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The Great Race

No, not that one, the great New York-to-Seattle race of 1909! What's that? You mean you never even heard of the great New York-to-Seattle race? True, it's not exactly a household name these days, but as this is the centenary of the race, we really ought to have a look back and note what it did for automotive GreatRace history; and indeed, it did have an impact.

When motoring was in its infancy, these sorts of races or endurance contests were popular ways for manufacturers to highlight the dependability of their cars. One must recall that the main mode of transportation at the turn of the 20th century, the horse, was really an all-purpose, all-terrain ... errr ... vehicle. A rider on horseback, or even a light carriage, could traverse all manner of landscapes, from the cobblestone streets of major cities to the dirt roads of smaller towns to the no-roads of rural America. Motor cars were initially-- and generally accurately--viewed as playthings of the wealthy rather than dependable transportation. What better way to show that these cars could be used for the rigors of everyday driving than by sending them on grueling cross-continent treks where failure was likely and death possible?

There were other, more famous, races, but this one deserves mention not only for the present anniversary year, but also because it played something of a crucial role in the development of the automobile in America and the fates of some of the companies involved.

The New York-to-Seattle or Ocean-to-Ocean Endurance Race was dreamed up by Robert Guggenheim to coincide with the start of the equally little-known Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909. Seattle is better-known as sponsor of the 1962 World's Fair which saw the debut of the Space Needle. The "A-Y-P", as it is sometimes called, has been largely forgotten, though the 1962 event was in fact developed with the earlier A-Y-P in mind. It was meant to showcase Seattle as a gateway city to Alaska and western Canada as well as the Pacific Rim in general. This all occurred in the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush when thousands of people were headed northwest to seek their fortune in the Yukon and Seattle was a major stopover along the route.

Guggenheim was, in part, motivated by his interest in the "better roads" campaign to create a better road system for the country and make roads more suitable for automobiles. Guggenheim had hoped to attract at least 30 participants for the race but, unfortunately, the affair had problems from the start. Deaths from automobile accidents were a public concern even then--324 people had been killed in 1907 alone--and the Manufacturers’ Contest Association refused to sanction the event. Organizers eventually promised that all speed limits would be obeyed and even dropped the word "race" from the event name and called it an "Endurance Contest," which was probably more accurate anyway. The prize, ponied up by Guggenheim himself, was $2,000 and a trophy plus bragging rights. Unfortunately, only six contestants entered:

Shawmut -- The Shawmut Roundabout was built in Stoneham, Mass., and was driven by F.A. Pettingell. The company's factory building had recently burned down and only two automobiles had been salvaged. One of them was entered in the race, and it was hoped that a win would give the company the boost it needed to rebuild.



-- The Acme was built by the Acme Motor Car Co. of Reading, Pa., that formerly built b icycles. Consequently, the Acme was chain-driven. The company only produced cars from 1903-1910, it being determined that chain drives tended to be suboptimal for automotive applications. George Salzman was behind the wheel of the Acme.


Stearns -- The Stearns Touring was made by the F.B. Stearns and Company in Cleveland. Stearns were known for their performance and luxury ("No less than 17 coats of paint") and this entrant was a luxury model driven by Robert C. Maxwell with Kenneth Majors as the mechanic. 


-- Guggenheim entered his personal car, an Itala. The same model had been driven on another then-famous but now largely unknown Paris-to-Peking race of 1907, where it was driven by Prince Scipio Borghese. Observers probably pegged the Itala as the car to beat, as the engineers had already had experience with long-distance racing. It was also the most powerful car in the race, at 40 horsepower. 

