By: Jeff Mahl
This blog post and the photos below were provided by Jeff Mahl, Great Grandson of George N. Schuster and TheGreatAutoRace.com
Many remember the classic comedy “The Great Race” starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk. Few realize that film was based upon a true story of the epic 1908 New York to Paris Race. Who would have guessed that a quiet mechanic from Buffalo, NY would win a race most felt would never succeed even as far as Chicago, much less around the world to Paris? All at a time in the early automotive era when, according to the London Daily Mail, “a motor car, after a woman, is considered the most fragile and capricious thing on earth.”
George N. Schuster was the driver and chief mechanic of the winning American Thomas Flyer. It was an epic International event, matching the best in automotive technology of the world superpowers, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States. There were virtually no paved roads in 1908 and most of the world’s population had never seen a motor car, or even an American. The Race began February 12, 1908 in the middle of winter for the simple reason the competitors were to drive from Times Square across the globe to the Eiffel Tower in Paris using the frozen Bering Straits as an ice bridge over the Pacific Ocean. You must remember that snowplows and antifreeze had not yet been invented.
The stirring events and human trials matched the wit, ingenuity, courage and pure will to achieve what had never been done before. With seemingly insurmountable obstacles, George Schuster was the first person to ever drive an automobile across the US during the wintertime in a record 41 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes. He was the only American to make the 22,000+ mile distance from Times Square that cold morning February 12 and arrive triumphantly in Paris 169 days later, on July 30, 1908 winning the legendary race for the United States. His world record still stands 112 years later.
The human story is one of “Yankee Ingenuity” at its finest, besting what was then considered vastly superior European automotive technology. The legendary Thomas Flyer proved that the “horseless carriage” was a viable form of transportation capable of circling the world, putting to rest the notion that automobiles were simply toys for the rich.
As George’s Great Grandson, I was fortunate to grow up hearing the firsthand account of that Race. He lived to the age of 99, and by that time I was in my early 20’s, old enough to realize I was listening to the man who helped change the course of early automotive history. George also lived to see the extraordinary restoration of the Thomas Flyer by William F. Harrah. Mr. Harrah fully realized the significance of the Flyer victory, restoring the Thomas to the precise condition it crossed the finish line in Paris.
On October 12, 2010 George N. Schuster joined automotive legends including Ford, Andretti, Benz, Ferrari, Olds and Shelby with his Induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame. The 1907 Thomas Flyer Model 35 was inducted as #12 at the National Historic Vehicle Register on June 23, 2016. Both George and the Flyer now have their hard-earned place in history.
This blog post and all photos have been provided by Jeff Mahl.