Picture this: 6 cars, 17 contenders, a journey of 35.200 kilometers, and 6 months of driving through the USA, Asia and Europe. This kind of adventure would be very challenging today, but in 1908, it was on the verge between common sense and complete madness. Nevertheless, all contenders survived, but to make things even crazier, the winner was chosen by the judges.
At the starting line, there were 250.000 people waiting to say their goodbye to a handful of mad men who decided to race on 3 continents. Remember, at the time, car manufacturing was still evolving, and the roads stopped the moment you left the city...even in the States.
And that was the easiest part; the real hell was waiting for them in freezing cold Alaska and Siberia. I guess that's why people were so interested to see what lunatics would risk their lives to do this insane race, which by the way, is the longest and toughest race in history. This was the ultimate fight between a man, machine and mother nature. In 1907, people witnessed the Beijing-Paris Race, but the need for adrenaline and prestige forced them to organize something even wilder.
So, in the fall of 1907, the Paris journal Le Matin invited drivers to compete in a race called "Le Tour du Pole", which would be more challenging since it would start in the Big Apple. To make things more interesting, the winner would get $1.000 prize, and another $1.000 would be awarded to the one who carries the American flag through the entire journey. Some of the contenders didn't even have a driving license, and they learned how to drive during the race.
On 12th February 1908, the race began, and 6 cars left in a big cloud of smoke. The first problems were waiting for them just 30 kilometers after the starting line. Big amounts of snow and deep swamps were a real struggle, but the cars didn't give up. However, for few kilometers, they were forced to drive in the 1st gear, and sometimes needed horses to pull them back on the roads. After 160 kilometers, the Sizaire Naudine crew retired and, at that point, people realized that this wasn't a race...it was a battle to survive.
Due to low temperature, drivers were forced to keep their engines on most of the time. The first stage led them across Rocky Mountains to Seattle. One of the teams, Protos, almost had a fatal crash in Wyoming. To get away from the swamps, they decided to drive on railroads, and at one point they almost got hit by a train. They escaped their death, but crashed the car while jumping off the rails. It took them almost 2 days to repair it, and to make up their time, they took a train to Seattle, which was against the rules causing them to get 15 days penalty.
In Seattle, the contenders decided to change the route. Instead of going to Alaska, their cars were loaded on a ship and transported to Vladivostok. Only 3 teams made it out of Vladivostok: Protos, Züst and Thomas Flyer. Later, they met the dangerous Siberia and Manchuria. In these places, they faced springs thaws, which caused them to measure their speed in feet rather than miles per hour. After the Lake Baikal, the roads improved and they reached checkpoints in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Berlin, before finally reaching the finish line in Paris.
The first team to cross the finish line was Protos on 26th July 1908. But, they weren't the winners. An American, Thomas Flyer won the race, despite arriving to Paris 4 days later. Protos got another 15 days of penalty due to cheating, causing Flyer to win with a 26 days advantage (the largest winning margin in history of racing). To find out who'd come third, people needed to wait for few more months; the Italian team Züst crossed the finish line on 17th September 1908.
So, you see why this race makes Dakar look like a garden party? A crazy race that wasn't for everyone-only for the brave. Thomas Flyer was the American car to win in an international race, and it is currently displayed next to its trophy at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.
Here's a list of teams that entered the race:
The Brixia-Züst 28/40 HP was driven by Giulia Sirtori, Antonio Scarfoglio and Henri Haaga. The car weighed 1.575 kg and was loaded with 500 liters of fuel. The tires used on this car were made by Pirelli.
DE DION (France)
France had 3 teams, and one of them used a De Dion with 30 HP. The drivers were G. Bourcier de Saint Chaffray, Hans Hendrik Hansen and Alphonse Autran. The car was loaded with 700 liters of fuel and also featured steel wheels so that it could be driven on rails. However, it never finished the race, since the drivers sold it to a businessman while they were in Japan.
The drivers of Motobloc 24/30 HP were Charles Godard, Maurice Livier and Arthur Hue. Since the car weighed 2.8 tons, it couldn't go through swamps in America, so the team boarded on a train and escaped the route and most checkpoints, which forced the organizers to disqualify them.
SIZAIRE NAUDIN (France)
The 15 HP Sizaire Naudin was the least powerful car of the race, and weighed only 1.5 tons. The drivers were August Pons, Maurice Berthe and Lucien Dechamps. They quit after just 160 kilometers.
This was the best equipped car of the race. The Protos 17/30 HP weighed 2.7 tons and was carrying 770 liters of fuel. The drivers were Hans Kooepen, Hans Knape and Ernst Maaß.
THOMAS FLYER (USA)
The American team was represented by a 4-cylinder Thomas Flyer 50/60, which was converted from a 7-seater to a 2-seater just for this race. The drivers were Montague Roberts and George Schuster; the car weighed 2.5 tons and was carrying 380 liters of fuel.