Motor racing: This was the road to hell

The Anniversary: The longest car race in history, New York to Paris, took place 91 years ago
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE still hansom cabs for hire in London. The Model T Ford had not yet gone into mass production, and the concrete at Brooklands was hardly dry, but on 12 February 1908, six cars lined up in Times Square, New York City, to embark on the most ambitious and bizarre motor race of all time: destination Paris.

The race had to begin in winter because it was intended to cross the ice-covered Bering Strait. A quarter of a million people gathered in the square to see the cars which not only had huge additional petrol tanks but vast quantities of spares and tools. Of the six, three were French (the race was sponsored by Le Matin as well as the New York Times): a Motobloc, a Sizaire-Naudin and a De Dion which carried a mast and sail in case there was a chance to turn the car into a land yacht, and special wheels for running on railway lines. The other entries were an American Thomas, an Italian Zust and a German Protos. There were no hard and fast rules about how many different drivers could compete.

The planned journey was estimated at 13,000 miles but after only 20 all six cars had to be dug out of snow drifts. Once out, the Sizaire-Naudin quickly broke down with a terminal rear-axle fracture and the Thomas began running on only three cylinders. And that was only day one.

Fog, snow then heat made the journey across the States a nightmare. All of the cars suffered mechanical problems and had to be pulled out of drifts and mud by teams of horses. The Zust broke down after eight days, in which only 400 miles had been covered, and dropped back. So the Thomas took the lead followed by the De Dion. Already the physical toll was showing. Montigue Roberts, driver of the Thomas, had lost a stone and a half.

In virtually roadless Wyoming, the Thomas was given permission to be driven on the railway track. The repaired Zust almost fell over a precipice. A breakdown in Nevada led to the Thomas mechanic borrowing a horse and riding for five hours to the nearest house where he was chased off by a gun-carrying farmer's wife. Fortunately a local doctor did surgery on his own car for parts.

By 24 March the Thomas had reached San Francisco, becoming the first car ever to cross the American continent in winter. The distance of 3,800 miles had taken 41 days. By then the distances between the first four was measured not in miles but states. The Zust was in Utah and the De Dion and Protos still in Wyoming. So the Thomas was driven on to Seattle and taken by ship to Alaska where the race organisers had to admit that their plans had always been a shade optimistic. The snow was too deep for the car to get away from the docks so the team was instructed to return to Seattle and thence by on-going ship to Vladivostok.

From then on chaos turned to farce. The Zust and De Dion drivers, having been warned off the trip north, were already on their way from Seattle to Vladivostok. The broken-down Protos had arrived in Seattle on a freight train. A 15-day bonus was awarded to the Thomas team for being inconvenienced by the trip to Alaska and 15 days were deducted from the Protos for hitching a lift.

The De Dion was withdrawn, leaving the Thomas and the Protos to fight it out across Russia. Twenty miles outside Vladivostok the fight became a champagne lunch when the Americans found the Germans stuck in the mud and gallantly towed them out and offered hospitality.

The Zust followed up but was engulfed in a rising flood. As the first drowned animals floated by, the Italians abandoned car and swam for high ground. Meanwhile the Thomas team had again found a railway track - the Trans-Siberian - and steamed ahead, but that caused transmission trouble. At one point the mechanic branched off on a five-day train journey to get spares, leaving the car six days behind the Protos. Nevertheless, by driving day and night that was soon reduced to two days. At Lake Baikal the Protos was loaded on a ferry which had no more room for the Thomas which remained dockside for 12 hours. Despite the setbacks, at the end of June the Thomas overtook the Protos. The Americans moved into a four- day lead going into the Urals, though that was lost when more transmission problems resulted in the mechanic travelling 400 miles for parts.

The Protos retook the lead, held it through Leningrad and Berlin and arrived in Paris first but the 15-day penalty meant that the bedraggled American Thomas could pull up outside the office of Le Matin on the evening of 30 July (169 days and 13,341 miles after the start) and win. The Zust turned up 49 days later.