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Great Adventures: 1908 New York-Paris Race

Pat Kinsella lauds those magnificent men in their driving machines who contested a crazy 1908 car race from New York to Paris

THE GREATEST RACE ON EARTH

STARTERS’ ORDERS The six competing cars jockey for position in Times Square on 12 February, with the German Protos stuck at the rear
GETTY X2

Back in 1908, when cars were a rich man’s toy rather than a means of transport, an extraordinary race was held – covering nearly 22,000 miles across three continents. Over almost six months, team members mutinied, pistols were drawn, extortion was attempted and the cars tackled terrain ranging from frozen swamps to railway tracks.

The Great Race was staged in mid-winter, because organisers wanted competitors to drive across the frozen Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia – yet this was an era before antifreeze or snowploughs; the winning car had a convertible roof and no windscreen. Many – including Henry Ford – doubted the cars would cope. At that time, just nine people had crossed the United States by automobile – none of them during winter.

Was such a journey even possible? eoretically, yes. But, warned Britain’s Daily Mail, “the motor car, after a woman, is the most fragile and capricious thing on Earth.”

THE WACKY RACERS

Sponsored by the New York Times and France’s Le Matin, the race captured the world’s imagination. Six cars set out on 12 February, carrying the flags of four nations, and 17 men from five countries (see line-up, right). France entered three cars. The first was a De Dion-Bouton, driven by G Bourcier de St Cha ray (who had previously organised a Marseille-Algiers motorboat race, which saw the entire field sink), with Norwegian explorer, Hans Hendrick Hansen. The second French car was a Moto-bloc, driven by Charles Godard and the third, a Sizaire-Naudin, with August Pons at the wheel.

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The October 2015 issue of History Revealed