Category Archives: 1908 New York to Paris Race
Restoration of a World Champion
By Jeff Mahl:
Over half a century had passed since the Thomas Flyer’s triumph in Paris on July 30, 1908. This was the first victory for an American built automobile in an intercontinental competition. For many, it had been an unimaginable feat for the fledgling U.S. auto industry, considering the formidable European manufacturers who vied for the title, but Schuster, George Miller, the rest crew and the Thomas had prevailed.
In spite of the accomplishment, the winning 1907 Model 35 fell into obscurity after the closing of the E.R. Thomas Motor Company in 1912. George Schuster, the winning driver, was quite convinced the Flyer had been lost to the World War I scrap effort. Over the intervening years, he had been asked to authenticate Flyers by various owners. One was Henry Austin Clark, Jr., also known as “Austie”, who owned the Long Island Automotive Museum 50 miles East from the Sagamore Hill Presidential Compound of Teddy Roosevelt which the Flyer and crew visited in 1908. Austie had purchased his Thomas from Mrs. Frances V. DuPont of Wilmington, Delaware who had acquired it from Charles E. Finnegan, a Buffalo newspaper publisher who lived in Elma, NY.
Austie even loaned his Thomas to be used on TV. During an episode of “I’ve Got a Secret” (click for video) in 1958, Gary Moore invited Schuster to get behind the wheel of the Clark “Flyer” that had been kept behind the curtain as a surprise for George. He then surprised Moore by declining the invitation, as he felt it was not the automobile he drove to victory in 1908. Schuster had seen this vehicle when it was still owned by Charles Finnegan and several discrepancies such as differences in seating, wheels and missing or obscured repairs convinced him that it was not the same car.
It was a “First Person” article titled Around the World, Almost, In 169 Days written by Schuster and published in the January, 1963 issue of Reader’s Digest that inspired Mr. William F. Harrah to send his staff on a quest to find the correct Flyer. He purchased the Thomas from Clark and brought it to Harrah’s Automobile Collection. George was then asked to come see the car, which prompted a reaction of “You’re wasting your money and my time!” Finally, in March of 1964, at the age of 91, Schuster agreed to meet with Mr. Harrah for a closer look at his automobile.
Still skeptical, the Thomas was disassembled with Schuster observing the process. After several hours of discussion and examination of the Flyer with Mr. Harrah, there were three primary items which changed the mind of the man who had spent nearly six months and 22,000 miles bringing the vehicle to victory in Paris.
The first was the initials M.B. carved into the front rider’s seat. They stood for Minnie Byers, a girlfriend of the carpenter. George had seen him inscribe the initials in the wood frame. The second was two holes Schuster had hand drilled into the chassis while making a cracked frame repair in Siberia. The clincher came when the flywheel was inspected. He recognized holes which had been drilled into the flywheel and pins he had driven into the clutch adjustment stud during repairs made in Moscow (circled in the photo above).
George now felt he had conclusive evidence this was, in fact, the Flyer that won the New York to Paris Race nearly six decades earlier. The question then was how to restore the Thomas? The Harrah Collection cars were famous for their “Gold Star” restorations that returned them to a condition equal in every respect to the day they rolled out the manufacturer’s door. After some debate, George interjected that “You have to remember the importance of the Flyer is how it won the Race in Paris, not how it started the Race in New York”. Mr. Harrah then made the decision to restore the Thomas to the exact condition it was in when it entered Paris, right down to the broken left front headlight which had nearly prevented the Flyer from crossing the finish line.
The restoration began in earnest with a team of forty craftsmen from the Harrah shop laboring for six weeks rebuilding the Flyer to it’s race-winning state after extensive research. The French gray paint was specially formulated just as it had been compounded in 1908. Even the “seat belt” (literally a man’s belt which they called a “strap” in 1908) was nailed back on the front rider’s seat. George had installed it in Nijni-Udinsk, Siberia to prevent the rider from falling out of the bouncing automobile as there were no doors. To bring the restoration to the final proper moment in historic appearance, Walt Disney Studios were consulted for the project.
Restoration was completed and George was invited back to Sparks to see the Flyer just as it had been in Paris. On June 12, 1964, he once again got behind the familiar steering wheel of the Thomas. Driving over some of the same roads he had traveled on his way to Tonopah, Nevada in 1908 in search of parts for the damaged drive-pinion was the culmination of a lifetime tied to the evolution of the automobile. He had personally witnessed the automobile grow from a Victorian era toy for the wealthy to an indispensable part of our every day lives.
- The restored World Champion on display at The National Automobile Museum.
The saga of the Thomas Flyer, George Schuster, George Miller and the crew are intertwined, as neither would have accomplished what they did without the other. For his role in automotive history, George Schuster, Sr. was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan on October 12, 2010.
For the “rest of the story” after the restoration with information, pictures, and video visit: www.TheGreatAutoRace.com
Click to view previous Parts 1-10, and I hope you enjoyed the series.
Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – All rights reserved
Home Sweet Home!
