By Art Evans
As I described in my July column, the first motorized-vehicle race on land is acknowledged by historians to be the 1893 Paris to Rouen. Other place-to-place races followed in Europe before the turn of the century. Many of them involved Paris as a location of origination or destination. Paris-Bordeaux-Paris followed Rouen in 1895, Paris-Marseille-Paris in 1896 and so on. The original purpose of these events was to demonstrate the viability of motorcars as a means of transportation. The first in the U.S. was the 1895 Chicago-Waukegan-Chicago. By 1907, the longest race to that date was from Peking to Paris.
The ultimate of the genre, however, was the New York-to-Paris in 1908. Wait a minute! How could there be such an automobile race when there’s the Atlantic Ocean between the two cities? Well, it depends on which way you go. To the West, there’s only the 53-mile Bering Strait separating the United States from Russia. The rest is land.
When the race was announced, the original course was planned to include a 150-mile ship passage from Nome, Alaska across the Bering Strait to East Cape, Siberia. (As an aside, it is actually possible to make the trip solely via a road-going vehicle, because the Strait freezes over in the winter. But it wasn’t until 2008 that Steve Burgess and Dan Evans made the crossing in a Land Rover Defender 110).
In 1908, the idea of driving a car from New York to Paris was not credible; it had never been done or even attempted. Paved highways in those days were almost unknown and, in some parts of the course, there were no roads at all. Road maps were non-existent. The cars themselves were fragile as were the tires. Not only that, the race took place during the winter! The eventual route was New York City to Albany, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Valdez, Japan, Vladivostok, Omsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Berlin and Paris.
The race was sponsored by the New York Times and Le Matin, a Paris newspaper. It was described as “the most fantastic, grueling, strenuous test ever devised for man and machine.” Six cars entered: the U.S.-built Thomas Flyer, an Italian Züst, a German Protos plus a French DeDion-Bouton, Motobloc and Sizaire-Naudin. American race driver Montague Roberts drove the Thomas with George Schuster the head mechanic. Kaiser Wilhelm selected Lt. Hans Koeppen to drive his personal entry, the Protos. Baron Charles Godard, headed the Motobloc crew. Marquis DeDion chose G. Bourcier de St. Chaffrey. The crew-captain driver of the Sizaire-Naudin was M. August Pons and Antonio Scarfoglio drove the Züst. All of the cars were loaded with extra gasoline, shovels, ropes, chains, tools and spare parts as well as the drivers and crew.