By Jeff Mahl:
It was 11:20 the cold crisp morning of February 12, 1908; just minutes after the President of the AAA New York City Chapter fired the gold pistol above the Times Square crowd. For the Race Teams, the feeling was nothing like the life or death ordeal that would lie ahead for the next six months. On the contrary, exhilaration was probably the better word to describe driving through hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers straining for a glimpse of these “horseless carriages” headed to Paris. Proceeding north on Broadway, the streets were lined with tens of thousands of people 8 to 12 deep for miles to the northern city limits. Hanging from towering windows on either side were flags, and waving children. The deafening cheers drowned out the sounds of the engine and unmuffled exhaust.
While there was no snow in Manhattan, that would soon change. Mud and snow, lots of it greeted the drivers as they proceeded north. With few paved roads and snowplows yet to be invented, the crews were often forced to hand shovel the path ahead. When that became overwhelming, horses would be hooked on front dragging the unwilling vehicles through the quagmire. Exhilaration soon turned to exhaustion…
The competitors slowly made their way up what is today Route 9 along the Hudson River, with most teams suffering their first setbacks. The Motobloc skidded in the snow, and went into the ditch. Everyone had need of their chains. The French Sizaire-Naudin just 40 miles into the Race developed rear axle trouble while climbing Splitlock Hill.
There were no spare parts, and the driver August Pons spoke no English. After struggling to Red Hook, NY the Sizaire was out of the Race for good.
Of much concern to Schuster, the Thomas Flyer was hitting on only three cylinders! The Thomas dealer in Poughkeepsie put a new spark plug into No. 4 cylinder* which helped a little. Some Vassar College coeds crowded around the Flyer which also helped, if only to lift spirits…
The snow turned to sleet by Syracuse, NY. With no roads, the Flyer had taken to the tow path used by mules to drag barges along the Erie Canal between Albany and Buffalo. The soon ice glazed towpath made sliding into the frozen waters of the Canal far too likely, so it was off to the snow covered fields, barnyards, orchards, and the Montezuma Swamps of upstate New York.
Listen to George Schuster himself describe what it was like: Driving in the winter of 1908-Audio Clip (Please allow time to load file)
Progress was painfully slow, shoveling, pushing and often towing with teams of horses. Finally the Flyer reached the outskirts of Buffalo on Sunday February 16. As was often the case in larger towns and cities (especially those with AAA Chapters), local residents would take their automobiles out of winter storage and be waiting at the city line. Then follow the Flyer with horns and cheers to the center of town.
Buffalo would offer several things all of the Racers needed, some rest and a grand banquet hosted by the Buffalo Auto Club. For the Flyer in particular, some much needed repairs including a new #4 cylinder and replacement of the drop front axle with a new straight one for greater road clearance. It also gave Schuster a chance to discuss with E. R. Thomas a greater problem. Monty Roberts was scheduled to leave the team in Cheyenne returning for a prior racing commitment. That would leave George the only Thomas employee on the car, and if something should happen to him in the coming months it would be the end of the Race for the Flyer. E.R. quickly offered Great Gramp his pick of any employee in the factory. The first choice a chap by the name of Miller, was dashed by a wife who refused to let him go. The second pick was also a Miller, a 25 year old by the name of George. As Miller was not married, that choice got quick approval! While George Schuster would be the only Flyer crew member to make the entire journey from Times Square to the Eiffel Tower, George Miller would make it from Buffalo to Paris.
Plans in Buffalo were cut short by the Italian Zust, who instead of stopping for the banquet pressed on leaving Schuster a simple message “we will see you in Paris”! The New York to Paris Race had turned from a gentlemanly event into an all out competition.
The Thomas buried in snow, makes progress being towed by teams of horses
Soon the Flyer was in hot pursuit of the Zust, driving into one of the worst blizzards in recorded history as they rounded the shores of Lake Erie. Progress at some points was measured in feet per hour as teams of up to 8 horses dragged the Thomas slowly westward.
The Thomas and its four crew members forged westward. Starting driver behind the wheel (above) is Monty Roberts. George Schuster is seated next to him who began in NYC as mechanic and then in charge of the Flyer and driver from Cheyenne to Paris. Behind Monty is George Miller, who joined in Buffalo and standing is T. Walter Williams a well known reporter for the NY Times (co-sponsor of the Race).
As the Flyer neared Chicago on February 25, optimism began to emerge as they hoped to be clear of the Snowbelt around the Great Lakes and been promised a warm welcome by the AAA. Arriving at the South Shore Country Club at 4:25 PM, it had taken 13 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes to drive the 1,403 miles from Times Square. Just 2 weeks into the Race, it had also taken a physical and mental toll. Monty weighed himself at the Chicago Athletic Club to discover he had lost 20 of his original 164 pounds!
French DeDion-St. Chaffray at the wheel with Capt. Hansen standing directly behind
Hans Hansen, a Norwegian Ship Captain also came to a stark realization! Riding with the Frenchman St. Chaffray was unbearable. The De Dion had different size snow shovels on board, and every time they were used St. Chaffray (who was a bit bureaucratic considering himself the “Napoleon of the Automobile”) always made sure Hansen was given the biggest. Hansen would later return to Buffalo, and request Mr. Thomas add him to the Flyer Team.
The French were not the only Team with morale issues. There was also great dissension in the ranks of the German military aboard the Protos. Knape and Maas felt they had been slighted by the American press and “given a lower rating” than LT. Koeppen the Prussian officer who didn’t even know how to drive. That frustration had grown to the boiling point by Chicago, and an ultimatum was given. Either Koeppen would have to leave the Protos “wagon”, or they would. As luck would have it, the LT found an unemployed German-American chauffeur by the name of Snyder who agreed to continue with the Protos to Paris.
Down to five teams, the competitors set their sights on San Francisco. They would soon be in the “wild” American West, sparsely populated and many times with nothing even closely resembling a “road”.
Unlike the so called “endurance” auto races of today which pale in comparison, 1908 was to become the ultimate automotive racing challenge yet to be equaled. For nearly 6 months, it would be a daily test of men and machines against the worst possible conditions to reach the finish line 3 continents away. Catastrophic breakdowns, hunger, disease, blizzards, raging rivers, snow covered mountains, deserts, wild animals, bandits and even death would have to be squarely faced.
Many were destined to fail….
* The Thomas Flyer had a very large 4 cylinder engine of 571 cu inch (9.375 Liter)
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Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – Great Grandson of George Schuster