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….
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Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – *Great Grandson of George Schuster – All rights reserved