The 1908 Great Auto Race from NYC to Paris: Part 4… San Francisco to Paris

When George Schuster arrived in Valdez, Alaska for the next phase of the 1908 Great Auto Race, he quickly arranged to borrow a horse and sleigh to check out the beginning of the route. You are looking at it.

It was George Schuster’s turn to drive as the Thomas Flyer was loaded onto a freighter to be shipped to Valdez, Alaska. The race committee had envisioned the racers making their way from Valdez across Alaska following dog sled trails and frozen ice covered rivers to Nome where they would cross the frozen Bering Strait into Siberia. There was a slight problem. The race committee had made its decision while sitting in Paris without a clue about what driving across Alaska in March would entail! Or whether the Bering Strait would be frozen. None of them had ever been to the remote Territory that America had bought from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. All they knew was it looked good on a map. Who needs roads?

The Flyer had a substantial lead when it left San Francisco— the three remaining competitors were several states behind still making their way across America. Schuster intended to maintain that lead. He arrived in Valdez with the whole population out to greet him. The Flyer was the first car to make it to the town and most residents had never seen one.

The whole town turned out to greet George Schuster and his team when the Thomas Flyer arrived in Valdez, including a brass band, seen on the right.

George wasted little time basking in the glow of his new role as driver. He immediately borrowed a horse and sled to check out the beginning of the route. He found it was impossible and concluded that the only way the vehicles could get across Alaska would be if the cars were taken apart and shipped by dog sled. The Great Auto Race would have been turned into an early day Iditarod, which in itself, is an undertaking of massive proportions— even in modern times.

Having lived in Alaska for three years, I was a fan of the 1000 mile Iditarod. When Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the race in 1985, I drove her around Anchorage following her victory to make various media appearances. Here I am with Libby. I picked her up at the airport where she was just returning from having done a Vogue Magazine photo shoot. She regaled me with tales of the race, and her dogs.

Once again the route was changed. Return to the lower 48, the race committee told Schuster, and ship to Japan on a freighter and then on another one to Vladivostok, Russia. Which he did. The next day, the Flyer team and Flyer were on a boat heading south from Alaska. His challenge when he arrived in Seattle was that the other three cars were now ahead of him on their way to Asia.

The third, and final, 1908 Great Auto Race route from NYC to Paris.
The Thomas Flyer makes its way across Japan.

The Race Committee decided to award Schuster with an extra 15 days for his lost time in checking out Alaska. The Italian Zust and the French Dion would have to beat him to Paris by two weeks to win the race. The Protos would have to beat him by a month! Lieutenant Koeppen’s car had broken down in Utah and he had shipped it to the West Coast via rail and on to Vladivostok for repairs. Unlike Goddard, he had asked permission. And there was some confusion over the rules. Instead of disqualifying him, the race committee chose to penalize him an extra 15 days for the rail trip and for skipping Japan.

The four competitors met up in Vladivostok where they were confronted by Russian officials who advised them to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe. They would be “met on the road by Chinese brigands, Manchurian tigers, fever, plague, pestilence, famine—to say nothing of the mud after three months of rain, mosquitoes as big as locusts and other similar delights,” the Russians warned. It seems that the owners of the De Dion-Bouton company took them at their word. Or maybe the race appeared unwinnable or too expensive. Whatever the reason, the De Deon was withdrawn. Now there were three competitors: The American Thomas Flyer, the Italian Zust and the German Protos.

The racers apparently avoided the brigands, tigers, fever, plague, pestilence, and famine, but there was plenty of mud— they kept getting stuck. And, I imagine, encountered the locust-sized mosquitoes when they were digging out.

Thomas Flyer next to a Trans-Siberian locomotive.
Flyer stuck in the mud. One of many times.
The Flyer team rescuing the Protos from the mud. Koeppen broke out the champaign afterward to celebrate the good sportsmanship of the Americans.

When they reached Europe, they were finally rewarded with a decent road system. The race became a down-to-the-wire sprint between the Americans and the Germans. The Italian Zust was still in Siberia, likely stuck in the mud, some 3,000 miles behind. ER Thomas sent Schuster a telegraph urging him to turn the driving over to Monty Roberts, the race car driver who had driven the Flyer from NYC to Wyoming. “This made me so mad I could have eaten nails,” Schuster would later write. His response at the time would have been more colorful. After everything that he had been through with the Flyer in Siberia, his tense no-thank-you reply to Thomas was that he would be driving the car across the finish line. Period. Which he did.