By Jeff Mahl:
The voyage to New York was the first real opportunity George Schuster had to consider what had just happened. Six months earlier and just one day before the start of the event, he had been summoned to Times Square to begin a race around the world in the Flyer. Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds had flatly refused to enter automobiles in the international contest. No horseless carriage had ever crossed the United States in winter let alone circumnavigated the globe. To attempt such a foolhardy journey seemed absurd.
Why, if anyone had any chance of pulling this off, it would certainly be the vastly superior European entries. After all, many thought, the automobile was just a passing fad, a summer amusement for the wealthy. The Farmers Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania even rallied to stop the use of automobiles on trails and roads shared by horses. Automobile “Scorchers” were pulled over by policemen (often on bicycles) for excessive speeds.
- L to R: Full details of the celebration held in New York City when the car and crew arrived back at the starting point of the race, the August 22, 1908 Automobile Topics.
But, in the spring and summer of 1908 the New York to Paris Race made front page news in the New York Times and international periodicals. It seemed that these horseless carriages could carry you across the country or even around the world in any kind of weather. Millions of people, not only here but overseas, were beginning to realize the automobile might just be a reasonable transportation alternative to the horse or steam train.
This new wave of confidence couldn’t have come at a better time for Mr. Ford since he introduced his immortal Model “T” in October of 1908. The mass produced “Tin Lizzie” was to make the automobile affordable for the working man. With it came the demand for better roads and in October of 1913 the Lincoln Highway, spanning the continent from Times Square in New York to San Francisco, was dedicated.
The Flyer and her crew returned to New York on August 15, 1908 as heroes. E.R. Thomas, Schuster, Miller and McAdam met Mayor McGowan at City Hall and Schuster was given the “Key to the City” of New York. The Mayor also informed the party that President Roosevelt wanted to meet the winning Thomas crew.
Arriving at the Sagamore Hill Presidential Compound in Oyster Bay on Long Island, Teddy greeted the Flyer. One of his first questions, “Were you well armed Mr. Schuster?” George politely answered with a summary of their weapons and then pulled his .32 caliber pistol from the jacket pocket where he had carried it since the start of the race. President Roosevelt remarked that it seemed quite adequate and recounted tales about his African safari. He then invited them into the library for brandy and cigars. After a toast, Roosevelt commented that he admired “Americans who did things” he went on to say that “He did not admire the timid, good man who had not the courage of his own convictions”
On January 9, 1910, the New York Times reported ”The magnificent trophy offered by Le Matin of Paris and the New York Times was presented at a banquet given last night at the Automobile Club of America to E.R. Thomas, President of the firm which entered the victorious car”. George Schuster and George Miller were seated on either side of Thomas F. Moore, the toastmaster during the ceremony and both unveiled the trophy during it. After Thomas’ acceptance speech, both Schuster and Miller also said a word or two after repeated calls from the diners. The trophy, the largest of it’s kind ever made, stood 8’6” tall and weighed over 1600 pounds. The massive prize was created from materials native to each of the competing nations; green Italian marble, pink French marble and a huge globe of German bronze at the top with the race’s route traced upon it in American silver. It was crowned with an American eagle with wings spread.
The Flyer was arguably one of the most famous cars in the world, but the hand assembled Thomas could not compete in the marketplace against assembly line produced automobiles that cost roughly one fifth as much. The race victory briefly boosted sales for the Company, but mechanical and quality control problems in later models led to sales dropping and the once proud firm was soon in trouble.
The company would go into receivership August 29, 1912. When the company closed, Schuster joined Pierce-Arrow, also located in Buffalo, as Service Superintendent. Pierce had developed a reputation for building an excellent line of trucks which helped to keep their production lines humming. George delivered a shipload of five ton trucks to the French Foreign Legion in Morocco and taught the Legionaries how to drive them. He also spent two years in Singapore developing distribution for Pierce in Asia. Prior to his first retirement in 1936, he opened a Dodge Brothers dealership. Schuster came out of retirement at the start of World War II to guard a war production plant with the same .32 caliber pistol he had shown to President Roosevelt.
Hans Hansen returned to Siberia from Paris, while George MacAdam continued with the New York Times till his passing in 1929. George Miller died in 1937 and Monty Roberts passed away in 1957 at the age of seventy-four. For decades, the fate of the Thomas Flyer racer was uncertain. George Schuster thought it had been scrapped.
In fact the Thomas had survived and ended up in the Southampton Auto Museum on Long Island after noted early collector Henry Austin Clark had found both it and the trophy. Well known collector William F. Harrah of Reno, Nevada, who owned the Harrah’s Auto Museum eventually purchased the the racer from Clark. Later with the help of George Schuster and others and facts known about unique repairs preformed on it during the race, they were able to confirm that it was in fact the race winner. In the last part of the story we will cover Harrah’s restoration of the car to the exact condition that it was in when it arrived in Paris so many years before as the winner.
By: Jeff Mahl
It was July 8, 1908. The Flyer had safely crossed two continents in one piece, more or less, and the end was finally in sight. They had traded the lead several times with the German Protos team and, as far as they knew, the Italian Zust was still somewhere in Asia, very far behind.
