The 1908 New York to Paris Race
It's no secret that the main purpose for Get Ovary It is to raise funds and awareness for our attempt at the Mongol Rally 2022 (pending). Today, the Mongol Rally, which begins in Prague (or somewhere in Europe in general), and ends in the Asian part of Russia (previously Mongolia), is the most ambitious motoring race on the planet. Cars have certainly changed a lot in the past 120 or so years, but humans have not, and wayyyyyyyyy back in 1908, some amazing fellows had hatched up a plan to race from New York, in America, to Paris, in France.
Of course most of you can see the issue right away: A huge body of water separates the two cities called the Atlantic Ocean. It wouldn't be very interesting if the competitors simply put their cars on boats and then drove a few hundred miles through France to reach Paris, so what did they decide? They decided to go the other way around. Yep. The route they drew up would take them across the United states, into Canada, to Alaska, over a much smaller body of water (the Bering Strait), across Siberia, through Europe, and finally, to Paris.
What made the journey even more insane is that, in 1908, most of the roadways we know and use today hadn't even been thought of yet. Cars were still rare; there were only about 2.24 cars per 1000 people in the US compared to about 833 cars per 1000 people today, and the infrastructure to support vehicles simply wasn't needed yet.
So why the race?
Allegedly, it all began in 1907 with the Peking (Qing, and now Beijing) to Paris race put on by the French Embassy in Peking, China and sponsored by the French newspaper, Le Matin. An article written by the newspaper advertising the event read, "What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?" The race was won by Italian Prince Scipione Borghese who received some champagne for his troubles. Some of the other racers barely finished with their lives still intact. The contestants had to travel up ravines, navigate through quicksand, and cross bridges that were not designed for vehicles. All in all, it was a very dangerous thing to attempt. Naturally, the following year, Le Matin devised an even crazier race in collaboration with The New York Times: New York to Paris.
Le Matin called the race 'Le Tour du Pole' (The Tour Around the Pole) and announced a $1000 prize to the winner, which would be about $30,000 in today's money. Another $1000 would be awarded to whomever could carry the American flag throughout the entire race. The race attracted international attention and there were teams from France, Italy, and Germany in addition to those from the United States. Some of the participants didn't even know how to drive at the beginning of the race and had to "learn on the fly", or rather "on the drive", as it were.
17 men in 6 cars in total participated in the race, including journalists to document the journey and mechanics to fix the cars which would inevitably break down. The participants were a smorgasbord of personalities including, but not limited to, G. Bourcier to St. Chaffray who had once organized a boat race in which every boat sank, Hans Hendrick Hansen who claimed that his team would get to Paris or, "our bodies will be found inside the car,"
and Antonio Scarfoglio who threatened to take a motorboat solo across the Atlantic if his father didn't allow him to participate in the New York to Paris race. As you can surmise, such a mixture of personalities would eventually lead to a very interesting race.
Members: Hans Koeppen, Ernst Maas, Hans Knape
Members: August Pons, Maurice Berlhe, Lucien Dechamps
Members: G. Bourcier de Saint Chaffray, Alphonse Autran, Hans Hendrik Hansen
Team: Thomas Flyer
Members: George Schuster, Monty Roberts, Harold Brinker
Members: Giulio Sirtori, Henri Haaga, Antonio Scarfoglio
Members: Charles Godard, Arthur Hue, Maurice Livier
On February 12th, 1908, some 250,000 people were jammed into the Times Square area of New York city to witness the beginning of the race. More lined the street up Broadway and into Harlem, to try to catch a glimpse of the cars and their drivers. The Mayor at the time, George B. McClellan Jr. was supposed to fire the starting pistol, but he was late as usual. Eventually some dude walked over to the table, grabbed the gun, and fired it instead. A superstitious person might say that this was an omen warning of events to come.
The first to quit was August Pons of Sizaire-Naudin after a differential broke a mere 96 miles into the race. At first, the teams got along with each other more or less, and formed little groups to help each other through the deep snow as they traveled through the Midwest. Remember, this is happening in 1908 and mechanical snowplows weren't widely used until the 1920s. The teams got through the snow at a agonizingly slow pace by placing boards on the ground in front of the car. After the car had passed over the board, someone, usually the mechanic, would grab the board and move it in front of the car again. Place, drive, repeat.
The American public were not too welcoming or helpful to the foreign teams either. While traveling through the countryside, the MotoBloc and Protos teams were taken for a ride by locals whenever they needed supplies, labor or horses to pull the cars out of muck. That's what you get for calling folks "boorish" and "peasants" I guess. Meanwhile, people were volunteering left, right and centre to help out the Thomas Flyer.
On March 8, a bit of drama occurred when Hans Hendrik Hansen, who had been previously working for the DeDion team, switched sides and started riding with the Americans. Apparently, Hansen and St. Chaffray started arguing after Hansen couldn't get the car out from a snowdrift. They became so heated that they almost dueled, but St. Chaffray decided to fire him instead. Probably a bad move since Hansen was an expert on traveling in the arctic, an asset to have on any team, so the Americans took advantage of the situation and welcomed him with open arms.
