1908 – 108 years ago – the US was not crisscrossed by an interstate highway system like it is today. In fact, outside of the major population and commercial centres in the northeast, actual roads were few and far between and road maps nonexistent. Travellers either went by train or followed trails and cart paths originally established by settlers heading west, and for the preferred means of travel at the time – horseback – that was more than adequate. And in the winter, when snowdrifts covered even those trails to a depth of several feet, people just stayed home and waited it out.
Such were the conditions when 6 intrepid teams of ‘automobilists’ started the Race of the Century in New York City on February 12, 1908. Destination: Paris. Seen off by by a crowd estimated to be more than 250,000, the 6 cars (1 American, 1 Italian, 1 German, and 3 French) left New York’s Times Square shortly after 11:00 AM, embarking on what would be an epic 5-month, 22,000 mile journey through some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.
What followed was months of hardship for the teams as they shoveled roads clear of snow with daily progress sometimes measured in yards, not miles. Frequent breakdowns meant waiting, sometimes for days, for spare parts to arrive by train. Rivers and streams had to be forded or bridges built to cross them. Mountain ranges had to be traversed. And that was just in the US. In Siberia, where these would be the first automobiles ever seen, conditions were even worse as spring thaws turned the ground to gumbo. But still they motored on, bent but unbroken.
This is the story of that race, a tale of perseverance and resilience, of ingenuity and strength (both mental and physical), and of a small group of men who ultimately overcame all obstacles put in their path to succeed in what was variously considered either a foolhardy or heroic undertaking at the very dawn of the automobile age.
It is a good read. Recommended.
Photo: The Great Auto Race