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Auto Sales Stimulus: 1909

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"Transcontinental Car Contest to Begin" is not a headline that would grab much attention in 2009, but with a dateline of June 23, 1909, it is a very different story. The trip from New York to Seattle across largely unpaved roads in automobiles that traveled at less then 20 miles per hour took 23 days and was filled with unexpected adventures.

In 1909 mining heir Robert Guggenheim, 24, decided to sponsor a cross-country auto race, ostensibly to encourage the building of better roads. (Roads at that time were like driving over washboards, and people still needed horses and sleighs if there was snow.) He wanted to conclude the race in Seattle, so he coordinated his event with that city's opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world's fair to encourage development of the Pacific Northwest (much as the 1908 Democratic Convention in Denver had opened up the Rocky Mountain area to easterners

Guggenheim had hoped for as many as 30 entrants, and in August of '08 The New York Times (8-23-08) noted that nine cars had already registered with five more expected, but the race became mired in controversy. In 1907, 324 people had been killed by automobiles, so the Manufacturers' Contest Association refused to sanction a "race" across the country because it seemed to promote danger.

Eventually the organizers decided to call it the 1909 Ocean to Ocean Endurance Contest. The ground rules involved obeying all speed limits in the East, which meant traveling about 14 miles per hour. After St. Louis it was agreed they could "break loose," and the autos could then travel as quickly as 18.8 m.p.h. The rules also specified that no major components of the automobiles could be changed during the race; each part was stamped so its presence could be verified.

The entry field was severely reduced by the "danger" controversy, and on June 1, only five vehicles appeared at the starting line in Times Square:

• Two entrants were Model Ts. Henry Ford saw this as a wonderful marketing opportunity for the Model T, which had only been introduced in 1908. Ford had the foresight to keep his contest vehicles light. He stripped them of their windshields and rear seats--essentially his cars were chassis on wheels.

• An Acme, a chain driven touring car made by a company that had formerly made bicycles.

• The Shawmut Roundabout, a luxury car made in Massachusetts. A fire had destroyed the factory; only two automobiles had been saved. By entering one of them in this contest, the company hoped to revive interest in the brand so they could afford to re-open.

• Guggenheim's own car, an Itala, a make that had traveled in a Peking-to-Paris race in 1907 so the designers had ideas on needed modification for an endurance contest.

A sixth auto by the Stearns Company began the race five days late, but it had to pull out because of mechanical problems just outside the New York City limits.

Keeping an automobile functional in this era was a daunting task, so some of the cars traveled with one or more mechanics as well as a driver and a relief driver. Ford saved on weight here, too. By putting together a nationwide network of dealers and their mechanics to help out, he not only lightened the load the vehicles carried, but he provided for local people who could offer directions along largely unmarked roads.

The obstacles the autos encountered over the 4106-mile course were enormous: Bridges were rare so if no ferry boat was available, the autos made harrowing trips across railroad trestles. Rough roads and mud were major problems, but again, Ford's planning provided an advantage for the Model T. The Model Ts were light enough that two men could lift and position a wheel onto a piece of wood to get them out of the mud and on their way. At Snoqualmie Pass, near Seattle, one of the Model Ts got stuck in four feet of snow and had to be dug out. Perhaps because he could smell victory, Henry Ford himself arrived on the scene to help dig.

The race ended on June 23 in Seattle when one of the Fords crossed the finish line. Seventeen hours later, the Shawmut arrived, followed by the other Ford and a week later, the Acme. (The Itala had dropped out in Cheyenne Wyoming.)

Henry Ford immediately launched a marketing campaign touting the fact that the lightweight, affordable Model T was superior. The Shawmut Company entered a protest, and five months later the event sponsor found in favor of the Shawmut Motor Company. One of the Ford dealers had swapped out the engine of the winning Model T, a direct violation of the rules.

In November the Shawmut was awarded the $2,000 prize for first place, but it was too late to save the company. Ford had taken full advantage of the delay and had gotten a lot of traction with his marketing campaign. "The $850 car that won the New York to Seattle race" brought motoring to the masses. In 1909, 18,664 Model T's sold and those figures doubled the following year and doubled again the year after. By 1916 Ford was producing half of all the motor vehicles in the world.

This June (2009) a commemorative race is underway: On Sunday, June 14, 55 Model T's started from New York City; they will conclude the event in Seattle on Sunday, June 12. Police escorts protect them in metropolitan areas, and every fourth day the drivers are pausing to rest and tune up the cars. Click here to check progress.

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