By: Liz Boutin
On February 12, 1908, a crowd of about 250,000 people gathered in Times Square in New York City to witness the beginning of an automobile race. The race would run from New York to Paris, with six teams competing, representing Germany, France, Italy, and the United States. An automobile race like this had never been run before. The prize? According to some sources, a 1,400-pound trophy and bragging rights. The New York Times and Le Matin, a Paris newspaper, sponsored the race. A shot in the air from a pistol at 11:15 am started the race.
The six teams included three French cars (the De Dion-Bouton, Motobloc, and Sizaire-Naudin), one German (the Protos), one Italian (the Züst), and one American (the Thomas Flyer) with about two to three members on each team. Initially, no one from America would enter the race. President Theodore Roosevelt requested the manufacturer of the Thomas Flyer car, E.R. Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo, to enter the race. George Schuster was an employee of E.R. Thomas, an expert mechanic; he rode with the American team, even driving parts of the route.
The intended route of the race would have drivers push across the United States to San Francisco, then ship the cars to Seattle, and forward to Alaska by boat, crossing over the frozen Bering Strait towards Siberia and onward to Paris. The actual route went across the United States to San Francisco, up to Seattle, from there to Japan by steamer, to Siberia by ship, and then through Asia and Europe. The conditions in Alaska turned out to be impossible to drive in as George Schuster and the American team first attempted it. They lost fifteen days due to having to turn back to Seattle. The team was able to make up for that time and more later on in the race.
At the time of the race in 1908, road maps were non-existent, roads were unpaved, and some places had no roads at all. Teams had to endure frigid temperatures, snow, and much mud along the route. The terrain conditions were rough on the cars, which were not built for such abuse. The vehicles carried several supplies, including gasoline, chains, ropes, spare parts, and tools.
Nebraska was part of the route for the drivers of the great race, with cars stopping at various towns in the state, including Grand Island, Ogallala, and Omaha. The American car driven by Montague Roberts was the first car of the race to enter Omaha on March 5, 1908. The citizens of Omaha provided great hospitality to the crew of the Thomas Flyer. The team received complimentary meals from the Schlitz hotel and warm clothing from the M.E. Smith Company. Each crew member was fitted with a complete outfit for their journey through frigid temperatures. The men vowed to return the clothing after arriving in Paris. On the night of March 17, the first French car arrived at Grand Island and was delayed a few days due to a broken shaft.
Sunday, July 26, 1908, at 6:15 pm, the German team arrived in Paris with their car, the Protos. Unfortunately, the German team was penalized for 30 days for taking shortcuts along the race route. Among the shortcuts was sending their car to Seattle from Pocatello, Idaho, by train. The American team arrived in Paris on July 30 at 8 pm, four days after the Germans. Once arriving in Paris, the team was stopped by a French police officer telling them they would be arrested due to missing a headlight. Paris law required a car to have two working headlights. A bicycler happened to be near the car and ended up allowing the American team to have his bike so they could finish the race by bolting it to the car. After traveling over 22,000 miles and 169 days, the American team officially won the great race of 1908. The Italians arrived in September 1908. Out of the original six teams, only three made it to Paris. The French were unable to make it to the finish line.
The Great Automobile Race was recorded in a variety of newspapers. Word of the race spread through towns via newspapers and telegraphs. In Omaha as in other stops along the route, people would stand outside to greet and cheer the teams as they passed through. The big event helped recognize the need to improve roads and highlighted the car’s resilience for driving long distances. The race also provided the sense of needing newly constructed roads as asphalt wasn’t developed until 1910.
An interesting article by The New York Times dated June of 1968 states after sixty years after winning the race in 1908, George Schuster received a $1,000 award from an automobile club that promised money to him if he had won the race. Schuster never received it in 1908. At the age of 95, at the time of the article, Mr. Schuster received his award.
Are you interested in learning more about vintage automobiles? The “Omaha’s AUTO-Biography” exhibition in the Crook House Museum covers racing, motor cars, and automobile production. Only a couple of months left of the exhibition, so if you have yet to visit the museum to see the exhibit, you still have time. Race to our website: http://www.douglascohistory.org/collection/current-exhibitions/ for more information and admission fees.
Abbott, Karen. “Paris or Bust: The Great New York-to-Paris Auto Race of 1908: Even before there were roads, there were men who wanted to drive fast.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 7, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/paris-or-bust-the-great-new-york-to-paris-auto-race-of-1908-116784616/.
Bear, H. E. M. “Roswell Daily Record, 03-17-1908.” (1908). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/roswell_record_news/1388
Evans, Art. “The Greatest Race – 1908 New York to Paris.” Sports Car Digest. September 28, 2011. https://sportscardigest.com/the-greatest-race-1908-new-york-to-paris/.
Garrett, Jerry. “New York to Paris the Hard Way, 100 Years Ago.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times, February 10, 2008; 1-2.
“Omaha, A Stop on the Great Race of 1908.” History Nebraska. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://history.nebraska.gov/omaha-a-stop-on-the-great-race-of-1908/.
Sblendorio, Bob. “The Great Auto Race of 1908.” Apex Automotive Magazine. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://www.apexautomag.com/2018/05/the-great-auto-race-of-1908/.
The photographic story of The Great New York to Paris Auto Race of 1908. Accessed March 8, 2023. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/new-york-paris-auto-race-photos-1908/.
“1908 Race Victor Will Get $1,000: Schuster, 95, Will Receive Belated Payoff Tuesday.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times, June 12, 1968: 54.
“Transcontinental Bicycle Relay and Automobile Races Contrasted.” The Library of Congress; the Omaha Daily Bee. March 8, 1908: 3.
“Yankee Car Resumes Trip.” The Library of Congress; The Omaha Daily Bee. March 6, 1908: 9.