The Americans were in the lead by a lot, and Monty Roberts decided that it was a good time to leave his team. He was going to Paris to drive in the Grand Prix there, and it was planned for Brinker to take over. Brinker and Roberts were no doubt the stars of the team, both being professional drivers and Brinker having just survived a very deadly and public crash, but the true gem of the team was Schuster. He poured his heart and soul into the car and sacrificed sleep and comfort to keep the car running smoothly. He once walked 10 miles in the night while the others were sleeping to get gas. He was definitely incredibly important, and underappreciated.
Around the time the Thomas Flyer left Wyoming, the other cars were quite a ways behind them and the MotoBloc was in serious trouble. Godard, desperate, chose to ship the car via rail to San Francisco in violation of the rules. He was caught by a photographer covering the race and was ordered by the car's owners to quit the race and return to France. Au revoir, MotoBloc. Adieu.
Once in San Francisco, the Thomas Flyer was loaded onto a boat and ship to Seattle, and then to Alaska. Allegedly. Brinker wanted to continue on with the team, his leg of the driving having concluded, but Schuster refused, probably because he was sick of carrying Brinker's dead weight. The team was met with much fanfare and cheering. No one had expected any of the cars to make it across America in winter, but the Americans had made it.
Unfortunately, the Americans eventually lost their lead after they arrived in Alaska and found it to be impossible to cross by car. The race committee decided that the teams should sail to Vladivostok, Russia from Seattle instead. While they were busy figuring out visas and traveling back from Alaska, the other teams had arrived on the West coast and were on their way to Russia. To make things fair, the organizers awarded an allowance of 15 days to the Americans, which means that if they arrived in Paris less than 15 days after the other teams, they would still be declared the winner. As a bonus, Protos was penalized an additional 15 days for loading their car onto a train.
Every team faced a rude awakening upon setting foot on Russian soil: Siberia had no roads and even less gas. St. Chaffray summoned everyone to his room and tried to bribe the teams with gas in return for a spot in their rosters. Schuster told him he'd think about it, but then told his team that he would not accept St. Chaffray's bribe. In the end, St. Chaffray gave all of his gas to the Italian team, but did not continue the race as he was ordered home by his sponsor, the Marquis Jules-Albert de Dion. DeDion was de GONE.
The three remaining teams, Protos, Zust, and Thomas Flyer inched through Siberia. The snow made it difficult to travel and it was almost impossible to secure supplies. Many teams drove their cars on the railroad tracks and were nearly taken out by trains or by not-so-friendly Russian locals. Schuster received a telegram when he had reached Perm, Russia asking if he wanted Monty to come back and help with the driving once he arrived in Europe. Schuster was pissed; he hadn't driven through the worst of the race just to hand the reins over to Monty, so he refused. Unfortunately, Schuster kept getting lost in Russia and lost his lead to Protos. The Italians were so far behind that they weren't even worth thinking about.
At 6:15pm on July 26th, five and a half months after the start of the race and 21,933 miles from Times Square, the Protos arrived in Paris. At that moment, Schuster was having breakfast in Berlin, comforted by the knowledge that he had actually won the race thanks to the 15 allowance he had received and the 15 day penalty Protos got for hopping the train in America. Schuster finally made it to Paris 4 days later on July 30th, but it wouldn't be an interesting ending without a twist. While driving peaceably down the street, a gendarme stopped the car and declared, "You are under arrest!" The headlights on the car were out and the Thomas Flyer was committing a grave sin by driving on the streets illegally like that. Observers tried to explain that the car was participating in an important race, but the officer was having none of it. Finally, the solution came in the form of a boy who placed his bike, which had a headlight, in the front passenger seat next to Schuster. Apparently that's good enough and the gendarme allowed the car to continue.
The Italians eventually rocked up sometime in September.
The Americans in the Thomas Flyer officially won the race by a lead of 26 days, the biggest lead in racing history. Schuster humbly returned to his factory job where he was promised employment for as long as the factory was operational. It shut down five years later. Ain’t that how it goes, though?
From New York to Paris by Protos. siemens.com Global Website. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://new.siemens.com/global/en/company/about/history/stories/protos-car-race.html
Magazine, S. (2012, March 7). Paris or bust: The great new york-to-paris auto race of 1908. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/paris-or-bust-the-great-new-york-to-paris-auto-race-of-1908-116784616/
Moto Bloc French Car New York to Paris Race. The Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/item/2011661030/
The New York Times. (2008, February 10). Great race of 1908: Competitors. The New York Times. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from http://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/02/10/automobiles/0210-RACE-CARS_5.html
Redzepovic, A. (2020, February 13). The story of the 1908 New York-paris race. DriveTribe. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://drivetribe.com/p/the-story-of-the-1908-new-york-R58co0lEQ4OLsRa2IY2ijw?iid=GbBdTb7FTZOI-6U0pI4bqg