In 1908, someone came up with an idea that countries leading in the automobile industry could participate in a global car race.
The Great Automobile Race was conceived as an endurance race that would go from New York City, USA to Paris, France. The board chose to have two French entries (plus one unofficial entry), one American entry, two Italian entries and one German entry. The six official companies that competed were: Thomas, Protos, De Dion, Zust, Sizaire-Naudin, and Moto-Bloc. The unofficial company was Werner (as in the stove company). The New York Times said “It will be the personal pluck and ingenuity of the driver that will bring victory to a car rather than the equipment…. It is the man and not the machine that will win the New York to Paris race.”
The cars and the people
The French teams.
The Sizaire-Naudin: Auguste Pons who was the captain and the second oldest of the French, he was 32 years old. His teammates were Maurice Beth, 24 and Lucien Deschamps, also 24.
The Moto-Bloc: Another crew was for the Moto-Bloc. They had Charles Godard as its captain. He was 31. He had teammates, Arthur Hue and R. Maurice Livier. Hue was 26, Livier was the youngest of all the competitors, and he was 19. Godard raced in a Peking to Paris race on a motorcycle, that ran out of gas in the middle of the Gobi Desert!
The De Dion: The De Dion had two Frenchmen as drivers, and a Norwegian navigator. The De Dion’s captain was the Commissioner General of the race, G. Bourcier St. Chaffray. St. Chaffray was 36. His two teammates were Autran (Autran declined to give his first name to the board) and Hans Hendrik Hansen. Autran was 25, Hansen was 43. Hansen was an explorer and a wild man: he had mined in the Alaskan Gold Rush and supposedly sailed a Viking ship by himself to the North Pole. Nobody really believed the latter claim.
The German team.
The Protos: The Germans were Lieut. Hans Koeppen, 31 and Ernest Maas, 33 and Hans Knape, 29. Koeppen was the captain of the German car: the tank-like Protos. Knape liked to flirt with women, so he barely got to go into a town to flirt. They would keep him out of a town so he would keep his mind on the race.
The Italian team.
The Zust: The Italian’s captain was Antonio Scarfoglio, 21. Scarfoglio’s teammates were Emilio Sitori, 26. The one non-Italian was Henri Haaga, was German and 22. Haaga was referred to as the “big, blonde baby”. Scarfoglio was very poetic and loved to write and recite poems.
The American team.
The Thomas Flyer: The two original American teammates were Montague Roberts, who was the captain and 25. His teammate was George Schuster, 35. Later, George Miller and George Macadam joined. Monty Roberts left the team in Seattle. Schuster took over as driver for almost the rest of the race, switching with Macadam. Macadam was a reporter for the New York Times.
The race was scheduled to start on February 12, at 11:00 AM. The starting point was Times Square, New York City. The competitors could not get off to a fast start, as the crowds of fans and well-wishers crowded the square and tried to steal parts and gear as souvenirs.
The race route was supposed to go through New York City to Utica, New York, then to Buffalo, New York and down to Columbus, Ohio. It would then go to Chicago, Illinois. The next stop would be Omaha, Nebraska. They would then pass through Ogden, Utah. They would then go to San Francisco, California. Then next stop would be Seattle, Washington. They would go up to Valdez, Alaska. They would then catch a steamer to Yokohama, Japan, where they would go to Kobe, Japan. The next stop would be Vladivostok, Russia. They would go through Manchuria, a Russian controlled province of China. Then, up to Harbin, Manchuria, then Chita, Irkutsk, then to Tomsk, then Omsk. Then to Ekatinburg, then to Moscow. They would go to St. Petersburg and then all the way down to Berlin, Germany and then as fast as they could to Paris, France. This all seemed possible, but the Midwest part of the U.S. had the worst blizzard in over 50 years!
The Midwest was terrible: ten foot high snowdrifts and chest high mud that the cars had to slog through. Lieut. Koeppen was personally given a six-month leave by the Kaiser of Germany (who was a car fanatic who bought cars with his own money) so he could compete. The Germans made it in 182 days, just five short of six months. The Americans made it in 183 days.
The hardships they endured were unbelievable. Car parts were hard to come by, and they used whatever parts they could find or wait weeks for parts. The Italians Zust broke 10 gear teeth off the reverse gear and had to file nails down to put them on, as the Zust could not go backwards. The nails that they got came off the canvas top of the Zust! The Zust broke down so many times that they sold the car in Salt Lake City. They bought a less used Zust from a resident for $500. That was a lot of money back then, but cheap for a Zust.
