From New York to Paris… by Car!

As part of the 110th anniversary of the legendary New York-Paris automobile race, six vintage vehicles will be leaving Rhinebeck, New York on June 20. The first stop is in Oakland, California, before they make their way to France!

The roaring of the eight-cylinder engine drowns out any conversation at the start of the phone interview. On the other end of the line in the northern suburbs of Dallas, Jack Crabtree turns off the engine of his motorcar — a 1929 Ford Model A Speedster. His bright-red vehicle is finally ready. “Its top speed was 40 miles per hour when it came out of the factory,” says the former U.S. Navy submariner, who is now 66. But now I can get it up to 75mph if I need to!”

The American racer will be hitting the road with his wife Mary and five other U.S. teams to retrace the steps of the New York-Paris automobile race of 1908. The total distance is 22,000 miles and will take them across the world.

A French-American Affair

In the early century, when the motor car was “the most fragile and capricious thing on earth,” the New York Times and the French daily newspaper Le Matin decided to organize an automobile race between New York and Paris. The initial route planned to take racers across the Bering Strait which was frozen in winter, but the competitors ended up traveling to Japan and then Russia by boat. Six national teams — three French, one American, one German, and one Italian — set off from Times Square on February 12, 1908, watched by 25,000 curious onlookers who had come to see the event in the snow.

Barely a few hours after the start, the French Sizaire-Naudin car crashed into a rock. The car was wrecked, and Auguste Pons and his two teammates were forced to drop out of the race. Merely crossing the United States was a feat in itself, and another French car got stuck in the mud on the Midwest planes before quitting the race near Carrol, Iowa.


The French Dedion-Bouton car arrives in Utica, New York. © Library of Congress

The only American Car, a Thomas Flyer driven by George Schuster, almost got caught in quicksand in Nevada, but managed to arrive first in San Francisco on March 24, 1908. After a stage in Japan and another boat ride to reach Vladivostok, the race took a turn for the worse. The racers feared bandit attacks in Siberia, and the melting snow made it impossible to drive across the tundra. The final French car, a Dedion-Bouton, had to drop out of the race.


The American Thomas Flyer car got stuck in the mud. © Library of Congress

The U.S. team arrived in Paris on July 30 after driving for 169 days, whereupon they split a prize of 1,000 dollars and were received by President Theodore Roosevelt. The four-cylinder winning car has now been restored to its original condition and is exhibited at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

A Shorter Version of the Race

More than a century on, the route is still a challenge. The anniversary race was cancelled in 2008 as China rejected the drivers’ visas. And this year, following a warning issued about Russia by the U.S. State Department, the stages in Asia and Europe were cancelled.

The race will end in California this year, but the spirit of 1908 is still going strong. George Schuster’s great-grandson will be racing in a 1929 Ford Model A Roadster Pickup. In an effort to respect the original itinerary, the race will also be held mostly on smaller roads instead of highways and interstates. The six teams will stop at a motel every night, but that’s about all the comfort they can expect. The vintage cars are windowless, and the drivers will have to deal with everything the weather throws at them!

“A thick wool blanket helps to retain the heat given off by the engine,” says Jack Crabtree. In preparation to the event, he drove the New York-Paris route with his wife between April and July 2011. “These vintage cars are uncomfortable, but that’s part of their charm. And they certainly help you start conversations in Russia, China, and Europe!”