In the fall of1911 when automobiles were still a novelty and paved roads a luxury of thefuture, a stouthearted band of goggle-eyed, linen-dustered"tourists"—including me—set forth on what was known as a Glidden Tour.Our car, a Stevens-Duryea, contained my father, a highly competitive-minded manat all times, now a dedicated pioneer hellbent on proving the make of car hewas driving the best on the road; my mother, a quiet, competent little woman,who was wise enough to let Dad believe that neither Barney Old-field nor RalphDe Palma would stand a turtle's chance against him; and a Mr. Young, who hadbeen sent along by the Stevens-Duryea factory as a spare driver. And of coursethere was I, a child of 10.
These tours, in aloose sort of way, could be classified as races. Each type of car was requiredto maintain a given rate of speed in order to turn in a "perfect score"over a specified course, in this case, between New York City and Jacksonville.Apparently the rate of speed was determined by snob appeal and the price of thecar. Since my father's car was one of a team of three Stevens-Duryeas, hisaverage was set at 20 miles per hour. This put him in the top echelon, adistinction in which he took unusual delight.
Twenty miles perhour may not sound like a burdensome requirement today, even taking intoconsideration the era of this particular "race," but it included alltime-outs, and that was the kicker! A day seldom passed without at least onepuncture or blowout, engine trouble of one kind or another, or a broken springthat had been pounded to pieces by the rough roads and mountain water breaks.There was also the inevitable leak, which would develop periodically in adifferent part of this new and miraculous mechanism known as theautomobile.
The weather wasan equally determining factor in each day's progress. On rainy days we skiddedand swished through the mud, frequently having to be pulled by mule power orpushed by manpower from hub-deep ruts or the ever-hospitable ditches on bothsides of roads.
September 25, 1960
It started torain as we drove through Gettysburg, Pa., and it continued until we slid intoSouth Carolina, three days and two nights later. Under the small, smooth-treadtires of those days, the narrow, winding clay roads through the mountains ofVirginia and North Carolina were treacherous even when dry; wet, they werereminiscent of the whirling disk at an amusement park which is designed todislodge its load and send it scurrying. The gullies bordering these slimypathways were fringed with cars, poised at an angle of 45°, their driverspatiently waiting to be rescued by friends or a farmer and his team ofmules.
Had it not beenfor the services of the kind, and occasionally enterprising, farmers andmountaineers who kept fires burning, both to designate and to illuminate ourroute after dark, and an ample supply of mules at each of the 10 unbridgedstreams we had to ford, only the three Stevens-Duryeas and two of the PierceArrows would have reached Jacksonville at all: they were the only cars on thetour with sufficient umph to plow through water up to their enginecrankcases.
Whenever wesplashed past some less fortunate fellow travelers, held in the grip of aswollen creek, my father would rear back and look as if he had singlehandedlyparted the waters of the Red Sea for our unimpeded passing. If, by chance, thevictims happened to be in a Maxwell, his day was a rip-roaring success.
From the veryonset of the tour Dad and the three Maxwell drivers became archenemies."They're all professional mechanics," he argued, "and have nobusiness in a gentlemen's race."
Day by day, astheir sturdy little cars chugged along, always managing to ease across thedaily finish line within their required 16-miles-per-hour average, his enmitytoward them increased. The sparks really began to fly the day one of ourteammates was trying to make up the time he had lost changing two tires in apouring rain, and the little Maxwells refused to concede the middle of a slick,muddy road to the faster car. When a penalty of 10 points was assessed againstthe delayed Stevens-Duryea, Dad charged in.
"Ridiculous!" he protested. "The penalty should be against theMaxwells for having hogged the road." The tour officials did not agree withhim, however, and he lost round one to his opponents.
The next time theStevens-Duryeas came upon the Maxwells, it was late afternoon on a mountainroad just south of Roanoke. It was raining, as usual, and the situationscreamed for caution. But the possibility of letting the Maxwells hog the roada second time was unthinkable to a man of my father's temperament. I could allbut see the hairs begin to bristle on the back of his neck.