The Germans and Americans traveled on the railroad tracks for most of the U.S. When they came to Omaha, it was considered cheating, and all cars had to travel under their own power. The Germans broke their suspension numerous times.
When the competitors came to Russia, they traveled on the “Great Russian Post Road” for about 250 miles. Again, the Thomas team and the Protos team went on the railroads- this time on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Most of the time spent traveling through Manchuria and Russia, the Italian’s went on the Post Road. The Post Road is a road that was built to get supplies to the railroad. In the 1960’s, it became a Russian highway and was repaved. Now it is called the Road of Bones because it is so bumpy.
At one point, the Americans were going along on the railroad tracks when they saw a flagman running towards them telling them to get off the tracks or get killed. They pushed the Flyer off the tracks- not a moment too soon, the St. Petersburg express came rushing past. Another time, about 100 miles further down the line, the Flyer’s driving gear snapped and they pushed it off the tracks. Schuster went to Moscow to get parts. He was gone for two weeks. Macadam and Miller made themselves comfortable waiting for Schuster to return, by sleeping under the car. Luckily, it didn’t snow!
When they were traveling through America, the contestants often had to tow each other out of the mud or snow. When the Germans broke down outside of a small city in the Rocky Mountains, Koeppen had to hike 50 miles (that is about as far from my house to San Francisco) before he could get a team of horses to pull them out of a sandpit. The Italians nearly had worse luck, a couple of hoboes were walking by and Haaga offered them $2 apiece if they would help pull the Zust out of some mud. The hoboes were very interested in the spare rear axle. Scarfoglio pulled his pistol out and made them give the axle back and pull the Zust out with Sitori and Haaga.
When all the contestants were in Japan, it was slow going. At one point the Protos was going along on a narrow bridge when suddenly Maas floored the gas pedal, not a moment too soon. The bamboo bridge snapped under 4750 pounds of car. Hansen quit the French crew because of personality clashes with St. Chaffray. He joined the Americans in Yokohama. The Flyer had worse problems as it tipped the scales at a hefty 5700 pounds. That is almost 3 tons!
The food that the contestants had in the U.S. was typically pasta, as there were many Italian immigrants. In Manchuria and parts of Russia, the food was tea, bread, eggs. Scarfoglio said “every day it tea, bread, eggs. Eggs, tea, bread…” As you can see, the contestants hated tea, bread and eggs by the time they got to Paris.
The lodging they stayed in was mostly their cars in the Western part of the U.S. In Manchuria and most of Russia, they slept in their cars because of the fear of bandits. One time in Japan, the Germans fell asleep in the Protos, only to wake up in the morning and find out they were less than half a mile away from a sizeable town! They could have slept in a real bed!
The way they got parts for their cars was fairly difficult: in the U.S. and Europe, it was easy because of the railroads and they were close to their companies. The Germans, in Russia, had to wait a week before they could get a new transmission. When two of the Georges (Macadam and Miller) were waiting for Schuster to come back with a new driving gear, they dubbed their campsite “Camp Hard Luck” because at night the trains would keep them up and the howling of the wolves and the fear of bandits kept them up most of the night.
Who won? Well, the Germans arrived in Paris first, but Koeppen’s father didn’t tell the committee about them finishing until the Americans had been in town for two days. That was not a very smart move! There has been a great debate of who finished first.
The placement officially.
- De Dion
What happened to the cars and the people?
Koeppen got promoted to captain and got to fight in WWI and survived. In the beginning of WWII, he was a general for Adolf Hitler. He pled sick leave as he needed a break. It was granted and he fled the country and joined the Resistance. When the Resistance found out he was German, they held him prisoner until he was able to convince them into letting him fight with them. Nobody knows what happened to the Protos. Hansen went on to open a law office in St. Petersburg.
Schuster went on to open a private mechanics shop in Virginia. The Thomas company went bankrupt and sold the car to Monty Roberts, who sold it to somebody in Dawson City, Alaska. It was bought in 2000 by a gambling tycoon, who invited Roberts to come and see if it was the original Flyer. It was. Nobody really knows what happened to the French teams. The Flyer ended up in the Harrah Museum in Reno, Nevada.
I think that they endured a lot of hardships, but they had the adventure of a lifetime. There were some fights between some of the contestants, but they all figured it out. They all had an exciting experience going around the world.
If you would like to learn more than I have told you, then you can visit these websites.