The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris

The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris Page Three

After crossing Japan, they were shipped to Vladivostok. By then, only three cars were left, the Thomas Flyer, the Protos and the Züst. The Motobloc that had broken down in Iowa was sent to San Francisco by train and disqualified.

As difficult as the journey had been so far, the worst was yet to come. According to accounts, “The tundra of Siberia and Manchuria was an endless quagmire. The spring thaw made progress difficult. Sometimes forward progress was measured in feet rather than miles.” At one point, the Thomas could only make 15 miles a day. The Protos was leading in Russia, but Schuster in the Thomas Flyer was determined to catch up and overtake it. Finally as he was passing the Protos, the German car got mired in mud up to its hubcaps. Whereupon, Schuster hooked up a chain and pulled the Protos out. Koeppen broke out a bottle of champagne and toasted their fellowship and American sportsmanship.

Thomas Flyer New York to Paris race
The Thomas Flyer was loaded aboard a ship for the trip to Japan.
The Thomas Flyer in Japan.
The Thomas Flyer in Japan.
The Thomas Flyer in China.
The Thomas Flyer in China.
When the Protos got stuck in the Siberian mud, the Thomas Flyer pulled it out.
When the Protos got stuck in the Siberian mud, the Thomas Flyer pulled it out.
The Thomas Flyer stopping for repairs in Siberia.
The Thomas Flyer stopping for repairs in Siberia.

After leaving Russia, the roads through Europe were somewhat better. According to Schuster, “The final dash began on July 30 from Liege, Belgium to Paris.” The German Protos had arrived in Paris on July 26, but was penalized 30 days and scored second. The Thomas arrived at 8 pm on July 30. Due to the penalty, the Thomas was proclaimed the victor. A tremendous crowd saw the Flyer drive down the Boulevard Poissoniere to the Le Matin office. It had won the longest race in history having traveled 13,341 miles in 169 days. That record still stands more than 100 years later!

Thomas Flyer arrived in Paris
The Flyer arrived in Paris amidst a tumultuous celebration.
Although the Protos arrived first in Paris, it was scored second because of penalties. Kaiser Wilhelm was not happy.
Although the Protos arrived first in Paris, it was scored second because of penalties. Kaiser Wilhelm was not happy.

The 1908 New York to Paris race was covered by the sponsoring newspaper with daily front-page accounts. The event helped to establish the reliability of automobiles as a viable method of long-distance transportation. In addition, it brought attention to the need for better roads.

A 2008 TV documentary was titled The Greatest Auto Race on Earth and the 1965 motion picture, The Great Race, both based on the 1908 race.

[Source: Art Evans]

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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!

    Best,
    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.

    https://picasaweb.google.com/john.debold/ThomasFlyerAndMontyRoberts

    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 http://www.thegreatestautorace.com 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! Clarenceiamainstreet@gmail.com