Some family traditions are great – but they don’t last forever. Eventually the kids grow up, sprout wings and end up in various parts of the world in their careers, and illness or death are unwelcome intruders. That’s the way the system works. Yet, memories and pictures can keep those traditions alive and appreciated.
For many years, February was the time to start dreaming and then planning a summer vacation car trip with the family. Traveling was a lot cheaper than compared to now for a family, but we still had to keep costs in mind. Our plan had to be a route that included places that we would develop into stories and photographs that hopefully we could sell.
The system worked reasonably well and most of the car trips paid for themselves.
For instance, in 1986, one of the stops was at the National Auto Museum (The Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nevada.
I recognized some of the models of cars I’d driven over the years – and wish I’d kept a few of them. None of my cars, though, were ever as shiny and classy as the vehicles on display. Some I gave unglamorous names, like Rusty Dusty, Bucket of Bolts, Lemonzine, Slowpoke, Shot Rod, Gas Hawg – you get the idea. You've probably driven some of their cousins in years past – or perhaps still do.
One of outstanding exhibits at Harrah’s was the 1907 American Flyer, with four mannequins and an unfurled American flag, starting down a rutted hillside trail. The exhibit was designed from a photo taken near Leige, France, in the final stage of the historic 1908 New York to Paris automobile race, which was won by the only American entry.
We learned that the 22,000-mile adventure started Feb. 12, 1908, in New York City with a field of six cars – three French, one Italian, one German and one American. The cars headed westward from Times Square.
No one had ever tried a transcontinental auto trip across the U.S. in winter before. In fact, few folks thought the cars would get out of New York state. But five did – one French car didn't. The second French machine conked out in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The entrants were to drive to San Francisco and then go by steamboat to Valdez, Alaska Territory, where the race would resume to Nome. There the drivers were to cross the Bering Strait on the ice into Siberia and work their way to China. Presumably, the 10,000-mile stretch from Peking to Paris would be a piece of cake. After all, four other cars had covered that route a year earlier.
The 1907 Thomas Flyer, driven by George Schuster, arrived in San Francisco 42 days after leaving Times Square and sailed immediately for Alaska. Six days later the Italian car rolled into San Francisco, and eight days later one of the surviving French autos arrived.
However, the German entry arrived aboard a railroad car. Hopelessly mired in mud in Wyoming, the Germans finagled a train ride the rest of the way.
Race sponsors had second thoughts about the navigability of the road from Valdez to Nome and over the Bering Strait on ice. The ship carrying the Thomas Flyer was recalled to Seattle, where the Americans were joined by the other three entries. All sailed for Japan, then to Siberia where the road race was resumed.
The Thomas Flyer experienced problems in Siberia, first with the transmission, then the generator. Meanwhile, the other three cars were stuck in the mud so badly that the French and Italian teams dropped from the race. Ironically, the railroad-riding Germans received a $1,000 prize from the Trans-Siberia Railroad for reaching China first.
Across the Gobi Desert, over the Volga River, it was a speed contest – first the German Protos was in the lead, then the American Thomas Flyer. At Lake Baikal, the Germans managed to board a ferry that pulled away from the dock within sight of the pursuing Americans, who had to wait 24 hours before the next ferry sailed. The Germans picked up another $1,000 from the Russian Auto Club for reaching the Russian border first.
The 24-hour lead gained at Lake Baikal proved insurmountable and the Germans reached Paris on July 26, 1908. The Thomas Flyer arrived four days later but was declared the winner because the Germans were disqualified by their Wyoming-to-San Francisco train ride.