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In 1908, Racers Attempted To Drive From New York to Paris In The Dead Of Winter. It Got Complicated.

The racers line up at the starting point in Times Square.

In the annals of automotive history, the 1908 New York to Paris car race stands as a testament to human ingenuity, endurance, and a bit of lunacy too. Spanning over 22,000 miles and traversing continents, this epic race captured the imagination of people worldwide, pushing the boundaries of what was believed possible in the early days of motoring.

An enormous crowd fills Times Square to see the racers take off.

The race attracted a diverse array of competitors from around the globe, each eager to prove the capabilities of their automobiles and demonstrate the potential of this emerging technology. Among the notable participants were the American teams represented by the Thomas Flyer and the Zust, the Italian team in the Itala, and the German Protos team headed by a German aristocrat.

The Italian Zust car, with driver Emilio Sirtori and journalist Antonio Scarfoglio.

On February 12, 1908, amidst great fanfare and media attention, the race commenced from Times Square in New York City. The route took the competitors through the snow-covered roads of America, across the frozen Bering Strait into Siberia, through the rugged terrain of Asia and Europe, and finally culminating in the grand finale in Paris, France.

The American Thomas Flyer, driven by George Schuster and Montague "Monty" Roberts.

The race was slated to commence at 11 a.m., yet Mayor George McClellan, tasked with firing the starting pistol, was conspicuously absent. Growing restless, a bystander took matters into their own hands, seizing the pistol and firing it themselves, prompting the racers to embark on their journey.

Ahead of the competitors lay vast stretches of unpaved roads, with many regions devoid of roads altogether. Teams often resorted to riding on locomotive rails, their cars fitted with balloon tires, covering hundreds of miles where roads were non-existent.

The French Moto-Bloc, driven by Charles Godard.

The journey was fraught with challenges from the outset. One of the French cars made it less than a hundred miles before quitting due to a busted differential.

Adverse weather conditions, treacherous terrain, and mechanical breakdowns tested the resilience of both man and machine. Yet, amid the adversities, there were moments of triumph and camaraderie.

The German Protos Car, driven by Lt. Hans Koeppen.

The American Thomas Flyer surged ahead, crossing the United States and arriving in San Francisco in a remarkable 41 days, 8 hours, and 15 minutes—a historic winter crossing. Along the way, they welcomed a new member, Hans Hendrick Hansen, who defected from a French car team after a duel challenge with his teammate resulted in his dismissal.

The journey then led to Valdez, Alaska, by ship, where harsh conditions necessitated a reroute across the Pacific to Japan. From there, they navigated to Vladivostok, Siberia, to embark on the daunting transcontinental crossing.

The racers set out from Times Square.

Following a thorough examination of the Alaskan terrain, George Schuster concluded that navigating it by automobile was impracticable. Consequently, race organizers abandoned the Bering Strait plan, initially the race's winter challenge, instructing the Americans to return to Seattle and embark on a Pacific voyage.

The French De Dion drives through Utica, New York.

The detour through Alaska provided an opportunity for competitors to narrow the gap. By the time the Americans regrouped in Seattle and embarked for Japan, their rivals had gained a significant lead.

To rectify the disparity, organizers granted the Americans a 15-day allowance, enabling them to finish two weeks after their counterparts and still clinch victory. Additionally, the German team incurred a 15-day penalty for transporting their Protos car from Utah to Seattle via train.

Emilio Sirtori drives the Italian Zust through Utica, New York, followed by the American Thomas Flyer.

Navigating through the soggy plains of Siberia and Manchuria during the spring thaw proved arduous, with progress often measured in feet rather than miles per hour.

In Vladivostok, the Americans closed in on their competitors. A French driver, having bought all available gasoline, sought refuge with other teams. Despite the Italians accepting his offer, his sponsor withdrew him from the race, leaving him disappointed.

Undeterred, the racers forged ahead through the challenging terrain of Siberia, Manchuria, and Russia. The Germans held the lead, closely trailed by the Americans, while the Italians lagged thousands of miles behind.

Despite the challenges, the Thomas Flyer triumphantly reached Paris on July 30, 1908, covering approximately 16,700 km.

The race garnered international attention, with The New York Times providing daily front-page coverage. Its significance extended beyond the competition, affirming the automobile's reliability as a practical mode of long-distance travel and catalysing the demand for improved roads worldwide.

George Schuster, the victorious driver, was later honoured with induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame on October 12, 2010. Today, the iconic Thomas Flyer and its trophy are showcased at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, preserving the legacy of this extraordinary journey.

G. Bourcier de St. Chaffray drives the French De Dion.

Hans Koeppen drives the German Protos through Marshalltown, Pennsylvania.

The drivers of the American Thomas Flyer car wait for the ferry in Valdez, Alaska.

The American Thomas Flyer drives through Kobe, Japan.

The American Thomas Flyer car stops outside an inn in Manchuria.

Crowds gather in Berlin for the arrival of the racers.


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