Thomas Flyer in Ames

Postcard image from 1908

In March of 1908, a Thomas Flyer automobile came through Ames amidst much excitement.  The occasion was the Great Auto Race between New York and Paris.  Italian, French and German cars also slogged through town.  The winner of this incredibly grueling endurance race was this American Thomas Flyer, pictured here pausing briefly at the intersection of Onondaga and Duff.

Contrary to what was recently published, the race route did not take the participants across the Bering Straits (as was originally planned) but was changed after the discovery by the Thomas crew that snow drifted to the tops of buildings in Valdez, Alaska.  The planned route was altered to allow the cars to be shipped across the Pacific Ocean and resume their journey through Manchuria and Siberia.  For more information about this amazing adventure, visit the headquarters of Ames Historical Society or the Greatest Auto Race website.

Some sources seem to have taken their information on the "Great Race" from the 1965 movie of that name, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Natalie Wood. There are two glaring errors in that otherwise delightful Blake Edwards movie: (1) in spite of the original plan to do so, the cars did NOT drive through Alaska and over the ice-bound Bering Straits to Siberia; (2) none of the participants looked anything like Natalie Wood.  This quote is from Antonio Scarfoglio & The Around-the-World Race of 1908.

New York Times, February 12, 1908


Six Contestants in Great 20,000 Mile Run Off from Times Square at 11 A.M. -  MAYOR TO GIVE SIGNAL - Great Throng Will Gather in the Square to Cheer on the Intrepid Motorists - $1,000 PRIZE EXTENDED - Any Contestant in Any Car Who Carries Our Flag to Paris May Claim Reward - EVERY CAR IN RACING TRIM - Promptly at 11 o'clock this morning Mayor McClellan will fire the pistol that will send the contestants in the great automoblie race from New York to Paris, arranged by Le Matin of that city in cooperation with the New York Times, on their 20,000 mile journey.... No event in the history of automobiling has attracted as wide attention as the great race.  The almost insurmountable obstacles to overcome, the dangers that beset the contestants, and the elements of adventure and hardy daring have invested the event with an attractiveness that has appealed to the seekers after excitement and admirers of pluck and enterprise... Times Square yesterday was thronged.  Hundreds of persons were bent on getting a glimpse of the men who are taking their lives in their hands in the undertaking.  The crowd also wanted to look over the machines built for the race.

All the contestants expressed confidence in being able to complete the long journey.  They have provided themselves with clothing for the extreme cold weather of the arctic regions.  They all realize the tremendous odds against them, but, undaunted, they will all start with grim determination to succeed.... [Now describing the American Thomas Flyer] Instead of the usual mudguards, which have been removed, the car is fitted with skid planks about 20 feet long, running the full length of the car.  The complement of tools is as follows: two shovels, 3 picks, 2 axes, 2 lanterns, 3 searchlights, 3 extra gasoline tanks, with a capacity of 125 gallons, and a reservoir for lubricating oil, with a capacity of ten gallons.  Extra springs and parts are carried.  The car will be equipped with a top similar to those used on the old prairie schooners.  This will be so arranged that the entire body of the car can be enclosed and used for sleeping quarters.  As an extra precaution, it is equipped with 500 feet of rope, a rifle, and revolvers.

New York Times, February 27, 1908


At 3:30, in the midst of a violent snowstorm and a biting cold wind from the lake, a procession of automobiles decorated with American, French and Italian flags, started out to meet the incoming foreign contestants.  Sitori [Italian Zust auto] said, "I have never seen such roads in my life as we have traversed the last fourteen days, and it is a shame to put first-class motor cars on them.... We have been under our own power all the way, and have at times been assisted by horses, which is not exactly being towed."

In brief speeches the drivers expressed their opinions of the Indiana snowbound roads and their joy at being in Chicago tonight.  Sitori said he never knew that there was so much snow in the world, and was glad to find that it was all stored in Indiana.

Captain Hansen told a thrilling story of an encounter that he had with a terrible Swede near Bootjack, Ind. at midnight's lonely hour, who mistook the gallant Captain for a Norwegian sewing machine agent that had visited the village ten years ago and separated the Swede, among other farmers, from certain sums of money. The Captain said that after a fierce struggle in which both he and the Swede ended up in a deep snow bank alongside the porch of the house, Hansen got the upper hand by a back hitch he had acquired in the mines at Umtilikavitch, Siberia, and held the Swede down while he recounted his story of the search for Andre and two chapters of the Argentine Rebellion in 1892.  By that time the hardened farmer had gone off into a trance apparently, and readily entrusted to him a team of horses to haul the De Dion car out of a snowdrift for $10.

Brancola, an Italian engineer who had driven in a sleigh from South Bend to overtake the Zust car, said that he easily traced the progress of the contestants in the New York to Paris race by the number of panting farm horses he met by the roadside.  It was estimated that the Indiana Hoosiers had benefited by over $2,500 besides having their roads opened by the racers, so that they could not truthfully say after this that automobiles were not of any use to the general public.

New York Times, March 7, 1908


Far ahead from Omaha came last night this telegram from Scarfoglio [Italian Zust]: "By which way can we compete for the cup of the world." I understood at once that the Zust car was in deep mud and in a position to cross Iowa better as a subway car than by running on roads.

But I am disgusted with the Indiana farmers.  They let me sleep five days in the snow and have taken all my money.  No matter.  We remain all happy and wish to see how far a car can go through heavy mud and snow.  We beat the snow and the Indiana farmers.  We beat the breakdowns.  We can see if such contest will not show how to build the car of the future, lighter and stronger than the best ever made, or if suitable roads will not be constructed for mechanic locomotion in the United States before a century.

