1908 New York to Paris Great Race

Pulling the American Thomas out of Colorado mud

The Great Race of 1908 was an event sponsored by newspaper companies to sell both press and automobiles. The Parisian daily Le Matin in conjunction with The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune sponsored the six car journey from New York to Paris. This race around the world began on February 12, 1908 in Times Square. Three Parisian cars, the De Dion, Moto Bloc, and Sizaire-Naudin, the American Thomas Flyer, the German Protos, and the Italian Zust all participated, though only three would finish.

A crowd of over 250 000 people witnessed the adventure's start at 43rd Street and 7th Avenue in New York City.  An atlas had been consulted and a very specific course laid out, leading from New York west to Chicago and across the prairie. The cars would cross the Rocky Mountains in northern Nevada and arrive in San Francisco, where they would take a steamship to Seattle. There they would change ships for Valdez, Alaska.  If a car lost its lead in waiting for passage on a ship, so that other cars caught up, it would be granted its same lead on debarkation, and the other cars held back. The race cars were intended to drive across Alaska and cross the frozen Bering Strait, then push on across Russia to Europe -- to Poland, Germany, France, Paris, the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower. The trip was estimated at six months.

Because of the many hazards, the journey across America actually took six weeks instead of the two weeks originally envisioned.  In some places, the cars resorted to riding along railroad tracks when there were no roads.  In Japan, the cars faced seemingly impossible challenges. The only option was to travel on narrow trails meant for rickshaws. The mountainous terrain was twisted and filled with village obstacles, and torrential rains flooded the land.  The Great Race of 1908 holds a special place in history as the longest and most difficult automobile course.

Italian Zust

Antonio Scarfoglio was one of the three drivers of the Italian team that entered the 1908 New York-to-Paris car race, and is perhaps the most quotable writer who documented the journey.  He reported for the paper, Le Matin, and wrote extensively about the race, first in the form of about 50 dispatches that he wired back to his paper as the race progressed, and then in a book published in 1910, Il giro del mondo in automobile (Around the World by Automobile).  The Italian car he rode, a Züst, was one of six starters and one of the three vehicles that actually finished the race.

...the US entry, the Thomas Flyer ...sleek and low like a dolphin... the German Protos, short and squat on its rough wheels...the  three French cars: the pyramid-like De Dion Bouton and the fragile and small Motobloc and the Sizaire...as if all the manufacturers have built bits and pieces of the national psyche into their cars ...including our own Italian Zust, slim and nervous.


without roads, and cowboys occasionally loped alongside to chat. One night in the Rockies the Zust, losing its traction on the falling snow, slowed to a crawl. Sirtori and his two companions were making what progress they could when they thought they heard children crying in the night. But it couldn’t have been. Within a few minutes they saw forms moving around the car, and as they crept along, they realized that a pack of about fifty wolves was circling the car, and circling ever faster and ever closer. The car couldn’t speed up on the snow or hope to outrun the pack. Sirtori blew the horn, which failed to intimidate the animals. He turned the car’s spotlight on them, without any effect. Then, after stopping the car, he and his teammates sprang to the trunks in the back and took out rifles, which they turned on a few of the wolves. Some of the surviving wolves immediately devoured the dead ones, but others kept circling, so the men blasted away until their ammunition ran out, at which point, luckily, the remaining wolves ran away.

Scarfoglio quote from The Longest Race - American Heritage

The Italian Zust traveled with a crew of three, Giulio Sirtori drove the Zust with Henri Haaga, mechanic, and Antonio Scarfoglio, the reporter.  Scarfoglio writes this about the empty desert of the west, After three hours of this worrying quest, we found the wretched line in a parallel valley quite close to us. And there was a [railroad] station. Here lived a lonely woman, the sole guardian of a signal-lamp, a woman who had gradually got detached from the rest of humanity and become a being by herself.  It is a depressing spot. Trains never stop at her station, but pass quickly through, shaking every beam of her cottage. She sees nothing but the undulating smoke, and hears nothing but the clamor of the train. For six months in the year she does not speak to a living soul. Hence she received us as if we had been angels.

Three days ago, we left San Francisco for Seattle on the steamer, "City of Puebla." We arrived today, having made good time. We were supposed to embark here in Seattle on the Humboldt for Valdez, Alaska. But at the Hotel Butler in Seattle we found a strange telegram from the Zust company, our sponsor, telling us to abandon the idea of driving across Alaska and to embark on the Aki-Maru, leaving tonight for Yokohama, Japan. The Thomas [ahead by some days] has had to turn back [from the Bering crossing]  because the thaw has set in. Thus ends our bold dream of adventure, dashed by the arrogance of having taken things too lightly. We left New York too late and spent too much time crossing America. Our adventure on ice will not happen. We are not going to Alaska. We will, to be sure, still face many treacherous and difficult areas, but it won't be worth a thing without having crossed the virgin Bering Straits.

Tragedy would befall the Italian Team. Near Tauroggen, a Russian frontier village, two small children were playing near the road. A passing horse drawn cart is startled by the sound of the Zust and takes to flight.Scarfoglio writes, The wheels of the cart bump more violently over a little heap of rags, and the cart disappears in the dust. On the ground, huddled on its left side with a fair head covered in sand and blood the little body remains, dead. The Italians pick up the child, and place him gently as possible, as though unwilling to disturb his sleep, in the hinder part of the machine on a heap of furs, and then cover him to hide him from our eyes.

The Italians stop at Tauroggen to report the accident to the local police, having to awaken the Chief.  After relating the account of what happened, the Police Chief responded that he had received an earlier report by telegraph from the cart driver saying it was the motorist in the New York to Paris race that killed the boy.  For three days Scarfoglio and Haaga found themselves in a Russian jail cell surrounded by fourteen other prisoners while the investigation of the incident continued.  Much of their time was spent on a wooden bench in the cell corner, never speaking a word. Finally, on the fourth day they were released with the apologies of the Pristaff (Police Chief).

Scarfoglio described his encounter with some Russian soldiers who took pity on their wretched appearance.  They offered shelter from the rains and some food. Not having eaten since the prior day Scarfoglio and Haaga ate like wolves, happy in the mere animal pleasure of swallowing. They went on to encounter vast waveless oceans of Siberian tundra mud. Never, even in the depths of the desert or the Valley of Death, when our tongues were swollen with thirst and our brows throbbed with fever, had we experienced such a complete and painful sense of solitude. They become mired in a swollen river at 3:30AM early one morning. 

They are helplessly stuck watching the water rise first to the Zust chassis, then over the floor boards, soon half the engine is submerged. Drowned cattle started to float by, bumping the car. They finally decide to leave the Zust, and flipped a coin. Scarfoglio will swim towards the west, Haaga to the north, and their Siberian guide to the east.   Then, the water suddenly stopped rising and by 6:30AM the water is below the engine. Finally, they restart the engine and free the Zust.