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“The Greatest American Racing Car” – Locomobile Old 16 – Part II

This is the second in a series of articles featuring the legendary 120 h.p. 1906 Locomobile, which won the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race at the hands of George Robertson. It is shown here in images from The Henry Ford Museum and contemporary press photos that were published shortly after it won that contest. We will not cover either the 1906 and 1908 Vanderbilt Cup races here, as they have been widely reported on many times before, but you can learn much more about the role this car played in them on earlier posts here on The Old Motor.

After the car was finished traveling around the country doing post race publicity for the company, it ended up on Andrew L. Riker’s farm in southwestern Connecticut where he evidently enjoyed it for a few years. He had designed the car for the company in his position as Locomobile’s chief engineer. At some point before 1920, it passed on to Joseph Sessions of Bristol, Connecticut. That city was a clock-making and manufacturing center in those days and Sessions ran  J. H. Sessions & Son that manufactured hardware for travel trunks. He also operated one of the leading foundries in the state, which cast many of the parts that went into the making of the Locomobile racing cars.

Sessions built a special building to house the car on the grounds of his brownstone mansion on Federal Hill in Bristol. He was known to take the car out once a year on a very fast run and it has been reported that he often received an annual speeding ticket from the police who did not take kindly to this activity. My grandmother worked for the Sessions’ in the mansion during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

  • L to R : The intake side of the 990 cubic inch four cylinder engine – The racing helmet that George Robertson wore during the race – The intake rocker arms at the top of the F-head engine.

  • L to R : The shift and hand brake levers, front sprocket and drive chain – The exhaust side of the engine – The hand throttle and spark control levers.

Upon Sessions’ death in 1941, several prominent early antique car collectors expressed a desire to buy the famous car from the family. In the end Artist Peter Helck who was close friends with Joe Tracy, the driver of the car in the 1906 race, was chosen to be it’s next caretaker. In January of 1942, the car was towed on a rope behind a truck all the way to Helck’s home in Boston Corners, New York with Tracy at the wheel.

After the war, the legendary car was a regular participant in important old car and VMCCA events with Tracy behind the wheel at many of them, along with Helck and his son Jerry. Helck treasured the car until his death in 1988 after which the car was passed on to his son Jerry who eventually transferred it to The Henry Ford Museum where it can be seen on display today. In 1960, Peter Helck was kind enough to give your writer, then aged five, a ride in the car while on a tour, an experience I have never forgotten.

  • George Robertson and Glenn Ethridge making a high speed pass down Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut, during a two day celebration in honor of winning the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup. The Automobile November 12, 1908.
  • L to R : Locomobile and crew in N.Y.C. at the start of the run to the factory – A small part of the crowd in Port Chester, N.Y – Robertson posing with the silver Vanderbilt Cup at the celebration in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

Automobile Topics, in their December 1908 issue, described the full details of the victory celebration, which started at the Locomobile branch in New York City. There the car and a party of ten other Locomobiles and enthusiasts formed up for a run to Bridgeport, Connecticut. The entire route from the city to it’s home was lined with people waiting to see the famous car and crew. Stops were made in both New Rochelle and Port Chester, New York, where thousands more arrived to see the famous racing car. The next stop was at a lavish luncheon prepared for them at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. After lunch, twenty more cars joined the parade to Bridgeport.

The following day, a grand two day celebration began for which thirty thousand people descended upon the city. They saw Robertson and Ethridge take the car on a high speed run through the municipality where, in places, they “let it out to it’s full speed”. That evening a banquet for three hundred people was held at the new Stratfield Hotel to cap off the event. At the dinner, driver Jim Florida and mechanician L.M. Travis who had handled the second Locomobile “1” in the race, were also honored for the part they played in the team’s success, a third place finish.

  • Two 1908 champions, the Thomas-Flyer New York to Paris Race winner and the Locomobile Vanderbilt Cup winner on display at the automobile show held at the Grand Palace in in New York City. Image from The Automobile, January 21, 1909.  

After all the celebrations ended, the car made the rounds of all the major automobile shows in the country and visited the various Locomobile branch showrooms until 1910 when the car was returned to the factory in Bridgeport.

To finish off, just below is a video made by Academy Award winning film maker Sue Marks with the late Paul Newman introducing the car and telling the tale of “The day she raced the World and won”. In it you can see rare period film footage, photos and watch as curators at the museum ran the car through its paces in one of the last times that it was run in 2008.

