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Car History - Get a Horse!   Part 4: The Beginning of Automobile Racing

By Carl Burgess Glasscock

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

Not a farmer or tradesman, hardly a man of moderate means in the country then expected or wanted to own an automobile. The gasoline cars were noisy, smoke-belching, hard-riding, uncertain contraptions at best. The electrics were silent and simple to op­erate but the weight of storage batteries and the narrow limits of their field restricted their use almost exclusively to city streets. In the Chicago Times-Herald race of 1895 the Sturges Electric, one of only three American cars to start, managed to travel only twelve of the projected fifty-two miles before exhausting its bat­tery. The steam cars were quiet and smooth, but required consid­erable time for starting, and had other serious disadvantages.

The noise and stench of the gasoline cars was so unpleasant that even as late as 1909 a stroll of half a dozen blocks along New York’s “automobile row,” which then extended along Broadway approximately from Forty-Ninth to Fifty-Fifth Street would be likely to give the pedestrian a headache.

Outside the few men who were actually building automobiles, interest was displayed chiefly in their possibilities as a medium of sport. Racing, not utility, was the thing. That form of interest had been aroused first in France with the Paris-Rouen race in 1894. It was slightly stimulated by the first automobile race in America, in 1895. That event was a failure from the standpoint of its promoters. Only one Chicago newspaper besides the sponsor even deigned to mention it. The Chicago Tribune commented somewhat contemptuously that the contest had revealed that it would be a long time before motorized vehicles would displace the good old horse.

In that same year, however, Europe made a far better demon­stration with sixty-six entries in a Paris-Bordeaux race, won by a Panhard-Levassor car which covered seven hundred and forty-four miles at the sensational speed of fifteen miles an hour.

The amateur sporting element of New York, which in those days meant only the wealthy, had been made automobile-con­scious by the Cosmopolitan race from the New York city hall to Irvington-on-Hudson and return. Few others could afford such an expensive sort of entertainment. The roads of the United States were terrible. Only the more important streets of the more im­portant cities were paved, and that for the most part with cobble­stones. A few connecting roads were graveled, but far more were mud or dust, depending upon the weather. Automobile touring was no sport. Racing was sport. Automobile driving was taken up as a distinctive feature of social life in New York.

Automobile Topics, the first publication devoted to the new activity in this country, brought out its first issue on October 20, 1900. Remembering the date, some of its announcements afford entertaining sidelights upon the beginning of the infant industry as an industry. For example:

“At the first general meeting of the Automobile Club of America, October 16, 1899, Mr. George F. Chamberlain agi­tated the question of holding a specific Automobile Exposi­tion in the City of New York. Heretofore automobiles have been shown in this country only in conjunction either with electric, bicycle, or carriage expositions. ... Before his de­parture for Europe in the latter part of April of this year, Mr. Albert C. Bostwick had completed his arrangements in securing the use of Madison Square Garden to hold the first annual show of the Automobile Club of America. ... A circular track one-eighth of a mile long and twenty feet wide will be used for contests of stopping, starting, turning and driving between obstacles. ...”

It seems evident that the fact that a car could run at all, or that it could be guided accurately, and started and stopped at will, were the chief points of interest at that time. Yet there was enough specialized interest in the country to attract forty-six exhibitors into that first show. In view of subsequent developments it is interesting to note that not one of the forty-six gave a Detroit address. The majority were of New York.

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