February 12, 2011

Driving From New York To Paris

On February 12, 1908, more than 150,000 people crowded in and around Times Square, and along both sides of Broadway all the way up to 200th Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the six automobiles that would soon be heading west in a 22,000-mile race ... driving from New York to Paris.

The race was, at its heart, a newspaper stunt. Inspired by a Peking-to-Paris race the year before, the New York Times and Le Martin of Paris conceived and sponsored the around-the-world race as a way to boost circulation.

A total of eighteen men – drivers, mechanics and journalists – crowded into six overloaded cars, representing the US, Italy, France, and Germany. At that time, only nine men had successfully crossed the United States in an automobile – but no one had done in during winter. And huge sections of the route beyond the US, such as through Siberia, had never been traveled by automobile.

Dermot Cole wrote about the race in Hard Driving (1991):
There were no major long-distance roads in America then, only dirt tracks that connected one place to another in a jumbled pattern that owed much to chance and tradition.
Another book about the race – Julie Fenster's Race of the Century – was published in 2005.

The first car to make it to San Francisco did so in 41 days (pre-race estimates had been 22 days). The original route was through Alaska via frozen rivers and dogsled trails to the Bering Strait, but that proved impossible, so the cars headed back to San Francisco. They boarded a steam ship to Japan and then on to Siberia, where they were just in time to navigate huge swamps of mud, thanks to the spring thaw.

Only three of the six cars completed the race. The winner arrived in Paris on July 30 – 169 days after leaving Manhattan. (Another team had actually arrived four days earlier, but they were penalized 30 days for various infractions, including shipping the car by train at one point!) The third car arrived in September.

I was incredulous when I first heard about this race. Driving west from New York to Paris? In 1908? It's pure insanity! I have Cole's book, but have not read Finster's, though it seems to be better known. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that every story surrounding the race seems too good to be true.

There was a time when doing crazy shit like this completely captivated the country, because it was so far beyond the imagination of just about everyone. It's next to impossible to achieve now.


allan said...

In the days before the race, Stephane Lauzanne, editor of Le Matin, expressed amazement at the New Yorkers walk the streets:

"People go about with alert and busy steps, eyes straight before them, as if eternally running towards an invisible goal. They are indifferent to all eccentricities, averse to all idleness."

Dr. Jeff said...

Your photo of the car stuck in the mud during the race to Paris reminded me of geology field work in Siberia. The mud is severe! It would be impossible to drive through it. We used "track vehicles" and even they got stuck. In the <a href="http://www.nmsu.edu/~geology/amato/chukotka/chukotka4.html>4th photo</a> on this page you can see the Russian technique for getting unstuck. First, find a tree. Chop it down. Then carry it to the site (non-trivial, the nearest tree was a few km away!) Tie it to the front of the treads, then turn it on and let the treads pull the tree under the vehicle, providing traction.

allan said...

Cole's book mentions huge swamps of mud up to two feet deep. And these cars had what look like bicycle tires!

The accounts of driving across the US in winter are amazing. There were few real roads -- and, naturally, they are not plowed. Because drifts were often 10-12 feet high, they could not figure out which way the road went, so they would drive across less snowy fields or along railroad tracks. (They crossed the entirety of Iowa at about 10 mph.)

allan said...

the Russian technique for getting unstuck

This also reminded me of the description in Russell Banks's "Cloudsplitter" of how to get a huge, heavy covered wagon down a very steep hill in a safe manner. It's not something we would think of, but it is very time-consuming. The basic idea (I read the book years ago) was to tie the wagon to various trees alongside the road (if there was a road) and slowly move it down the hill by untying the rope from one tree and retying that to another tree a little further down, moving the wagon securely a few feet at a time.

Dr. Jeff said...

4th photo

trying again with the html