Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Push the button, Max!


The 1908 New York to Paris Race was an automobile competition consisting of drivers attempting to travel from New York to Paris. This was a notable challenge given the state of automobile technology and road infrastructure at the time. Only three of six contestants completed the course. The winner was the United States team, driving a 1907 Thomas Flyer.

In 1907 the Peking to Paris automobile race had inspired an even bolder test of these new machines. The following year the course would be from New York City, USA, to Paris, France with a 150-mile (240 km) ship passage from Nome across the Bering Strait to East Cape, Siberia. It should be remembered this was at a time when "the motor car is the most fragile and capricious thing on earth."

It was in Times Square February 12, 1908 that six cars representing four nations were at the starting line for what would become a 169 day ordeal. The national flags of Germany, France, Italy and the United States flew, with the Protos representing Germany, the Züst representing Italy, three cars (De Dion-Bouton, Motobloc, and Sizaire-Naudin) representing France, and Thomas Flyer competing for the United States. At 11:15 AM a shot from a gold plated pistol signaled the start of an around-the-world race, with this still novel form of transportation. Ahead of the competitors were very few paved roads, and in many parts of the world no roads at all. Often, the teams resorted to straddling the locomotive rails with their cars riding tie to tie on balloon tires for hundreds of miles when no roads could be found.

The route then took them to Valdez, Alaska by ship. The Thomas crew found impossible conditions in Alaska, and the race was rerouted across the Pacific by steamer to Japan where the Americans made their way across to the Sea of Japan. Then it was on to Vladivostok, Siberia by ship to begin crossing the continents of Asia and Europe. Only three of the competitors made it past Vladivostok, the Protos, the Züst, and the Flyer.

The tundra of Siberia and Manchuria was an endless quagmire with the spring thaw making progress difficult. At several points, forward movement was often measured in feet rather than miles per hour. Eventually, the roads improved as Europe approached and the Thomas arrived in Paris on July 30, 1908 to win. The Germans arrived in Paris four days earlier, but had been penalized a total of 30 days for not going to Alaska, and for shipping the Protos part of the way by rail car. That gave the win to the Americans with George Schuster (the only American to go the full distance from New York to Paris) and Montague Roberts by 26 days. The Italians arrived later in September 1908.

The race was of international interest with daily front page coverage by the New York Times (a cosponsor of the race with the Parisian newspaper Le Matin). The significance of the event extended far beyond the race itself. It established the reliability of the automobile as a dependable means of transportation, taking the automobile from an amusement of the rich to a reliable and viable means of long distance transportation for the masses. It also led to the call for improved roads to be constructed in many parts of the world.

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