote the story of his trip for the newspapers, under the jarring headline GERMANS TO THE FRONT . It was a reference to a battle charge once made by a general. On July 26 the Protos reached the city of Paris, after a journey of twenty-one thousand miles. The journey had taken 165 days, and the Protos was hailed as the winner—of the Vladivostok to Paris stage of the race. Four days later the Thomas Flyer arrived in Paris, where it was paraded through the streets and cheered as the true winner … until a traffic policeman, who didn’t care where it had just been, actually stopped it for driving without a headlight. Scratching out solutions to the very last, the team borrowed a bicycle with a light on it and propped the whole thing on the front of the car. The officer was satisfied, and the procession continued. Even so, the Paris to New York race was far from over.
The following week the American team went home, with the Flyer, of course, and on August 20 they were entertained at Oyster Bay by President Theodore Roosevelt. They informed him that the worst roads they’d found on the trip were those in the United States. That didn’t surprise him at all, so he changed the subject, making the point that he admired Americans who did things, as the Thomas team had. He did not admire the good, timid man who didn’t have the courage of his convictions.
By early September the car and its driver, George Schuster, were back in place at the Thomas factory in Buffalo; thanks to their showing, the sale of Thomas cars had picked up. Schuster must have been pleased about that and the fact that before the race even ended, the federal government had authorized funds to make the route north from Valdez to Fairbanks fit for automobiles. All over the country, in fact, a “good roads” movement had emerged in the wake of many such embarrassments along the course of the race. Something else may have changed, too, during the running. Good, timid people may have realized that a car was itself a road, in dreams, and that it might lead anywhere at all.
On September 17, 1908, the Zust finally arrived in Paris. The Great Race was over, and there never was another. By its very nature there couldn’t be.