FordNo2  -- Finally, Ford Motor Co. entered two cars, both Model Ts. The Model T had been introduced in 1908 and, unlike the other entrants, these were decidedly not luxury models, befitting Henry Ford's beliefs that motoring should be for the general public, not just the rich. They were cheap, light (less than 1,000 pounds compared to 3,500-4,600 pounds for the others), tough, and mechanically flexible. While the other cars were mostly hand-made, the Fords were built on a production line, although modified for use in the race. Ford also had a secret weapon the others didn't: a string of dealers all across the country that provided on-the-spot repairs, spare parts, and local knowledge of the best routes. Ford No. 1 was manned by driver Frank Kulick and mechanic H.B. Harper, while Ford No. 2 (photo, actual car) was driven by B.W. Scott with C.J. Smith as mechanic.

The start of the race coincided with the start of the A-Y-P on June 1, 1909. President William Howard Taft pressed a golden telegraph key to open the fair and also as a signal to the mayor of New York, George B. McClellan (son of the Civil War General), to fire a golden revolver to start the race. And they were off!Stuckinmud

Mostly. The Stearns dropped out due to mechanical problems on the outskirts of New York City. The rest faced a daunting challenge of summer rains producing deep mud, streams and rivers with few bridges (they often crossed on railroad trestles), and snow in the mountains. The decreased weight of the Fords was an advantage; when stuck, they were light enough for a couple of men to lift up and put wooden planks under the wheels for traction. 

The race was followed nationally through newspaper accounts. This paragraph ran in the New York Times on June 16: 

"Hard luck befell the cars in the New York to Seattle automobile race during the past twenty-four hours, and their positions have changed. The Acme car stuck in the mud at Pierce, forty miles south of Cheyenne, early this morning and was nearly all day extricating itself." 

Stuckinriver Rumor hath it that Henry Ford himself showed up to help dig one of the Fords out of deep snow on Snoqualmie Pass, just east of Seattle in the Cascade mountains.

Finally, 22 days later on June 23, Ford No. 2 crossed the finish line at Drumheller Fountain on the University of Washington campus (the fountain is still there) and was declared the winner. The Shawmut crossed the finish line 17 hours later, closely followed by Ford No.1 and the Acme a week later. The Itala dropped out in Wyoming.

Ford immediately began a massive advertising campaign touting the inexpensive, lightweight Model T as the best automobile in the race. Sales jumped from 239 in 1908 to over 12,000 in 1909 and kept climbing from there; by 1914 Ford was producing more cars than all other manufacturers combined and by 1916 more than half the cars in the world were Model Ts. Some have even argued that the race saved the company.

But wait, there's more! Shawmut lodged a complaint that Ford had cheated by installing a new engine in the No. 2 car in Idaho--forbidden by the rules--and by November the Automobile Club of America disqualified the Ford and named the Shawmut the winner. Alas, by this time it was too late for the Shawmut Automobile Company; it went out of business shortly thereafter.

Why should we care about this little-known race? It certainly doesn't have the cachét of the Paris-to-Peking or the glamor of the New York-to-Paris round-the-world race, and it certainly never had a major motion picture made out of it (and Lord knows, Natalie Wood in half a dozen different bustiers would make any race popular). But it was a thoroughly American race and it, arguably, had a tremendous effect on the nature of the automobile in this country. And for that, we must thank all those daring young men in their motoring machines.

Credits: Actual race photos are from the Ocean to Ocean site, and the photos of the participating cars are from Early American Automobiles.

Additionally, in honor of the anniversary of the Great Race, a reenactment was held that tried to follow as closely as possible the original route. Over 50 Model Ts participated, one for each U.S. state and several others from around the world. A slide show of that event can be found here and also at the Ocean to Ocean site; Steve Shotwell participated in the reenactment and documented it at his site.

--Anthony Cagle


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My father in law revently sold a "T". It reminds me of the earlier thread on resto/mods. It was a 1916, but at some point it had been "upgraded" with a 1918 motor. When he found it, it was one of those legendary barn finds. It was all there and only needed minor work to drive it away. It had the original paint (most of it) and a working cloth top.

A great story, and the sort of forgotten epic us hard-core history geeks love. (Spanish-American War, anyone? Ever hear of the Shackelton expedition? SMS Emden? Airship ZR-1? Rhyolite, Nevada?) Thanks for unearthing it and retelling it for a new generation.

