In 1908, racers attempted to drive from New York to Paris in the dead of winter. It got complicated.
Updated: May 24, 2022
On the frigid morning of Feb. 12, 1908, a quarter of a million people lined the streets of New York City to witness the start of a contest without precedent: a westward automobile race from New York to Paris.
Sponsored by the New York Times and the French newspaper Le Matin, the race featured six cars from four countries — three from France and one each from the United States, Germany and Italy.
The planned route would take the racers across the United States, up through Canada into Alaska, over the Bering Strait (which race organisers hoped would be frozen solid in the dead of winter) to Siberia, through Russia and finally Europe and Paris.
Among the competitors were daredevils, adventurers, a German aristocrat and a Buffalo mechanic.
The race was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., but Mayor George McClellan, who was supposed to fire the starting pistol, failed to appear on time. An impatient bystander picked up the pistol and fired it himself, and the racers were off.
One of the French cars made it less than a hundred miles before quitting due to a busted differential.
The decision to hold the race in the middle of winter enhanced the challenge. Swaddled in heavy motorist clothes, the racers struggled through deep snow and unplowed roads, often limping along in single file and stopping constantly for repairs.
The competing teams forged tentative truces and abandoned them at will. Excited locals came out in droves to support and aid the American Thomas Flyer car, while the foreign teams had to beg or pay for any assistance.
As the racers crossed vast swaths of open country with bad roads or none, they often resorted to trundling over railroads on balloon tires.
The Thomas Flyer, driven by mechanic George Schuster and Montague Roberts, opened up a sizable lead as it travelled across the southwest. They even picked up a defector from one of the French cars, Hans Hendrick Hansen, who had been fired after challenging his teammate to a duel.
After 41 days, the Thomas Flyer reached San Francisco — the first ever crossing of the United States by a car in winter. The car was then shipped up to Seattle and on to Alaska.
As the Americans turned north, the line of followers stretched from California to Iowa. Another French car, contending with persistent mechanical problems, was forced to drop out.
After reconnoitering the Alaskan terrain, George Schuster declared that driving through it in an automobile was impossible. The race organisers scrapped the whole Bering Strait plan (the only reason for holding the race in winter), and told the Americans to return to Seattle and take a ship across the Pacific.
The Americans' Alaskan detour allowed their competitors an opportunity to catch up. By the time the Americans made it back to Seattle and set sail for Japan, the others were weeks ahead of them.
To balance this injustice, the race organizers gave the Americans an allowance of 15 days — meaning they could arrive at the finish line two weeks after the others and still win. The organizers also penalized the German team 15 days for shipping their Protos car from Utah to Seattle by train.
The Americans caught up to the others in Vladivostok, where the last remaining French driver had bought up all the gasoline in the area and was offering it to whichever team would take him on board. The Italians took the Frenchman’s gasoline, but his disappointed sponsor pulled him out of the race.
The racers pushed on across the mucky thawing tundra of Siberia and Manchuria and the wild expanse of Russia, with the Germans leading, the Americans just behind and the Italians lagging thousands of miles in the rear.
On July 26, after driving for five and a half months and nearly 22,000 miles, Lt. Hans Koeppen drove the German Protos car into Paris.
The reception for the Germans was chilly — this was France, after all, and with the accumulated penalties and allowances the Americans still had a month to finish and win.
Four days later, George Schuster and the Americans cruised into Paris to the adulation of an ecstatic crowd. (The Italians would not arrive until September.)
Schuster was the only American in the crew who had gone the full distance. He was awarded fame, accolades and a 1400-pound trophy. He soon returned to his day job at the Thomas automotive factory.
The Thomas company went out of business five years later, and the faithful car that carried Schuster around the world was auctioned off.