The New York to Paris auto race of 1908 may have been one of the most ambitious races in history - but it was also one of the stupidest. At a time when automobiles couldn't be trusted to travel across a town, let alone a country, a group of adventure-seekers felt compelled to drive them across the world. Over the course of several months, six international teams raced westward from New York City to Paris, driving over mountains, plains, forests, and swamps in North America, Asia, and Europe. Whoever reached the City of Light first won bragging rights that their country produced the world's finest vehicle.
The race began in Times Square on February 12, 1908. Six teams represented four countries that put forward their best automobiles: one German team drove a Protos from Berlin; one Italian team drove a Zust from Milan; three separate French teams drove a De Dion-Bouton from Paris, a Motobloc from Bordeaux, and a Sizaire-Naudin from Courbevoie; and an American team drove a Thomas Flyer from Buffalo. Only three teams made it to Paris several months later. Ultimately, the winner was the American Thomas Flyer. It rolled into Paris on July 30, 1908, more than five months after the race began.
From epic mishaps to unfortunate breakdowns, the New York to Paris race proved to be as zany as the film it inspired decades later: Blake Edwards's 1965 comedy classic The Great Race.
Automobiles - which date from the mid-1880s - were still a relatively new invention when the race was held in 1908. Though they were becoming increasingly popular, they were not the most efficient way of traveling long distances. A top-of-the-line Mercedes could get up to 53 miles per hour under ideal conditions.
The problem: Conditions on the New York-to-Paris race were seldom ideal, and rough roads contributed to various mechanical issues. Between breakdowns and extreme weather conditions, horses remained a more reliable mode of transportation.
The American team drove a 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35 automobile. Like most cars at the time, it had an open cab and no windows of any kind - not even windshields - due to the understanding that glass on a vehicle was a safety hazard. Since the race began in February, teams would have to ramble through wintry conditions without any real protection from the elements. The cars' lack of heating systems made driving even more perilous.
Ironically, the race began in February to avoid some of the most extreme weather conditions, such as summer flooding in Siberia.
Racers immediately hit a snag, running into a blizzard in New York's Hudson Valley. Since tread tires had only recently been introduced, the cars weren't hearty winter machines. The teams struggled in the snow; they had to dig their way through roads and rely on planks for traction.
Their pace slowed to about a mile an hour as they crawled their way across the Eastern United States.
Racers didn't have the benefit of detailed maps to help them navigate the roads on multiple continents; travel-sized road maps weren't in widespread use in 1908.
Instead, racers used other means of figuring out where to go. Compasses were essential. American mechanic and driver George Schuster even used a sextant that he crafted himself. He also relied on the traditional method of stargazing to help him navigate.