Imagine Racing to Paris from New York in Midwinter by Crossing the North America

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Gunn Wheelbase Communications

Imagine racing to Paris from New York in midwinter by crossing the North American, Asian and European continents.

Now try to imagine that itAEs February, 1908, and that youAEre preparing to embark on this daunting adventure u in a windowless open-air touring car u across the frozen, wagon-rutted American landscape that, until then, fewer than 10 souls had previously driven (and none in winter). And youAEre risking life and limb for nothing more than bragging rights and a commemorative trophy.

It was a herculean task presented to George Schuster, chief road tester for the Thomas Motor Co. His boss, Edwin Ross Thomas of Buffalo, N.Y., requested that he join the Thomas Flyer team in a New York-to-Paris competition, dubbed The Great Race. It was sponsored by The New York Times and Le Matin (Paris) newspapers.

The Flyer had been originally introduced in 1906 and retailed for $4,000 (the equivalent of about nine years wages for the average worker). By 1907, more than 1,100 Flyers had been produced, of which 400 served as taxicabs. The carAEs 60-horsepower four-cylinder engine could propel the Flyer to a top speed of 60 mph, although in those days only a few roads were in good enough shape to accommodate such speeds.

Although the 35 year-old Schuster was originally asked to be the riding mechanic, he wound up piloting the Flyer after the original driver quit in San Francisco. SchusterAEs companions at various times consisted of a couple of assistants and a New York Times reporter assigned to cover the race and keep the newspaperAEs anxious readers abreast of the unfolding event.

The other Great Race participants consisted of a German and Italian team plus three entries representing now-long-forgotten French marques. In fact, all of the vehicles and car companies (German Protos, Italian Zust; French Motobloc, DeDion and Sizaire-Naudin; and the American Thomas) are now just relics from another era.

Both sponsoring publications hyped the event to the max, billing it as a nation-versus-nation grudge match. All of this media focus generated enormous publicity for the participants and, not coincidentally, helped to sell plenty of newspapers.

On the morning of Feb. 12, 1908, the half-dozen racers and their respective crews roared away from the Times Square starting line and The Great Race was officially under way. …