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Art Smith – The Life and Times of “The Comet”

Art Smith, a pioneer aviator from Fort Wayne, Indiana, began his career in flight while becoming fascinated in 1909 after studying how birds flew. He then compared what he had learned while observing birds, with what he had read about aviation and the Wright Brothers experiences. Soon Smith became enamored with the idea and set out on the path to build his flying machine.

After being convinced that he would succeed with constructing his plane at the age of only fifteen years old, his parents mortgaged their house for the sum of eighteen-hundred dollars. With the funds needed in hand for the engine and the materials required Smith set out on his task. By the middle of January 1910, after three months and many hours of hard work, he had finished it just as he had told everyone he would.

  • Art Smith in his Curtis flying machine at the Panama-Pacific Expo in 1915 with Theodore Roosevelt on the left-hand side.

When all was finally ready, under the cover of darkness Smith, his father, and a friend pushed the plane into the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana to an old baseball field. There they erected a tent, parked the machine inside to hide his unique design from prying eyes, and returned home.

The next morning he took his first flight and crashed shortly after takeoff due to the aircraft being uncontrollable. Smith soon realized that during the design phase he had miscalculated the movement of the controls on the flaps and the stabilizer.

After a long six month recovery due to back injuries, Smith went on to a very successful career as a stunt pilot. He was nicknamed “The Comet after learning the art of nighttime flying using flares attached to the machine.

He was contracted to fly at The Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, after star aviator Lincoln Beachey’s death. At the same time, it appears that he also became involved in the small car racing event, the Baby Vanderbilt held at the expo.

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Tom Perkins, third-generation owner of the Dudley Perkins Company, a famous San Francisco Harley-Davidson dealership, has reported that his grandfather Dudley, seen in the center photo above, helped the motorcycle Company with the batch of the cars raced at the Exposition. The baby cars were equipped with Harley-Davidson engines and transmissions.

  • The line-up at a “Baby Car” race at the Tanforan Horse track in San Francisco circa 1915 captioned “Art Smith Baby Cars.”

It appears that a small fleet of at least five cars was constructed to run at the Expo during Smiths flying performances. The cars were built to look like those driven by star drivers of the day and included: two variations of the Fiat, a Mercedes, a Peugeot and a Stutz. He would fly his plane over the Baby Cars in shows, and race with them at times much as Oldfield and Beachey had done so previously.

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At the Exposition, Smith became friends with a number of Japanese officials who later invited him to Japan in 1916 to put on a series of exhibition flights. He traveled on the “Chiyo Maru” with his airplane and five of the Baby Cars and drivers.

The photo (above) shows Smith posing for a postcard photo on the ship with one of the Baby Fiats. Once there he and his “Baby Boys” put on flying and racing demonstrations in front of a crowd of people that was estimated to number sixty-thousand.

The images below, left-to-right show: One of the Fiat look-a-likes being unloaded from the ship. Smith second from the right-hand side posing with “My Baby Boys” before a race. A group photo of the drivers in their cars that are left to right: Peugeot, Fiat, Fiat, Stutz, and Mercedes.

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Later during World War I Smith worked as a test pilot and flight instructor. Afterward, he went to work for the United States Post Office flying the overnight airmail delivery route between New York and Chicago. He died in a crash on February 12, 1926, that has been reported to have been caused by his plane catching on fire. You can read his detailed 1915 autobiography, the Art Smith’s Story here.

13 responses to “Art Smith – The Life and Times of “The Comet”

  1. David,

    Very interesting story and great pictures !!

    In the photograph, with the caption “Art Smith in his Curtis flying machine at the Panama-Pacific Expo in 1915 with Theodore Roosevelt on the left-hand side,” is that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. you’re referring to ?

    AML

  2. I feel robbed as a child LOL. That roadster would’ve been the bomb to have when I was 7 or 8! Instead, I got a motorized ‘batmobile’ that moved at a third a walking pace.

  3. Interesting article, as usual. I enjoy reading these while winding down after work.
    Thank you for such a fabulous site.

  4. Looking at these photos I cant help but recall the Wacky Races cartoons from the 60s with Penelope Pitstop and villains Dick Dastardly and his schemin’ dog Muttley

  5. There must have been some serious money in racing these cars as building that many cars from scratch would be considerable not to mention transporting them from place to place would require additional equipment and personnel. I wonder if any of them still exist.

    • Tom – A collector named Jim Brucker in Santa Paula, CA had several of those cars prior to his death a few years ago. I am not sure which ones as he was reluctant to allow any pictures. It would interesting to know who acquired them, if indeed they have been sold.

    • I know of one of these midget cars which still exists, Tom. It’s owned by an antique motorcycle enthusiast who lives in northern California. Although only partially restored, the car has been shown at a couple of the antique bike meets in the area. The motor in the midget racer has been identified as one of the early Harley-Davidson race motors (their first attempt in the racing game) known as an “M” motor which debuted (although probably not stamped with the “M” in their first year) in 1914. I tried mightily to buy or trade for the motor in the little car to install in my 1915 Harley racer (which I sold this year) but was unable to make a trade; eventually, I found and was able to buy another authentic 1915 “M” motor which unfortunately had a replacement left (number side) crankcase. Seeing this post brought a cascade of memories back to me of the years I spent chasing these elusive race motors.

  6. Interesting to see someone from that time who is not only photogenic but has real awareness of the camera focal plane. Very modern by comparison.

  7. One of these cars was owned by Von Dutch and is featured in a book along with his artwork. It sold at auction 6-8 years ago and was last known to be in a collection two towns over from me. Bob

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