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1909 Transcontinental Automobile Race

Automobile travel in the early 1900s was very difficult. Roads were largely unpaved, maps were few, and cars were for the very rich.

Mining heir Robert Guggenheim, 24, loved to drive, and he set out to build awareness of the excitement and convenience of automobile travel. He knew America lacked decent roadways for anything other than short drives around a town. If more people began driving, local governments would work to improve the roadways.

In 1907, he participated in a Peking to Paris auto race. He decided to sponsor a similar competition in the United States to encourage the building and improvement of roadways. 

Roads of the Day

Because there were few automobiles in the early 1900s, roads were rutted. Driving them was much like driving over a washboard.

There were very few gas stations, so gas was purchased by the canister at a general store. If a driver anticipated a lengthy drive, he purchased an extra container of gas to carry with him so he could re-fill the automobile gas tank.

Cars were of very little use in bad weather, so people still needed horses and sleighs if there was heavy rain or snow.

Few people drove beyond the few miles around their own town, so road signs and maps were almost non-existent. If a driver needed directions, he was likely to be told “go about a mile down the main road and turn right at the yellow farmhouse. The property you are looking for will be on the left in about two more miles.”

Guggenheim’s Vision

As Robert Guggenheim created his plan, he envisioned a coast-to-coast road trip. In 1909, Seattle would be the host city for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. This world’s fair was being sponsored to encourage development of the Pacific Northwest. Half the battle of encouraging growth in these areas was getting people to visit. (The 1908 Democratic Convention in Denver was another event that exposed easterners to the world beyond the Mississippi.) 

Model T stripped down

Guggenheim announced that he would sponsor a Coast-to-Coast Auto Race, ending it in Seattle in June of 1909. The expected crowds at the Exposition would be there to enjoy the concluding ceremonies. He hoped for as many as 30 entrants. In August of ’08 The New York Times (8-23-08) noted that nine cars had already registered for the event that was scheduled for June 1909.

Controversy

Almost immediately, the race was stalled by controversy. Though automobile companies reacted positively to the first announcement, they soon heard that the Manufacturers’ Contest Association refused to sanction a “race” across the country because it seemed to promote danger.

Manufacturers were spooked by the latest accident report from 1907: 324 people were killed by automobiles that year. Car makers decided that promoting a “race” seemed to encourage risk. That would not bode well for the auto industry.

Guggenheim and other organizers pondered this for a time and came up with a new plan. They would call it the 1909 Ocean to Ocean Endurance Contest. “Enduring” seemed more responsible than “racing.”

Terrifying accident report from 1907:

324 people were killed by automobiles that year.

Rules Outlined

The ground rules involved obeying all speed limits in the East. This meant traveling no faster than 14 miles per hour. After St. Louis, it was agreed that drivers could “break loose,” and the autos could travel as quickly as 18.8 m.p.h.

Shawmut (auto in front)

The rules also specified that all parts of the automobiles had to be stamped as the cars were assembled. No major components of the automobiles could be changed during the race.

By marking each part, the officials would be able to verify that the car that began the race was the same as the car that ended it. 

Automobile Entrants

The entry field was severely reduced by the “danger” controversy, and on June 1, 1909. only five vehicles appeared at the starting line in Times Square:

Two Model Ts. This assembly-produced automobile was just introduced in 1908. For Henry Ford, this was a wonderful marketing opportunity. Ford had the foresight to keep his contest vehicles light. He stripped them of their windshields and rear seats–essentially his cars were a front seat on wheels.

– An Acme–a chain driven touring car made by a company that had formerly made bicycles.

The Shawmut Roundabout, a luxury car made in Massachusetts. A fire destroyed the factory where it was made, and only two automobiles were saved. By entering one of them in this contest, the company hoped to revive interest in the brand so they could afford to re-open.

Guggenheim’s own car, an Itala. The mechanics noted its operation during the Peking-to-Paris race and had some thoughts on modification.

A sixth auto made by the Stearns Company began the race five days late, but it had to pull out because of mechanical problems just outside the New York City limits.

Along the Way

Keeping an automobile functional in this era was a daunting task. The cars traveled with a relief driver, and all but the Model Ts also sent along a mechanic, putting three men on the journey for all but the Ford cars.

Because Ford was assembling a nationwide network of auto dealers, Henry Ford calculated that if the Model Ts could make it to the next town, a local mechanic could perform maintenance. This reduced the weight being carried by the Model Ts, and it gave Ford another advantage: The endurance contest drivers could get driving directions and route advice from locals. The other drivers were relying on primitive maps and whatever townspeople they met along the way.

Bridges were rare so crossing rivers was difficult. If no ferry boat was available, the autos made harrowing trips across railroad trestles.

Rough roads and mud were major problems, but again, Ford’s planning provided an advantage for the Model T. The cars were light enough that two men could lift and position a wheel onto a piece of wood to get an automobile out of the mud and on its way.

Nearing the Finish

At Snoqualmie Pass, near Seattle, one of the Model Ts got stuck in four feet of snow and had to be dug out. Perhaps because he could smell victory, Henry Ford himself arrived on the scene to help dig.

Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909

Twenty-three days later, June 23, 1909, the formerly snowbound Model T crossed the finish line and was declared the winner. Seventeen hours later, the Shawmut arrived, followed by the other Ford, and a week later, the Acme. (The Itala dropped out in Cheyenne, Wyoming.)

Henry Ford immediately launched a marketing campaign touting the fact that the lightweight, affordable Model T was the superior car.

Protest by the Shawmut Company

But the Shawmut Company had suspicions about one of the repair sessions done by a Ford dealer in the West. They entered a protest.

The officials undertook an examination of the automobiles and the race.

Five months later, the sponsors found in favor of the Shawmut Motor Company. One of the Ford dealers had swapped out the engine of the winning Model T, a direct violation of the rules.

Too Late to Matter

In November, the Shawmut was awarded the $2,000 prize for first place, but it was too late to save the company.

Ocean to Ocean Endurance Contest
Ford Times, July 1, 1909

Ford took full advantage of the delay and achieved a lot of traction with his marketing campaign. “The $850 car that won the New York to Seattle race” brought motoring to the masses.

In 1909, 18,664 Model Ts were sold. Those figures doubled the following year and doubled again the year after. By 1916 Ford was producing half of all the motor vehicles in the world.

Contest Commemorated in 2009

In June of 2009, a commemorative race featuring 55 Model Ts started from New York City. Police escorts protected them in metropolitan areas, and every fourth day the drivers paused to rest and tune up the cars. A good time was enjoyed by all.

**

To read about a transcontinental foot race held in 1928, click here. And to watch the video version of this story, click here.

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