The Protos had arrived four days earlier. Given the 30 day penalty, it was still 26 days behind the Flyer, however— a fact that really irritated the Kaiser. The Americans rolled into Paris on the evening of July 30 to crowds shouting, “Vive le car Americain!”  There was one last challenge. The lights on the Flyer had gone out and Schuster was driving after dark. A policeman stopped the car and threatened to arrest him on the spot. A quick-thinking Parisian threw his bicycle with a light onto the car. The policeman relented and Schuster drove on to the finish line. And fame. He’d even be invited to meet with Teddy Roosevelt on his return.

A large crowd was on hand in Paris to greet the Thomas Flyer team when they arrived in Paris and crossed the finish line.

The win had a significant impact on America. For one, it showed that American automobiles could match the best coming out of Europe at the time. The successful drive across America also proved that the car could become a serious form of transportation, something other than a rich man’s toy. And finally, it created a demand for better roads in America. Asphalt was invented in 1910, and the Lincoln Highway, Americas first cross-country road, was started in 1912.

Schuster was promised a life-long job with the E.R. Thomas company for his role. Unfortunately, the company went out of business in 1912. (Schuster would live on to 99.) When the company went belly up, the Flyer was sold and more or less disappeared. It was granted a second life in 1963 when Bill Harrah of the gaming empire tracked it down for his classic car collection and returned it to its pre-race condition. He even brought Schuster out to verify that it was the Flyer that the won the race. (Schuster recognized some of the on-road repairs he had made.) The Flyer became part of the donation that the Harrah family made to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. It was there that I found the vehicle and was inspired to do this series.

A young George Schuster.
Schuster at 92 driving the Flyer that Bill Harrah had brought back to life.
A slight aside. This photo of Bill Harrah’s home at Lake Tahoe in 1963 was part of a display on him at the National Automobile Museum. I recognized it immediately. While he was working on the Flyer, I was delivering cleaning to the stars that stayed at his home when they were performing at his casino. I don’t remember hearing about the Flyer at that time but I do remember Liza Minelli bouncing down the stairs in her baby doll pajamas to answer the door. What 20 year old wouldn’t. She was 17 at the time.
A final view of the Thomas Flyer in the National Automobile Museum to wrap up this series.

27 thoughts on “The 1908 Great Auto Race from NYC to Paris: Part 4… San Francisco to Paris

  1. What a story! I think I would be fairly irritated to get all the way to Alaska to discover it was impossible to continue. However these fellows were obviously not your ordinary drivers!
    Have you seen the documentary Global Convoy on Prime video? I think you would enjoy it.

    • It would have been a bummer. 🙂 People still can’t drive to Nome, Sue. Although they could drive up to the North Slope and catch a freighter. I’ve driven as far as the Arctic Circle. Not paved but not bad! –Curt

  2. I would love to get to Alaska, but not see the Iditarod. I hate seeing animals work that hard for human amusement.
    You did a great job of describing the race.

  3. It took me until tonight to wonder if there was any connection between the Flyer and Radio Flyer wagons. In a sense, there was. The guy who began producing the wagons adopted some of the metal stamping and other techniques of early auto manufacturing. I’d hoped there was some connection between the names, but not so. “Radio Flyer” combined the wagon maker’s two passions: early radios, and flying.

    • Sorry you didn’t find a direct connection, Linda. That would have been fun. I had a similar wagon as a kid. We had a steep alley next to out house and we flew down it! Unfortunately, it ended at Highway 49. Our flying down the hill ended the day I hit a car going by. 🙂 –Curt

      • Yeah, I read that part and that was beyond nuts! Or perhaps I’ve just reached an age where I enjoy a modicum more comfort in my travels. 😉

      • For the most part, we do to, Gunta. Our little RV is perfect. Still, I was glad for my backpacktrvip down the PCT a couple of years ago. Minimal comfort and tough at 75, but absolutely worth it. –Curt

      • I totally enjoyed hiking the PCT, too! That is with YOU, virtually! Tough at any age, but I’m getting to where I do enjoy some of the creature comforts of home or camper.

      • I’m thinking our little camper might be a bit snug, but… I suppose it depends on the circumstances. Then again, it seems I get an itch to be back home at about the 3 week mark. (give or take)

      • Our 22 foot RV hardly qualifies as big but it does come with all of the amenities minus a shower. Maybe even more important, Gunta, it allows each of us to have our space. Three weeks I am just warming up. Grin. –Curt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s