1907 Thomas Flyer
1907 Thomas Flyer. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Erwin Ross Thomas’s E.R. Thomas Motor Co. built cars in Buffalo, N.Y. for about a decade in the early part of the century. They would be virtually forgotten today if a Thomas Flyer hadn’t won the gruelling 1908 New York to Paris automobile race.

Thomas made Cleveland bicycles in Buffalo and Toronto in the late 1800s. He moved into engine production, and in 1900 began building motorized tricycles. Motorcycles came next, and Thomas claimed to be the world’s largest motorcycle maker. By 1903 his Buffalo Automobile and Auto-Bi Co. was producing the one-cylinder Buffalo car, which became the Thomas.

The company soon graduated to three- and four-cylinder engines, with a six added in 1905. In 1904, Thomas began calling his cars Thomas Flyers. To gain publicity Thomases competed in such contests as the Vanderbilt Trophy Races, but with indifferent results.

The expensive Thomas was selling reasonably well when the 1908 announcement came of a New York to Paris race, starting in New York and heading west. Inspired by 1907’s Peking to Paris race, it was jointly sponsored by Paris’s Le Matin newspaper, and The New York Times. It was such a severe test of endurance that there was much scepticism that any of the competitors would actually make it.

Having invented the automobile, and being about a decade ahead, Europeans considered their cars superior. American cars were looked upon as crude and heavy, not surprising given the ruggedness required to survive the U.S. and Canadian “roads” of the period. Only three days before the race there were still no American entries, a situation that brought much criticism from newspapers.

Finally, E.R. Thomas entered a Thomas Flyer with a huge 9.4-litre (571 cu in.) four-cylinder engine and chain drive to the rear wheels. It was driven by racer Montague Roberts, accompanied by George Shuster, a Thomas company master mechanic. A racing contract would force Roberts to return East from Cheyenne, Wyoming, leaving Shuster in charge of the Thomas. He was assisted to San Francisco by Thomas dealers, but was then responsible for the car.

The other entries, which were specially prepared for the race, were a German Protos, a deDion-Bouton, Sizaire-Naudin and Motobloc from France, and a Zust from Italy. Although now virtually unknown, they would all outlive Thomas in the car business. Thomas brought the field to six.

The competitors were to drive to San Francisco, be shipped north to Valdez, Alaska, and drive to Nome, Alaska, partly on the frozen Yukon River. They would then drive on the ice across the Bering Strait to Siberia, and race across Asia and Europe to Paris. It was an enormous undertaking, one made more formidable by the severe winter being experienced by the United States that year. Although no car had been driven across the U.S. in winter, the cars left New York’s Times Square on Feb. 12, 1908.

Attrition began early. The tiny, one-cylinder Sizaire-Naudin dropped out before travelling barely 161 km (100 mi), followed by the Motobloc in Iowa. The big, sturdy Thomas, although not lavishly prepared, reached San Francisco first. It was shipped to Valdez where an early thaw had made the drive across Alaska impossible, so the Thomas was shipped back to Seattle.

A route change was approved by the race committee, now taking the contestants to Japan, Vladivostok, Russia, across Manchuria to Moscow, then on to Berlin and Paris. At Vladivostok, the remaining French team dropped out of the race when the de Dion company, their sponsor, cabled to say their car had been sold to a Peking businessman.

The German Protos suffered mechanical problems in Utah, and against the rules, the crew shipped it to Seattle by train for repairs. They then shipped it straight to Vladivostok, bypassing Japan. This manoeuvre would cost them dearly, but it was only part of the nationalistic skulduggery that was going on, although the Thomas slavishly followed the rules.

The Manchurian crossing was brutal. The Germans, having avoided the rough western U.S. leg thanks to their train ride, reached Paris on July 26, 1908, four days ahead of the Thomas, but they received a cold, silent reception from the French.

For the infraction of shipping their car over the Rockies, organizers penalized the German Protos 15 days, and gave the Thomas a 15-day bonus for its wasted trip to Alaska. They dropped the Protos to third place and granted the still struggling Zust second-place standing, if it ever reached Paris, which it did 24 days after the Thomas.

The Thomas drove into Paris on July 30, 1908, to a tumultuous welcome, 169 days and 21,472 km (13,342 mi) after leaving New York. This win, and Cadillac’s 1908 award-winning English demonstration of inter-changeable parts, confirmed that the technology of late-starting North America was drawing abreast of Europe, and even surpassing it in some aspects of automobile engineering.

Capitalizing on its newfound fame, Thomas sales improved, but only temporarily as the company rested on its laurels. Thomas had to sell out to a New York banking consortium in 1910. The quality of Thomas cars slipped, as did sales, and the company went into receivership in 1912, although a few cars were built after that.

Fortunately for automotive history the three finishing cars have survived. The winning Thomas Flyer is in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, the Protos is in a museum in Munich, and the Zust is undergoing restoration in British Columbia.

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