While Mr. Youngvigorously pumped the bulb on our horn, Dad gave our engine the gun.Determinedly, skillfully—and miraculously—he and one of his teammatesmaneuvered past their rivals and down the road to our next check-in post.
But where was ourthird member? Precious minutes were ticking by, other cars were checking in andstill there was no sign of him. Dad was pacing the floor of the hotel lobby,while Mother and I sat watching him and the door, longing only for the bliss ofour own rooms and a hot tub.
My father almosthad a stroke when the Maxwell gang came breezing in. They started to speak tohim, then apparently thought better of it and turned toward a group of theirfriends. Dad consulted the official timekeeper. Then he jerked the muddy helmetfrom his head and angrily threw it onto the floor. "Confound it!" heexclaimed. "Here goes another penalty against our team."
Nine minuteslater, while we were still in the lobby, tired, dirty and now definitelyapprehensive, the offending crew arrived.
Dad pounced onthe already dazed driver. "Well," he shouted, "what happened toyou? Were you afraid to pass the Maxwells again?"
"No," hisfriend replied, "I passed them all right, but I went into a skid as Iapproached that flimsy plank bridge we had to cross. It is only by the grace ofGod that we weren't all killed. The guardrail split in two as we crashedagainst it. Luckily, we bounced off of it instead of going through it."
"Then whatdelayed you?" Dad inquired sardonically.
"We landed inthe ditch on the other side of the bridge," the poor, weary man explained."If one of the Pierce Arrows hadn't been in the same predicament I supposewe'd be there still. It took the lot of us to get both cars back onto theroad."
"But notuntil after the Maxwells had passed you!"
My father was sodetermined to win the Glidden Trophy, an impressive-looking silver cup ofstupendous proportions, that he made what may have been man's first effort atstreamlining a car against wind resistance. He had our top removed, and atarpaulin, containing an opening for each of our heads, made to snap on the waythe old-fashioned car curtains used to do before the days of closed-in bodies.Through these apertures our visor-helmeted heads protruded, and we had toaccept, with or without resignation, whatever the elements held in store forus.
Many of ourfellow tourists considered this a hardship for Mother and me, and the moresympathetic ones rallied around us whenever the opportunity permitted.
"Here, let meclean your goggles for you," one would say. "You won't be able to seethrough those things."
My own petcavaliers were the ones who invariably popped a tempting tidbit into my eagermouth. Because it lasted longer, chewing gum was my favorite choice—that is,until the day our radiator sprang a leak and the only way to plug it was withgum. After chewing it for untold hours, along with Dad, Mother and Mr. Young,my taste for it was irretrievably satiated.
Garages andfilling stations did not line the roads then as they do now, and even if theyhad, my father would not have considered stopping for an unnecessary repairuntil we were sure of reaching our day's destination within the allotted time.He would rather have had the four of us chew gum all the way toJacksonville!
"What's amere leak in a radiator?" he queried. "The Stevens-Duryea is the bestcar made today, and this is my chance to prove it. Nothing is going to keep mefrom turning in a perfect score!"
I admired hisspirit, but there were many times when Mother and I were appalled at the extentof it. Almost daily we experienced the disturbing reaction of having to witnesssome unfortunate farmer and his family being spilled into a field or tossedinto a roadside ditch by the frantic effort of their runaway horse to escapedestruction from this newly created monster of the machine age.
A victory ofsorts
When we reachedFlorida most of the hardships, with the exception of the sand-heavy roads, werebehind us. The weather was better, and our only challenge was the perfect scoreof all three Maxwells. Just two of the Stevens-Duryeas had achieved a similarsuccess. Even so, we won the high-priced-car class, and this cushioned Dad'sdisappointment and loss of face at not having completely equalled the Maxwellrecord.
As we rolled intoJacksonville, amid the shouts and cheers of hundreds of flag-waving spectators,the Glidden Tour of 1911 came to a close. It had taken us 13 days to completethe 1,454-mile course. And even though the Maxwells received the trophy, we hadproved, at least to my father's satisfaction, that we had the best car on theroad.