Tag Archives: E.R. Thomas Motor Company
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.
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.
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
1896 The Globe Cycle Shop Buffalo, N.Y., with 23 year old “Wheel Truer” George Schuster first on the top row left.
By Jeff Mahl:
As the Industrial Revolution peaked in the US during the late 1800’s, long distance transportation had made great strides. Steam powered ships and locomotives were breaking speed records, and offered a degree of comfort in travel never before seen. However, for most people the horse was still the usual method whether it was going to town for supplies, or for taking longer trips especially in rural America.
City residents had a few more options particularly with trolleys, which became the early mass-transit mode for many commuters. There was also the bicycle, which long before the health craze of our generation, served as a reliable means of transportation particularly in cities large enough to have paved streets. Bicycle shops were much like car dealerships today, with every neighborhood having at least one.
In 1896 Buffalo, N.Y., was no exception with Penseyres & Haberer on Seneca St., proudly representing the Globe Cycle Company. They had in their employ a chap who was considered the best “wheel truer” in the city, as well as an accomplished cycle racer by the name of George Schuster. At the age of 23, young Schuster had already built quite a reputation for himself, being selected to participate in the U.S. Postal Service vs. U.S. Army trans-continental bicycle relay race. He won the Silver Creek to Evans, N.Y., leg for the Postal Service, even though he was not a postal employee as no one paid much attention to the eligibility rules.
Two years later in 1898, Schuster was cycling with his best friend Albert Johndahl and stopped at an inn to eat. The bar tender beckoned the two young men excitedly whispering “There is a horseless carriage in the barn!” It was a Winton being delivered from the Cleveland factory to a New York City customer by Alexander Winton himself. George had never seen an auto-mobile before, and he was awestruck! That year, Winton sold one of the first cars in America purchased by an individual for $1,000 cash.
Thomas built Auto-Tri motor assisted tricycle. Courtesy of: Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum Buffalo, NY.
Little did Schuster know, that initial encounter with the horseless carriage would turn into a lifetime of adventure and achievement. Much like the fledgling auto industry, his path would slowly evolve from bicycles to these four wheeled marvels. The E.R. Thomas Motor Company had been building motor assisted bicycles called “Auto-Bi”. It soon evolved into a three wheeled motorcycle dubbed the “Auto-Tri”. In 1902 Schuster went to work for Thomas at their Niagara St. Buffalo factory, building horizontal under slung radiators for their newly developed one cylinder two passenger automobile.
By 1904, three cylinder automobiles capable of seating up to five passengers were available built to order for wealthy clients, and George was now responsible for final assembly.
1904 The E.R. Thomas Motor Company factory on Niagara Street, Buffalo N.Y. With other factory workers, George Schuster is seated in the foreground behind the wheel of a new Thomas.
In 1906 Mr. Thomas saw considerable potential in his employee, and asked young Schuster to see what he could do with the Thomas? George made several engine modifications which greatly improved performance. He then drove the modified Thomas from Buffalo to Erie, PA., (93 miles) without shifting from high gear, and to prove it wasn’t a fluke drove it back in the same gear. Mr. Thomas was so impressed, he appointed Schuster the “Chief Trouble Shooter” for the factory!
1908 The E.R. Thomas factory with the central administrative building still standing today as a Historic Landmark.
The E.R. Thomas Company grew in size and importance with a reputation as the largest manufacturer of single cylinder air-cooled engines, and in 1905 setting a new record for a summer crossing of the United States in 48 days with the “Auto-Bi” (the motorized bicycle). By 1907, the four cylinder 60 horsepower “Thomas Flyer” was a proven machine. The large sprockets and heavy chain drive to the rear wheels were the perfectly logical method of power transfer for the former bicycle manufacturer. At $4,000 it cost more than the vast majority of homes in America, and was considered one of the most reliable cars of the day. Many wealthy families owned one, even the Roosevelt’s with young FDR learning how to drive an automobile in a 1907 Thomas purchased by his father.
By this time, George was delivering Thomas automobiles to international buyers including the President of the Puerto Rican American Tobacco Company in San Juan. Part of the delivery process was to teach chauffeurs (as owners seldom if ever drove themselves) how to maintain and maneuver their new machines. E.R. Thomas was typical of most wealthy owners, although building thousands of automobiles he never learned how to drive one himself.
By early 1908 the automobile had entered the scene, but was still considered a passing amusement reserved only for the rich. Certainly not something that would ever replace the truly reliable horse.
To be continued…..
By 1908 Thirty five year old George Schuster had seen his first “horseless carriage” at the age of 25, and his life would never be the same. “Great Gramp” lived through the transition of many early manufactures, which evolved from building bicycles at the end of the end of the 19th century into the building of automobiles in the 20th.
In 2010, George was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and is now among automotive legends including Ford, Olds, Andretti, and Benz.
Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – Great Grandson of George Schuster TheGreatAutoRace.com – All rights reserved.