The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris

The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris Page Two

On February 12, 1908, all six cars lined up in Times Square. At 11:15 a.m., a shot from a gold-plated pistol started the race witnessed by more than 250,000 spectators. The cars proceeded north, but before reaching Albany, the Sizaire-Naudin, which had competed in the 1907 Targa Florio, broke its rear axle and dropped out near Peekskill, New York, leaving five. Because of a blizzard, it took eight days to reach Chicago. Proceeding west on what is now the route of the Lincoln Highway, they were supposed to reach Cheyenne, Wyoming, no later than March 6. Only the Thomas Flyer made it on time. On some stretches where there were no roads, the cars drove on railroad tracks. The rules forbid using the rails themselves, so they bumped along on the ties with special tires.

1908 New York to Paris race start
Six competitors lined up in New York to start what the New York Times called the "Greatest Auto Race."
Start of the 1908 New York to Paris race
A crowd estimated at more than 250,000 was on hand to view the start of the 1908 New York to Paris race.

The Thomas flew across the continent reaching San Francisco on March 24 having taken 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. It was the first time a car had crossed the U.S. in the winter. (The summer record then was 15 days, 2 hours and 15 minutes set by a Franklin.) The Motobloc broke down in Carroll, Iowa. The rest of the pack was still either in Utah or Wyoming. During the trip, Montague Roberts had had to drop out due to a legal problem, so eventually George Schuster took over.

In Utah, the Protos had engine problems and on-the-spot repairs proved not possible. Lt. Koeppen asked the committee if he could ship the car to Seattle. Without an official ruling, he took the car on the train. In so doing, the Protos skipped 1,000 miles of difficult terrain. This would become an important factor in deciding the winner. When the Protos arrived in Seattle, Koeppen explained that the Protos had to be sent to Vladivostok where a new engine could be installed. The Protos as well as the DeDion were shipped directly to Vladivostok. The rules committee assessed a 15-day penalty on each and placed another 15-day penalty on the Protos for missing the 1,000 miles in the U.S.

From Seattle, they were supposed to drive north to Nome, Alaska. The going proved impossible, however, as there were no roads. Remember, the Alcan Highway wasn’t completed until 1942. Even today, it’s not paved all the way. So they were taken by ship to Valdez, Alaska, and from there, on to Japan where they drove across, the first time a car had done so. The DeDion was withdrawn from the competition during the crossing.

After leaving New York City, the teams encountered a severe snowstorm. Frigid temperatures and hazardous conditions continued as they crossed the U.S.
After leaving New York City, the teams encountered a severe snowstorm. Frigid temperatures and hazardous conditions continued as they crossed the U.S.
The unpaved roads in the U.S. were quagmires of mud.
The unpaved roads in the U.S. were quagmires of mud.
1908 New York to Paris race in Grand Island, Nebraska.
All along the way, crowds gathered to urge them on their way as it was in Grand Island, Nebraska.

The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris Continued

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Show Comments (14)

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  1. As a “dumm” European national I was always told that the Peking-Paris of 1907 was the Greatest Race ! There is even a famous book by that title ref. that race ! Why am I writing you this ? Because Ettore Guizzardi, Prince Borgheses Itala driver was born in the Municipality of Budrio near Bologna, Italy, my hometown, just like Franco Zagari (the automotive historian and writer/photographer), as well as Alessandro Zanardi and Giancarlo Martini (both Formula 1 drivers) and lets not forget Tarquino Provini (motorcycle racing great).

    So for me the Greatest Race is Peking =Paris won by Prince Borghese and his crew on an Itala !

  2. Art:
    Great article about “The Great Race of 1908” and wonderful archival photos! It still amazes me about the size of the crowds that flocked to events like these in the early 1900s. Given the challenges that the racers faced, these were truly heroic times in the history of the automobile!

    Ronald Sieber

  3. Just a slight clarification to an otherwise good story.

    When he left the race in the lead in Wyoming, Thomas Flyer Driver Montague Roberts did not have a “legal problem” per se. He had a commitment and contract (so I guess it’s “legal”) to drive in another race. I believe it was either the French Grand Prix or the Vanderbilt Cup. I think it was the French race because as I recall in reading Julie Fenster’s fine book, “Race of the Century” she states that his “steamer was awaiting” back in NY. He put the wheel in the trusted hands of his hand picked mechanic, George Schuster.

    There are more pictures on the site I’ve listed above and below.

    John Debold

  4. Great story. I can see how an American car, built to handle our vast spaces and frontier conditions could be competitive. Too bad the race isn’t repeated today. Maybe it’s something American “engineering” could compete in. We seem to specialize in pick-up trucks this century, having specialized in station wagons and SUVs last century.

  5. Great story, but I thought you could have mentioned that the Zust did eventually make it to Paris.

    Also a mention that a restored Zust purported to be the N.Y. to Paris vehicle would have been informative, even if you personally do not believe in it’s authenticity. … (The available info does appear to support the claim).

  6. It is a great adventure and auto story and that is why we made film. It is very accurate using many of the 1000s of original photos we found in attics and closets from around the world. We built full size running replicas of the Thomas and Protos and a partial Zust. They were recently the “stars” at the concours in Thankgivings Point Utah. It has won numerous awards including the EP Ingersoll Award from the Society of Automotive Historians.

  7. The winning Thomas Flyer , a Model 35 was built at the factory in Buffalo NY. The car now resides on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno Nervada…

  8. Congratulations on a well crafted article! Even with the many automotive advancements of the past century, I can tell you retracing my Great Grandfather’s (George Schuster) route 103 years later was not an easy task. We began in Times Square April 14, and arrived at the Eiffel Tower on July 21, 2011.

    The courage and ingenuity of not only the winning US Thomas Flyer Team, but the efforts of the German Protos and Italian Zust makes the 22,000 mile epic 1908 New York to Paris Race the greatest automotive competition in history.

    In recognition of his historic achievement, George Schuster was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame on October 12,2010.

  9. The photo captioned “The Thomas Flyer was loaded aboard a ship for the trip to Japan.” was taken on the dock in Valdez, after the Thomas Flyer arrived there. It was the only car in the race to make it to Alaska. After realizing that it would be impossible to drive beyond the dock due to deep snow, the Flyer returned to Seattle and THEN sailed to Japan. None of the cars went to Japan by way of Alaska. The handicap given to the Flyer for this extraneous trip explains how the Americans won the race, even though the Protos arrived in Paris first.

  10. Recently got hooked on this story and cannot get enough of it. I thank all that have taken their time to keep this story going. I plan to pass this down to my kids and grandkids.. any US Maps available? It would be great to see markers in the towns that were on the route… I would be more than happy to approach towns in Ill and Indiana…

    1. I’ve also just discovered this race. The community where I work was on the route through Iowa. The American crew spent the night in Clarence, Iowa at the Cottage Hotel. I have been investigating and reading so much. Would love to share resources!