One suspects that Ford's win in the race had a lot to do with the Model T becoming so popular.

Engineering over luxury every time.

Nice story, Anthony! This makes me wonder what kind of "Great Race" we could have with today's cars. A rally through Atlanta rush-hour traffic? Getting through Ohio without getting a ticket? Navigating an LA freeway without a road rage incident?

Better yet, let's see what brands survive over the next five years. That might be the most important victory of all. Like the ads say, "May the best car win."

I love this. It's hard to imagine today how difficult a coast-to-coast race would have been in 1909. Even with today's cars, roads, and infrastructure, a coast-to-coast drive requires some level of preparation and seriousness. Consider doing that same drive with no real roads; it would be like doing some mellow Jeeping for the space of some 3,000 miles, only with primitive 1909 cars that are far less advanced than today's cars, and in a world without AAA, a gas station or repair shop on every corner, or ubiquitous repair parts.

Pretty amazing.

Wow. You know, I grew up with wallpaper covered with old cars like this, but never really had too much of an interest in them. To me, it was 50s onwards that really excited me. But this story is something totally foreign, and fantastic. I literally had no idea about this race, at all, and the drama of the seasoned veteran Itala, the bicycle company Acme, and the lightweight Ford Model T is just pretty compelling storytelling. And the twist at the end of the Ford being DQ'd over a new engine. Wow.

Also have to agree with Chris. Prepping a car for a drive HALFWAY across the country usually involves bleeding the brakes, changing the oil, and making sure everything is up to snuff, and that's with HIGHWAYS. I cannot imagine a car going 3000 miles on mainly dirt roads; I drove my S6 on some washboard gravel roads in Colorado and the interior has frankly never been the same. Pretty impressive stuff.

A few years ago I was in Egypt trying to do some work out around the Fayum Depression and was having a heck of a time finding an affordable 4WD vehicle to go out there in. About the same time I was reading something by an archaeologist named Gertude Caton-Thompson who worked in the same area in the '20s. She and her cohorts went all over the place in Model Ts and other similarly early vehicles, got stuck, spent hours and hours getting it out, walked dozens of miles for help, etc., and here I was scared to death of going out in anything less than a Russian Niva (which isn't that bad actually). I eventually got to most places I wanted to go to in a Peugeot 504, but I am always reminded what a tough bunch our automotive forebears were.

Come to think of it, a post on the Niva may be in the offing. . . .

@ Anthony Cagle: Come to think of it, a post on the Niva may be in the offing. . . .

That sounds intriquing...I would like to hear more about your expedition and other international car stories. I hadn't heard of the Niva. I found this head to head with a hummer though...

My great-grandpa had a Model T, along with a bevy of stories involving him driving it all over the country in the early '20s. What always threw me off was how they almost always involved rebuilding the engine every few thousand miles, followed by him telling everyone that they always had parts left over.

The closest we can probably come in this hemisphere to capturing the spirit of what they did back then would be attempting to traverse the Pan-American Highway.

My understanding is that it's not too bad until you get closer and closer to the jungle, at which point all heck breaks loose. Then you have the Darien Gap to contend with, where there is no road. Good times.

The first pic on this very informative entry comes from a movie, which I forgot the title, but I think it's Disney's. I remember renting it and watching it twice when I was a little kid. It was also one of the first movies that my family rented at the local Video Ave. Oh man the laughs...

The film is "The Great Race" with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk. Very un-Disney (a lot of sexual innuendo mixed with the slapstick), directed by Blake Edwards.

Andrew --
Good piece.

Don't you wonder at the connections, if any, (and rivalries) between the backers of some of the great car adventures of the turn of the century. Guggenheim surely knew Vanderbilt, but did he know Carl Fisher? Isn't it interesting that Henry Ford, the plain country boy, sees and exploits the marketing ops represented by so many of these capers?

Interesting article, I am fond of cars - restore it, because I'm interested. Thank you.

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