The Great Auto Race of 1908

Words by Bob Sblendorio:

   The 24 Hours of Le Mans and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 are impressive races – but how about a non-stop, 169 day, 22,000 mile race from NYC to Paris – in 1908!  Is that even possible?  Well, it did actually happen, at a time when horse and carriage was still widely used as the primary mode of transportation.

Description: Thomas Flyer stuck in mud near Julesburg, Colorado
Photo credit: Courtesy of the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), Reno, Nevada

The Great Auto Race of 1908 was an epic race where teams endured bitter cold, blistering heat, and never ending mud.  There were six teams that entered: 1-American, 1-German, 1-Italian, and 3-French. The winner was the American team, driving a Thomas Flyer that was driven by George Schuster!  It was an unimaginable feat of determination and ingenuity…man-and-machine against all the odds.

Great Race teams leaving Buffalo.
Photo credit: Jeff Mahl

George Schuster was an employee at the E. R. Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo, manufacturer of the Thomas Flyer.  George was one of 21 children, from a German immigrant family.  He was an expert mechanic, skilled in many automotive areas and considered the ideal choice for the American team.  He was appointed initially as the mechanic, but eventually took over as the driver and mechanic when the team arrived in San Francisco.

Initially, there was no American car entered in the race.  It took a last-minute request from President Theodore Roosevelt to E. R. Thomas, just a few days before the race, to get an American car entered.  So, with minimal time to prepare, a 1907 Thomas Flyer, Model 35, with a 4-cylinder engine with 60 hp was entered for the American team.  To get the car ready, it was stripped down, the fenders were changed, extra gas tanks were added, and an extra seat was added in the rear for a NY Times reporter to go along to report on the epic event.

Description: Thomas Flyer in the river
Photo credit: Courtesy of the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection), Reno, Nevada

The race began in Times Square in NYC on February 12th, with an estimated 250,000 spectators in attendance.  The race continued through upstate NY and was reported to have gone through Auburn and the Montezuma Swamp, likely along the Cherry Valley Turnpike (now Route 20).  The Flyer was the first to arrive in San Francisco in 41 days.  The original intent was for the race to go to Alaska and then cross the frozen Bering Strait, using it as an ice bridge.  That plan was changed and the teams crossed the Pacific Ocean by ship and arrived in Japan.  The race continued through the continents of Asia and Europe and finished in Paris.  Of the six original teams that entered, only three teams finished the race, with the German team arriving first in Paris; however, since they were being penalized 30 days for taking shortcuts, the American team was declared the winner when it arrived 4 days later. Upon arriving, though, the American team was stopped outside of the city by a policeman because of a broken headlamp.  The law required two functioning headlamps.  George wasn’t going to be stopped after traveling 22,000 miles, so he strapped a bicycle with a lamp on the hood of the Thomas Flyer and finished the race on July 30, 1908, winning the race!

The team was given a hero’s welcome back home in NYC.  The NYC mayor arranged for George Schuster to meet President Roosevelt, who actually sat behind the wheel of the Thomas Flyer and famously said, “I like people who do things, not the good man who stays at home.”  After the race, George went back to work at the Thomas Company in Buffalo.  George was 99 years old when he died in 1972.

Description: George Schuster (left) with George Miller (right), who was added to the Thomas crew in Buffalo.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum

At the end of our interview, Jim Sandoro, a lifelong Buffalonian, summed it up this way: “Buffalo always complains, ‘we never won the Super Bowl, we never won the Stanley Cup,’ but Buffalo won The Great Auto Race of 1908…World Champion Automobile!”

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