During the first decade of the twentieth century, automobiles were not seen as a truly reliable form of transportation by the general public. Seeking to disprove this perception, the French newspaper Le Matin and The New York Timesissued a seemingly impossible challenge to the automakers of the world: to drive a car around the world from New York City to Paris, France. When several automakers agreed to take up the challenge, the two newspapers organized a long-distance race that achieved legendary status in the annals of automotive history: the 1908 New York to Paris Race.
The 1908 New York to Paris Race was conceived as the ultimate test automotive endurance and dependability. Starting at New York’s Times Square, it followed a 22,000 mile route (of which 13,000 miles were over land) that took it west across the continental United States, through Japan and China, across Russia via St. Petersburg, and most of the way across Europe to Paris. Six cars started the race and three made it to the finish. The winner was an American car built by a small manufacturer based in Buffalo, New York: the Thomas Flyer.
Although popularly called the Thomas Flyer, the race winner was officially a 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35 Tourer. Built by the E.R. Thomas Motor Company, the Thomas Flyer was a large and powerful car for its day. Weighing in at 5,000 pounds and riding a 118-inch wheelbase, the car was powered by an 8.5 litre four-cylinder engine that produced 60 horsepower. Equipped with this powerful engine, the Thomas Flyer was capable of a then-impressive top speed of around 60 miles per hour. In addition to being large and powerful, the Thomas Flyer Model 35 was also noted for its reliability. It was this combination of power and reliability that prompted the company to enter this particular car in the race.
The Thomas Flyer was a last-minute entry in the 1908 New York to Paris Race, being entered only three days before the start of the event. It was chosen from a group of four completed cars in the company’s inventory. Unlike the cars with which it competed, it was essentially stock and received few modifications. In spite of the lack of preparation, the Thomas Flyer performed remarkably well throughout the race. Driven first by Montague Roberts, then later by driver/mechanic George Schuster, the car successfully negotiated the extremely difficult driving conditions encountered by the competitors throughout the race, including, but not limited to, deep snow, thick mud, treacherous river crossings, and terrain where roads were nonexistent. The Thomas Flyer also proved reliable and experienced remarkably few mechanical failures. When it did break down, George Schuster drew upon his considerable mechanical skills and resourcefulness to get the car back in the race.
The Thomas Flyer was the second race participant to reach Paris, arriving four days behind the German Protos entry on July 30, 1908. When organizers learned that the Protos had been illegally shipped by rail across the Rocky Mountains instead of driven across, the Protos was given a 30-day penalty and the Thomas Flyer was declared the winner!
Happily, the famed Thomas Flyer survived and was eventually purchased and restored by car collector William F. Harrah. It is now on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1585.
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 1463-1465.
New York to Paris, The Thomas Flyer – Champion Endurance Car of the World, Thomas: General Publications, Trade Catalog: Fleet Vehicles, and Trade Catalog: Various Models, 1904-1912, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.