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The love affair with automobiles

By: Pauline Nevins
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My husband, Jim, said farewell recently to something he valued almost as much as he does me; his 1966 candy-apple red Chevy Super Sport he purchased new when he was 18 years old. The loss was tempered by the fact he sold it to Matt, a friend who lives near Colfax, and who plans to restore it. Jim has visitation rights.

For another auto fix, we traveled up Interstate 80 to Reno’s National Automobile Museum on the banks of the Truckee River. The museum houses over 200 cars dating from 1892 to the present. My favorite is the American 1907 Thomas Flyer, an entrant in the New York to Paris automobile race — a story that fascinates me.

Six cars — one each from America, Italy, and Germany, and three from France-started their engines in Times Square on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1908. Thousands gave a rousing sendoff to what became the most incredible car race the world has ever seen.

The New York Times and the La Matin (a Paris newspaper) sponsored the Race. Each car had a team of three men. The American group comprised: George Schuster, age 35; Montague Roberts age 24; and Harold Brinker, age 21. A correspondent from The New York Times rode with the Thomas crew. His daily dispatches were front-page news for nearly six months. While en route by ship, the reporter used carrier pigeons to fly stories back to Seattle. The articles were then telegraphed on to New York City.

Although E.R. Thomas entered his car in the race, he was one of the many skeptics. He doubted that any of the automobiles would make it past Chicago, let alone make it to Paris. The London Daily Mail, echoing the prevailing sentiment of the time that horses were more reliable, pondered, “the motor car, after a woman, is the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.” With attitudes like those, you can understand why it took 12 more years before women were allowed to vote in the United States.

The racers began their journey fighting freezing temperatures and blinding snowstorms on their way to Chicago. With no roads to speak of, the automobiles would often ride the rails, straddling the railroad ties. Teams of horses would act as modern-day snowplows, pulling the vehicles through the blizzards.

The Thomas Flyer was the first to arrive in San Francisco — the first automobile to cross the entire United States in winter. Two of the three French motors didn’t make it to the West Coast. One car broke down in Iowa, and the other conked out after traveling only 44 miles.

From San Francisco, the cars were supposed to board a ship to Anchorage and drive across Alaska. The organizers envisioned being able to drive over frozen rivers and dog sled trails to the Bering Strait, then on to Siberia. Snowdrifts more than 10-feet deep forced the Thomas Flyer back to Seattle, where it was transported by ship to Japan. After driving across the width of the island (the first car ever seen in that country), it was shipped from Japan to Vladivostok, Russia, for the trek across frozen Siberia to St. Petersburg, to Berlin, and finally to Paris. One newspaper described this incredible feat as a “ Skidding, shoveling, sleet-stinging, snow-clogging war against winter and it was a rain-drenching, mud-sinking battle against spring.”

The teams all battled the bone-chilling weather, appalling road conditions, and physical exhaustion — often going days without food or rest. The seatbelt in the Thomas Flyer was a man’s belt nailed to the rider’s seat. It was designed to keep the sleeping passenger from falling out of the car.

If the Thomas team thought their arrival in Paris meant their adventures were over, they were mistaken. A gendarme stopped them. They only had one headlight and were also required to pay a gasoline tax before they could proceed. The team was able to scrape together the tax money, and a passing cyclist offered his lamp but then couldn't unbolt it from the bike. George hoisted the bike onto the hood and proceeded to the finish line at the Eiffel Tower. The American car was declared the winner.

The Thomas Flyer, with its 45-star American flag billowing from the rear, arrived in Paris on July 30, 1908. Its unbelievable journey covered three continents over 22,000 miles and took a total of 169 days.

An ecstatic New York City crowd gave George Schuster and his team a ticker tape welcome home. President Teddy Roosevelt (the first president to drive an automobile), invited the Team and the Thomas to join him at his summer White House on Long Island.

The Thomas Flyer still holds the world record for this magnificent feat 110 years later!

Pauline Nevins is author of the memoir, “Fudge: The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby” and a member of Auburn's Gold Country Writers. Her email address is pond@usamedia.tv.