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.
The Flyer clutch and flywheel assembly that answered the question
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.
Ralph Dunwoodie and William Harrah inspect progress on the Flyer
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