At the dawn of the 20th century, automobiles were an infant technology with none of the infrastructure we take for granted today: road maps, traffic signals, paved roads, gas stations, fast food, parking lots, expressways, or motels. Most people in the world had not yet seen a car in person.
What, then, could be more fun than the first 'round-the-world automobile race under such punishing conditions? In the summer of 1907, Paris newspaper Le Matin and the New York Times announced The Great Race: New York to Paris by Automobile.
Four nations entered six cars: Italy, with the Brixia Zust; Germany, with the Protos; France, with the De Dion, the Moto-Bloc, and the Sizaire-Naudin; and the United States, with the Thomas Speedway Flyer.
Legend has it that the Thomas Flyer entered the race at the insistence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who hated the prospect of European automobiles crossing the country unchallenged by Americans.
Better-established companies, such as Buffalo’s Pierce-Arrow, declined to enter. But the Thomas Automobile Company, also from Buffalo, pulled one if its production models out of its factory at the last minute and entered the race. Buffalo’s own George Schuster was driver and chief mechanic.
The starting line, on February 12, 1908, was in Times Square. Two hundred and fifty thousand people turned out to watch. The route crossed the country to San Francisco. There, drivers shipped out to Alaska and drove to the Bering Strait, where they ferried across and pushed through Russia to Europe, finishing at the Eiffel Tower. Organizers estimated the trip to take six months and the route to be 20,000 miles long.
Newspapers around the world followed the progress of the race. The Sizaire-Naudin didn’t get past the snowdrifts of the Hudson Valley before dropping out. The Moto-Bloc got lost in the farmfields of Iowa and withdrew. The Protos was caught cheating when the driver boarded it on a train and received a 30-day penalty. Fearing bandits and the brutal weather of Siberia, the De Dion backed out in Russia.
The Protos crossed the finish line first, but factoring in its penalty, did not win the race. The Thomas Flyer arrived in Paris on Friday, July 31, 1908, 170 days after leaving Times Square, the true winner. Buffalo was ecstatic and threw George Schuster a hero’s welcome party in Cazenovia Park that drew 10,000 people.
The victory of the Thomas Flyer briefly boosted sales for the Thomas Automobile Company, but mechanical flaws in subsequent models doomed the company, and all production ceased in 1913. Its factory at 1200 Niagara Street is presently used by Rich Products and bears a plaque honoring its achievements.
The winning Thomas Flyer was restored to finish-line condition under supervision of George Schuster, who died in Springville in 1972 at age 99. It is on exhibit at the National Automobile Museum in Nevada. Hollywood fictionalized the New York-Paris race in the 1965 movie, The Great Race, starring Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood.
Thomas Flyer in Ames, Iowa (Ames Historical Society)
The Great Auto Race of 1908
Great Race of 1908: Competitors (New York Times)
The Greatest Auto Race On Earth