Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 23, 2010

World Race 2011: Honoring Pioneer Automobilist George Schuster

Schuster & his Thomas Flyer, 1964

Pioneering “automobilist” George Schuster, who drove to victory in the 1908 New York to Paris Race, was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame on October 12, 2010, in Dearborn, Michigan. The hall has also honored the likes of Henry Ford, Mario Andretti, Enzo Ferrari and Carroll Shelby. It was, some said, a long overdue honor for the unlikely hero of what has been called the World’s Greatest Auto Race.

In 2011, a new version of the event, known as the World Race, is planned.

Schuster, who died in 1972 at age 99, was quickly fading into the mists of history, until his achievement was recalled in 2008, in connection with the centennial of the so-called “Great Race” of 1908.

Check out my 2008 feature that ran in The New York Times, recounting the race and the magnitude of Schuster’s accomplishment. (See also Time’s top notch slide show of historic photos.) Automotive historians credit the race with helping prove to the world that these new-fangled automobiles could be a reliable and dependable form of transportation.

Times Square start of Great Race of 1908; Thomas Flyer at right (Time, Inc.)

Schuster had been a mechanic and engineer at the E. R. Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, N.Y., when he got a last-minute call from the company’s founder who asked him to ride along and take care of the 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35, an open touring car, that they’d entered in the race. The event started on a wintry morning February 12, 1908, in New York City’s Times Square; the grueling conditions took their toll on at least three drivers before the team reached California. Schuster, initially just a riding mechanic, was compelled to take over the driving duties the rest of the way. Months later, on July 30, he was at the wheel when the Flyer triumphantly rolled into Paris.

Schuster never raced again; he was soon out of a job too, as the race’s heavy cost helped bankrupt the Thomas Motor Company.

Thomas Flyer at Harrah's auto museum

The Flyer disappeared for many years, but was later discovered by casino entrepreneur and auto collector extraordinaire Bill Harrah, who restored it and put it on display in his Reno, Nevada, auto museum.

Bill Harrah & collection

Schuster was called in to help authenticate the vehicle as the actual race-winner.

Schuster’s accomplishment had been obscured somewhat during his lifetime by two other short-stint drivers who were erroneously credited as the winner. In 1966, he wrote a book, “The Longest Auto Race“, detailing his triumph. In 1968, The New York Times, which sponsored the race along with the Paris Matin newspaper, discovered that Schuster had never received the $1,000 prize he had been owed for winning; the Times held a banquet in his honor, and presented him with the belated check.

Schuster good-naturedly pointed out $1,000 did not have quite the same buying power in 1968 that it would have had 50 years earlier!

In 1965, director Blake Edwards made a comedic movie called, “The Great Race“, which was very loosely based on the race. (Yes – do not adjust your set; the hysterically funny clip below with Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Natalie Wood has been dubbed into Russian. Surely, that shows the race’s international appeal!)

.

Blake Edwards' "The Great Race"

But the plot does feature some of its more outlandish things that really happened en route – such as one of the competitors trying to corner the market on all the gasoline in Vladivostok, Russia.

But the actual Great Race began a long, slow slide from public consciousness after that. It wasn’t until 2007, when a group attempted to stage a revival of it, that much was said about it again.

That event, which had been planned around the race’s centennial in 2008, was canceled after the Chinese government revoked permission to travel through the country (vaguely in retaliation for international protests against the Beijing Olympics).

But for 2011, the famed 1908 classic’s revival is back on. World Race 2011 leaves New York on April 14. Here’s a documentary look back at 1908, as well as sneak preview of what’s to come in 2011:

After two weeks crossing the U.S., three weeks in China, a week in Kazahkstan, and ten days traversing Europe, the epic event is scheduled to conclude on July 11 at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Two classes of vehicles will compete – the Schuster class, for historic vehicles produced prior to 1960, and the Innovation category for electric cars, hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles.

Jeff Mahl

I plan to follow along, riding with Jeff Mahl – Mr. Schuster’s great-grandson – in a hybrid vehicle. Look for my reports from the route.

On April 16, the entourage is scheduled to stop in Michigan at the Automotive Hall of Fame, where Schuster will no doubt be given his due once again.

“The induction was one of those once in a lifetime experiences,” Mr. Mahl said of his great-grandfather’s enshrinement in the hall. “For Great Gramp to be included with automotive legends like Ford, Andretti, Benz, Ferrari, Olds and Shelby – it’s hard to put into words…”

Jerry Garrett

October 23, 2010

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Responses

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  3. I’m just curious why only Schuster is mentioned when talking about this race, when clearly there was a few others if not for them keeping the car running would have not even won the race, it seems selfish to say otherwise.. I say a great injustice has been displayed here, there was other men that should have been talked about equally. thank you

    • Schuster was only supposed to be a ride-along mechanic. Instead, the assigned driver, Monty Roberts, bailed early in the event, citing “another commitment”. A replacement driver arrived, but he too quit after a few days, turning the driving chores over to a boy they had met along the way. It quickly became obvious the young man wasn’t going to be the answer, so Schuster – who after riding all day in the wintry cold, and then working on the car through the night (as the drivers slept) – took over driving too. He drove from the Utah-Nevada border, to San Francisco, across Japan, Siberia, Russia and Europe – indeed the rest of the way. He is the driver of record.

  4. You are a little incorrect in the reason for the other drivers. Monty, did in fact, have another committment and it was known from the beginning that he would be departing in Cheyenne. The Thomas Company then had Brinker and Mathewson as drivers, sharing the journey to San Francisco. The “boy” was not met along the way; I think you are referring to the young Floyd Clymer, 13 years old, who was given a ride in the Thomas by Monty. Both Brinker and Mathewson were from Denver and both were 21. It had also been decided in Cheyenne that Schuster would take over the driving from SF to Paris. Schuster did not take the wheel until SF. Yes, he is the driver of record but one should also remember the Italian and German teams. And, George Miller, one of the unsung heroes, the US mechanic. All brave men.

    • Thanks Michael. I will go back and re-check the New York Times daily reports from the correspondent on board. And George Schuster’s memoir, from which I drew a different conclusion. The daily dispatches reported Schuster was at the wheel by the time the Flyer left Ely, Nevada. I know at the end of the event, when the Thomas Co. wanted to send Monty Roberts to Paris drive the car across the finish line, Schuster exploded (the only time he did so, even though he wanted to several times). Someone tried to honor Roberts as the winning driver at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the event (and to drive the car), and Schuster spoke up then and said something as well.

  5. Schuster was very calm most of the time. He did go “on strike” however in Cheyenne and was quite furious. That is why the other two chaps only took it to SF: the Thomas company had to make a deal with Schuster to continue. The NYT was pretty accurate but there are other sources to use. We spent 8 years researching the race and collected the largest archives of original photos, print, books, unpublished memoirs etc. It’s a great story and made an award winning film. Our picture cars (full scale running replicas of the Thomas and Protos) are now at the Reynolds Auto Museum in Alberta together with our mountains of research. I look forward to speaking with you if you have a chance.


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