The Ames Historical Society website features more Great Race accounts and photos.

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(image courtesy Frank Eagan of the Goldfield Museum in Nevada)

Ames Times, March 5, 1908


Last Monday afternoon at four o'clock the American car, a Thomas make, driven by Montague Roberts, the twenty one year old automobilist, drove into this city at a very slow rate, piloted by Warren Bockwith in his White steamer.  The car stopped for a moment or two at the Ames hotel, where the Des Moines auto club awaited it, and then passed on through the city, running to Ogden before darkness came that night.

A large crowd awaited its coming and many of the people had been standing around for hours expecting it to come in at breakneck speed.  When it came jogging along at six miles an hour everybody pronounced it a frost.  As a speed contest it is a frost, but as an endurance contest it is delivering the goods.

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This diagram of the intersection of Ames Main Street and Duff Avenue is based on an 1896 map which still shows the Ames & College Railway tracks.   The red rectangle indicates the location of the Thomas Flyer in the two photos above.  Visible in the background of the top photo are the office and warehouse of Munn Lumber, the Lawton House (hotel) with the double chimneys, the municipal water tower, and Loughran Machine Company's tall brick building.  In the second photograph (from the Goldfield Museum) the engine house for the retired steam Dinkey is seen at right.  Electric trolley cars that had just replaced the steam rail service on Story (Fifth Street) are visible in both photos.

(photo courtesy Carl Allen) The Thomas Flyer is pictured heading to Ames from Colo on a route that would later be known as the Lincoln Highway.  A Chicago & North Western train is seen in the background.

Italian Brixia Zust

Italian Brixia Zust in New York.

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(photo courtesy Carl Allen)
The Zust pictured in Ames as it spends the night in  the L.E. Morris Livery, located adjacent to Hotel Ames.

Ames Times, March 5, 1908


The Italian car "Zust" arrived in Ames at 7:50 Tuesday evening, being on the road about 4 hours from Marshalltown... Put up at L.E. Morris livery for the night.  There was a large crowd to witness the grand entrance.  The Italian driver was loudly cheered when he reached the hotel.  He responded with "Hip, Hip, Hip, A-mare-i-kay."  The next morning he ushered in Ash Wednesday by taking Mr. and Miss Smith of Hotel Ames a short ride down the street which they told him had been named in his honor "Onandago." His machine weighs 7,000 pounds, not counting the passengers and mud.  The American machine weighs 2,500 pounds.

New York Times, April 7, 1908


[Italian crew member Antonio Scarfoglio reports] This is no road that would bring one to happiness.  The road to Goldfield is very long and hard, and runs through high mountains and steep valleys.  There is not a single house in the 300 miles dividing Ely from Goldfield; always the desert, extremely wide, shining with the white sand.  The solitude is not broken - not even by a flying bird, or by a lonely rabbit, but the road is fair, and is not hard on our pneumatic tires.  The road is quite level, and our car, the Zust, is running at a fast gait.  But it is a run without life and without enjoyment, as the air that is coaxing our faces is mild, but there is nothing to put one in good humor - not a tree, not a man, not a telegraph pole.....  Now there is nothing but big pyramids of stone.  We must have gone about 150 miles in this horrible land, but nobody could tell us clearly the distance.  What we know is that we are tonight without any place to shelter ourselves, and the wind is just now blowing strongly and making the sand whirl.  We start on foot in the direction of a mountain, trying to find a shack, or a rock, or anything at all where we can pass the night.  Not a single shack - not a rock!  Not any kind of a hole at all!


German Protos

German Protos enters Rochester, New York

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(photo courtesy Carl Allen)

German Protos, Story County east of Ames

The driver of the German car takes a photograph while his mechanic pumps up a repaired tire.

Ames Times, March 19, 1908


After wallowing through mud and snow for thirty long and tedious days, the Brewers, driving the protos car, the German machine in the New York to Paris race, arrived in this city Friday afternoon about two thirty o'clock and tied up at the Frank Morris livery stable.

The car was greeted by a large crowd, which was eager to get a glimpse of the much talked of machine.  In appearance, the racer was not unlike a huge prairie schooner and it wobbled along the length of Main Street with its crippled tire as though it didn't make any difference whether it got to Paris in the year 1908 or not.

Repairs for the machine were not received until Monday forenoon and the driver hurriedly adjusted them and departed about ten o'clock.  The hoo-doo still pursued the racer however and it stalled on the big hill west of the college where it remained until pulled out by a dray team shortly before noon.

French Moto Bloc

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(photo courtesy Carl Allen)

French Moto Bloc in downtown Ames

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The Moto Bloc heads west through the campus area, having just passed Beach Avenue.

Ames Times, March 19, 1908


With the passing of the Moto Bloc, the second French car, through this city Monday noon, the last of the automobile race was observed and we are glad of it.  At first it was a novelty to contemplate seeing one of the famous racers, then it got tiresome and along toward the last the natives stood out on the street from morning till night, looking wan and hungry, vainly waiting for the next car.  The last one has gone and who cares.  Photographer Hart took a big picture of the last car ... and the people of Ames will have a picture to remember it by.  It was certainly a handsome car and far better equipped for the hardships of a long journey than the German car which preceded it from this city by a few hours.

The French Moto Bloc would withdraw from the race shortly after leaving Boone, Iowa.