Motoring the Globe in a New-fangled Way

It may come as no surprise that Hammacher Schlemmer was an early supporter of the drive toward the car culture. In 1902, when there were fewer than 600 cars in New York City and no gas stations, we introduced the first Auto Parts Department, selling parts and tools for the “horseless carriage” including a Motorist Touring Kit, which allowed drivers to fix a flat or blown gasket.

This was the age of the polished brass automobile—works of the machinist’s art and craft—years before “King Henry” punched out black tin Lizzies. These speed machines gleamed seductively with seats padded and sprung by coach builders, and looked much like The Stirling Engine 1900 Mercedes. In these bold, crazy days there were no helmets, no roll bar, and no air bags. Seatbelts? Paah! But now people had the speed to move and explore the planet.

To promote the future of the automobile, The New York Times challenged the French newspaper Le Matin to the most daunting race of the day: New York to Paris. Many thought this an impossible act of lunacy. Was the technology up to the ordeal? Were men brave and adventurous enough to stand up to the journey? It was the space program of the day.

It was winter, February 12th and a gold pistol shot marked the start of The Great 1908 New York to Paris automobile race. Six teams left New York. In the rural countryside, there were no snow plows and most roads were mud, gravel or dirt; asphalt wasn’t invented until 1910. Drivers had no benefit of The Stuck in Snow Extrication Kit.

The race promoters had the novel idea that the Bering Strait would be frozen and the cars could drive over it with tire chains like a land bridge. Melting ice made the whole notion impossible and was abandoned. The machines were shipped by sea first to Alaska and later back to Seattle and on to Japan.

The American auto in the race, piloted by George Schuster, was the sturdy and dashing Thomas Flyer, of the Thomas Motor Company, in Buffalo, NY. The Flyer had no enclosed cockpit, only overstuffed front and rear tonneau seats. There wasn’t even a windshield. All supplies and provisions had to be tied to the running boards or stored in foot wells. Planks were lashed to the sides to be used as traction boards on muddy permafrost roads. The cars were powered by 40-60 horsepower low compression 4-cylinder engines. Top speeds ranged from 40 to 70 mph.

Food was scarce along the way. No maps existed for many remote sections of the globe. A homemade sextant and brass compass were used to navigate through Siberia and Mongolia.

Three teams finished the race: the French, the Germans, and Schuster’s American Thomas Flyer, with Schuster the only competitor to complete the entire 22,000-mile journey. Even though the German team made it to Paris first, they took shortcuts along the way and didn’t follow the route. The French judges penalized them and declared Schuster’s American team the winner on this day, 105 years ago.

More than a century later, Schuster’s feat has never been equaled. The famous race heralded the start of a new era in transportation, but perhaps it’s time to recreate the race with today’s electric cars. The 120 MPH electric car would be our favored entrant. It can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds to a top speed of 120 mph in one gear with no shifting thanks to its two electric motors.

If you prefer to travel solo, look at The Electric One Person Car. This electric, highway-legal, three-wheeled, single passenger vehicle combines the functionality of an electric car with the maneuverability and scale of a motorcycle. With a range of 30 miles per charge, it operates with zero emissions and uses less than half the energy of even today’s most efficient hybrid vehicles.

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