9 responses to ““The Greatest American Racing Car” – Locomobile Old 16 – Part II

  1. Years ago I met A.L. Riker’s son on Long Island at a car meet held, I believe, on the 70th anniversary of the Vanderbilt Cup win. Old 16 was there and running…the only car I’ve ever seen that literally made the ground shake. In any case, Mr. Riker told me that his father had sold the car just about the time he got his driver’s license… I wonder why?

  2. Back in the late 80’s or early 90’s while at Meadowbrook Old 16 was being run around the grounds the day before the show. I managed a ride on the back lawn for a short distance till the grounds crew had a stroke an made the driver stop. It was a short and interesting ride. Ed

  3. It will be 46 years ago this Saturday that I first saw Old 16 at the HCCA Fall Meet here in Ridgefield, Ct. Peter Helck would drive the car to the meet a few times after that as well. Every time I drive up or down the long straights of Rt 22 in New York I imagine Peter & Old 16 running at full speed. That car had a great sound as it arrived at the Ridgefield meet. Bob

    • Thanks to Peter I was given a ride in Old 16, which I will never forget when I was 5-years old in 1960 at a VMCCA tour. It was an event that sent me on towards a life spent with early road and racing cars and I have my run my own restoration-machine shop since I was 21 and am now going on 37 + years. So take a kid under your wing at a show or event if you can and show them around a bit. You just might make a new friend. And you never know where it might lead.

      I think about Peter quite often and his kind gesture and last August, 53 years later the T-Head Mercer that used to be his and now is under my care for a friend, ended up at Pebble Beach with five other T-Head Mercer Raceabouts. Some how I think he must have been smiling that day.

      The moral of the story….Introduce any children that you can to the machines we are passionate about.

  4. David,

    There are several reports that say old 16 is a 90 HP car. In fact there are reports that Riker commissioned two 90 HP cars in 1905 at a total cost of $40,000 but it is also reported that in 1908 Riker commissioned a 120 HP car at a cost of $18,000. There is no mention of this $18,000, 120 HP car past that and old 16 is credited with 120 HP.

    I know that early cars HP ratings were low for tax reasons and old 16 could easily be closer to 120 HP but that does not negate the fact that Riker commissioned another race car in 1908 at a cost of $18,000. What happened to this car?

  5. David,

    I have now done an extensive search to answer this question and have learned that in August of 04, a Dr. Harold Thomas of Chicago Illinois contracted with Locomobile to build him a race car. It was this car that was said to produce 120 HP and it was this car that ran in the Gordon Bennet race and placed third in the 06 Vanderbilt cup race. This car has four exhaust ports while old 16 and the sister car has two exhaust ports. Old 16 is said to be a 90 HP car. The Locomobile built Thomas car has a motor of 7″x7″ B&S while old 16 is said to be 7.25×6 so in truth the HP is very similar but for identification it is useful to use the numbers as they were historically used. These two cars, the Locomobile built Thomas car and old 16 are confused through out history. Joe Tracy was the driver of the Thomas car and Robertson was the driver of the Locomobile car. The Locomobile car won the 08 Vanderbilt cup.

    The Thomas motor was a standard T head motor with cast water jackets but old 16 had overhead intake valves and copper water jackets. The Thomas car had one exhaust port per cylinder but old 16 has one exhaust port per two cylinders.

    The Thomas car was evidently sold sometime in 1908 and it will take more research but this is probably how Mr Beale came to own it and it appears Joe Tracy also owned it at one time. I believe this car still exist but is mis-identified because of its association with old 16.

  6. David, I have read with interest Allen Haywood’s comments relative to Locomobile #7. To clarify my grandfather’s ownership of this car, I wish to state that it is only a “family” legend and he supposedly only had a 1/2 interest in it
    prior to the Gordon Bennett race in 1905. It’s conceviable as my grandfather had many early Locomobiles including
    the PUP featured in your web site and he also had a close relationship with A L Riker but not Dr Thomas. #7’swhereabouts after the 06 Vanderbilt are sketchy, and I have spoken
    to both Peter Heck and Larry Riker and neither had any information to add to the puzzle. Naturally, having read
    Mr. Haywood’s comments ,I am interested in knowing his sources particularly are they public or private. I would
    like to contact him through The Old Motor and will await a reply. Many thanks, Binney

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