Schuster, determined to gain the lead, pushed both the Thomas and her crew to their limits which resulted in some runaway accidents. At one point, they spooked a large white horse who bolted and overturned the telega it was harnessed to. The driver was dragged underneath it before the animal became entangled in the harness and fell to the ground. Fortunately, the driver was unharmed and subsequently revived. When Schuster gave him a ten ruble note for his trouble, he bowed and went on his way.
Upon arriving at Perm, George received a letter from Mr. Thomas asking when he expected to reach Paris. It went on, “Do you want us to send Montague Roberts to help you when you get to the good roads of Europe?” Schuster was insulted at the suggestion that he might need assistance at this late date and is quoted as saying, “I could have eaten nails!” His telegraphed reply mentioned nothing about Roberts, but said that he and the Flyer hoped to be in Paris by July 26. By this time, two months had passed since the Thomas had left Vladivostok. Now, as the team approached Moscow, they encountered the first automobile other than the Protos that they had seen in nearly 5,000 miles of travel!
At the beginning of the contest, Grand Duke Vladimir had offered a trophy and the Imperial Automobile Club of Russia had offered a $1000 prize for the first car to reach St. Petersburg without regard to earlier penalties imposed. Unfortunately, the Thomas transmission failed once again which required Schuster to take a 430 mile telega trip to retrieve a new 600 pound assembly that had been shipped from Buffalo. Racing along at a breakneck pace with the heavy freight, he was able to cover the distance in four and one half days.
After completing the repairs, they stopped in Nizhni Novgorod for the night. It was the first time in thirteen days George had his clothes and shoes off for a bath and rest. The mechanical delays allowed the Germans to arrive first in St. Petersburg and win both the trophy and the cash prize, which was a major disappointment to the American team. The Flyer crew were made honorary members of the Imperial Automobile Club of Russia as a reward for their efforts.
As they continued onward, an encounter with an animal again caused a problem. A flock of pigeons, startled by the approach of the Thomas, took flight and one unfortunate bird was struck by the left headlight of the car, breaking the glass. With no spare lens on hand, the damage went unrepaired. This apparently minor damage would have major consequences later on.
It was then onward to Berlin. With many miles of straight road ahead, the Thomas covered nearly 300 miles in one day. Arriving in the German capitol on the morning July 27, the Flyer was met by the father of Lt. Koeppen of the Protos team, himself a retired German army colonel. He proudly announced that his son had arrived in Paris the night before to win the New York to Paris Race! The American team was surrounded by celebrating Germans, and thought it wise not to remind them that the German team had been penalized 15 days for taking a railroad flatcar across much of the American west and an additional 15 days for not going to Alaska, so their celebration was perhaps a bit premature. To claim victory, they would have had to arrive in Paris a full 30 days ahead of the Flyer, a margin that Schuster was determined to beat.
The Italian Zust team was far behind but still on the road although suffering from setbacks both mechanical and human. While in Russia, they had encountered a farmer who lost control of his horse which in turn struck and killed a small boy playing along the roadside. The farmer fled the scene while the Italians recovered the boy and took him to a nearby village. The authorities there immediately imprisoned them for the crime and, unable to explain the circumstances in Russian, they had to wait two days while the sheriff conducted his investigation of the incident. Fortunately for them, he determined that it was the farmer and not the Zust team who caused the accident and they were released.
At last, on the afternoon of July 30, 1908, the Thomas approached the Eiffel Tower only to be stopped by a Gendarme just short of the finish line. Local law required all automobiles to have two functioning headlights and, with one damaged earlier by the pigeon outside of Moscow, the American team was stopped dead in it’s tracks. Although it was still broad daylight, the French police would not waiver even though the Flyer had come over 22,000 miles in 169 days since leaving New York. As tempers flared, a Parisian bicyclist offered his lamp to the Flyer. Unable to remove it from the bicycle, Schuster hoisted the entire bike onto the hood of the Thomas. This was enough to satisfy the Gendarme who allowed the team to proceed to the Finish Line.
The French were ecstatic that the Americans and not the Germans had won. Enormous crowds jammed the Boulevard Poissonniere as the Flyer made it’s way to the offices of the Le Matin newspaper who had co-sponsored the Race with the New York Times. After a spectacular reception at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines where the champagne flowed freely, the American Thomas Flyer team was then declared the winner. The exhausted crew then rested and slept for nearly two days. George Schuster, the driver, was the only member of the original crew still on board since departing Times Square in New York on February 12.
The Germans were credited with a second place finish, a full 26 days behind, once penalties were assessed. The Zust entered Paris on September 17 for third place. The Thomas company proposed taking the Flyer to London where the Olympic Games had just ended. Although it would have made for a triumphant exhibition, it was now time for Schuster and the Thomas to head for home instead. On August 5, the Flyer was loaded aboard the French liner La Lorraine and departed Europe bound for New York City. The world would be a very different place when they finally arrived….
For more information, pictures, and video visit: www.TheGreatAutoRace.com
Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – *Great Grandson of George Schuster – All rights reserved