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1909 Thomas Flyer (Pawel Litwinski/Gooding and Co.)
1909 Thomas Flyer (Pawel Litwinski/Gooding and Co.)

Classic Cars: Thomas Flyer

22,000 miles, 169 days, one great car race Add to ...

More than 250,000 people jammed Times Square on a wintry February morning in 1908 to provide a wildly enthusiastic send-off for six teams of motoring adventurers embarking on an audacious continent- and ocean-crossing event called the New York to Paris Race that - 22,000 miles and 169 days later - was won by a Thomas Flyer.

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Last month, in mid-April, the scene, in a downtown New York perhaps a little less enamoured of the automobile, was a little different.

Some 18 teams, driving cars ranging from a 1916 Studebaker racer to a 2007 Corvette, let out their clutches at 7:07 a.m. to begin World Race 2011 New York to Paris and reprise what remains one of motoring's greatest competitions. But while the "Great White Way" was still thronged with people, competitor Jeff Mahl, grandson of George N. Schuster - who drove the Thomas Flyer to victory more than a century ago - says few were aware of the drama being played out. They were likely more concerned about "where to find a Starbucks latte."

The plan for World Race 2011 competitors - it's actually scored as a rally - was to cross the United States then travel to China, and from there find their way to Paris as the original racers did 103 years ago.

For those involved in the two-month trek, it's an adventure to remember but it will present nothing like the challenge the teams - a Protus representing Germany, a Zust Italy, Motobloc, De Dion-Bouton and Sizaire-Naudin (which didn't last the first day) France and the Thomas Flyer the U.S. - faced when they left New York and pointed their wheels west in what became known as The Great Race.

Roads, where they existed, where often little more than tracks, and in many places even these didn't exist, forcing the cars to bump along over the sleepers of railway tracks for hundreds of miles.

The Thomas Flyer - which didn't even have a windshield to protect its occupants - reached San Francisco first, 41 days later, the first car to cross the United States in winter.

The racers then went to ice-bound Alaska by ship, crossed the Pacific to Japan and went from there to battle springtime mud in Siberia, that part of the trek whittling their number to three - the Protos, Zust and Thomas Flyer. At one point, it had taken the Thomas crew, aided by horses, four days to cover 60 miles. And Schuster performed mechanical heroics to keep the Flyer running.

The Protos team reached Paris first, but was penalized for not travelling to Alaska and shipping the car by train over some stretches. The Thomas Flyer arrived four days later on July 30 and was named the winner, the first American car to win an international competition.

New York welcomed the Thomas home with a ticker tape parade, but the New York Times - which sponsored the event with Paris's Le Matin and presented a massive 1,400-pound trophy - somehow managed to stiff Schuster, a Thomas company mechanic and the only driver to complete the entire route, for the $1,000 prize he was due.

Two drivers who drove short stints initially got more credit than he did. The paper corrected this oversight in 1968, presenting Schuster with a cheque for $1,000, which he wryly noted would have been worth considerably more half a century earlier. Schuster also had problems getting paid for his six-month effort by his boss.

The original Thomas Flyer used in the New York to Paris Race now holds a place of honour in the Harrah National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev.

The car that set off from New York that day was the work of the Thomas Motor Co. founded by E.R. Thomas of Buffalo in 1896 as engine builders, providing motor kits to power bicycles originally before moving onto motorcycles. The first car was produced in 1903, a five-passenger tonneau-bodied machine powered by a vertical inline-three-cylinder engine.

A new range of cars was introduced for 1905 - the first to use the Thomas Flyer name - powered by four- and six-cylinder engines. They were available in a variety of body styles from racing two-seaters to luxury town cars and laundaus, some powered by a massive 12.8-litre engine.

Despite the publicity garnered by the race win - which may have cost Thomas as much as $100,000 - his company went into receivership in 1912, although it continued to build cars to order as late as 1919.

It was a stock 1907 model - powered by a big four-cylinder, 60-hp engine -that won the New York to Paris race, but the virtually identical model pictured here is a 1909 powered by the smaller of two six-cylinder engines offered, which was rated at 40 hp. The transmission is a four-speed transaxle.

With seven-passenger touring bodywork perched on its rugged chassis, the Flyer had, typical of the day, solid front and rear axles with semi-elliptic springs, and mechanically operated rear brakes only. It would have sold for about $4,500.

Its red paint - Thomas rightly felt bright colours brought greater brand recognition - is set off by black leather upholstery and the wonderful gleaming brass fittings common to the pioneering era, including the speedometer, folding windscreen and Gray and Davis lamps.

The 1909 model, which was restored and won a second-place award at Pebble Beach in the early 1980s, was sold by RM Auctions of Blenheim, Ont., last year for $143,000.

Back in 1909

The year marks the first rescue at sea brought about by a radio message after the Royal Mail steamer Republic with 760 souls aboard is rammed near Nantucket Island by an Italian ship carrying 830 survivors of an earthquake in Sicily. The Republic's Marconi operator Jack Binns taps off a "CQD" distress call to which RMS Baltic responds and steams to their aid, saving most.

J.A.D. McCurdy flies the Alexander Graham Bell-designed Silver Dart on Baddeck Bay, N.S., the first Canadian to take flight in this country. Louis Bleriot of France becomes the first aviator to fly a heavier than air machine across the English Channel, in the world's first successful monoplane.

At the bottom of the world, British explorer Ernest Shackleton and three companions make it to within 112 miles of the South Pole, while at the top, American Robert Peary claims - it's still the subject of controversy - to have discovered the North Pole.

Department store owner Joseph L. Hudson creates the Hudson Motor Car Co. in Detroit, which soon becomes a major auto producer. It merges with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954 to create American Motors. The Hudson name disappears for good in 1957.

1909 Thomas Flyer


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