Sunday 26th July 1908
At 6.15 pm the German car, Protos, driven by Lt Koeppen crossed the Paris finishing line in the race from New York via Alaska and Peking, sponsored by the New York Times, after traveling more than 18,000 miles in 170 days – 88 of which had been on the road and averaged over 150 miles a day (with a maximum of 400 in 24 hours). But the declared winner was American Thomas ‘Flyer’ car after the Protos was penalized for traveling part of the way by train. When the Protos was delayed by repairs in America, it was shipped by rail to Seattle in order to sail with the ‘Flyer’ to Russia.
On February 12th, 1908 six automobiles had lined up at the start of a 22,000-mile race to Paris. Along Broadway 250,000 people cheer them on as they head north: three French vehicles, De Dion, Sizaire-Naudin and Moto-Bloc; one German Protos; one Italian Zust; and the American entry, a Thomas Flyer. The route they plan to take is across the US via Chicago to San Francisco, from there by ship up to Alaska, across the Bering Straits (which it is hoped will still be frozen), through Siberia to Moscow, then St Petersburg, Berlin and finally Paris. The previous year there had been a race from Paris to Peking, won by Prince Scipio Borghese whose prize was a magnum of champagne, but this is the big one, sponsored by the New York Times and Le Monde.
There were snowdrifts and seas of mud; the roads were dirt tracks, if there were roads at all. If there was a railroad track, they drove along it, straddling the rails and bumping from sleeper to sleeper on deflated tyres. By the time the Thomas Flyer reached San Francisco in the third week in March, its nearest competitor, the Zust, was 900 miles behind. The secret of the Flyer, capable of 60 mph and retailing at $4,000, was its team mechanic (and soon main driver) George Schuster, endlessly resourceful and determined. The Flyer was then shipped to Valdez in Alaska, where Schuster surveyed the route to Nome, in theory the beginning of the crossing to Eurasia. He reported to the organisers that it was quite impossible, so it was decided the vehicles should be shipped from Seattle to Japan. After problems over Russian visas, the Flyer ended up the last to leave, but was awarded a 15-day allowance for its time in Alaska, while the German Protos got a 15-day penalty for having been put on a train for part of the American leg.
By the time Vladivostok was reached, all three French vehicles had withdrawn; by St Petersburg, and after endless frustrations and adventures, Lieutenant Hans Koeppen’s Protos just had the edge over the Flyer, while the Italians were 3,000 miles behind.
The Protos reached Paris on July 26th while the Flyer was still in Berlin, but it finished on July 30th. The French had been grudging in the welcome they gave the Germans, but the Flyer’s arrival was greeted with huge enthusiasm, especially since the penalty and allowance made it the clear winner. The Italian Zust only reached Paris in September.
The publicity value of the race for the automobile industry was huge; at the same time it demonstrated to governments the inadequacy of the world’s road systems. Over a thousand photographs taken of the race survive. Its timing could not have been better, since 1908 was the year that Henry Ford introduced his Model T and General Motors was created out of the amalgamation of Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac (then Cadillac in 1909). The absence of a British vehicle indicated the weakness of the industry there, while the presence of three French entrants reflected their dominance. But the lead was soon to cross the Atlantic, though the Thomas firm collapsed in 1913.