Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Reliving the drive that ushered in the motoring age

CENTENARY It is 100 years since the first coast-to-coast car journey across the US, an epoch-making event that enthusiasts have commemorated by repeating the trip


Wake, who lives in Sarasota, Florida, asked how much the tolls were these days.

Six dollars without an E-ZPass, he was told.

"Holy mackerel," he said. "Nothing's cheap about New York."

Americans greeted the 1903 expedition with a what-will-they-think-of-next sense of awe, and headline writers had a field day. "Quite a Sight for Alturasites: A Real Live Auto Steams into Town," the Alturas New Era in California said. Never mind that Jackson's Winton was powered by gasoline, not steam. Jackson had built on an extra tank for gasoline and carried sleeping bags, two jacks and a block and tackle with 150 feet of rope.

"The Winton trip really was a turning point," said Roger B. White, the transportation history specialist at the Smithsonian. "It opened the door for exploration of a personal nature, of a recreational nature, of the west." And as for Jackson's US$50 bet, a central element in a public-television documentary that will be broadcast in the fall, White said there was no such wager.

Jackson's Winton is now parked -- permanently -- in the Smithsonian. Wintons are relics -- the company got out of the automobile business in the 1920s. Winton later made diesel engines, including two that power Circle Line tour boats, Wake said.

Kesling's Winton was lumbering along Route 20 on Thursday. The speedometer read 25mph (40kph) as he passed a sign advising that the safe speed for the next curve was 45mph (75kph). The sound of the engine was more of a loud putt-putt than the ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of Walter Mitty's car in the James Thurber story.

There was no danger of the wife complaining, as Mrs. Mitty did, that the Winton had surged to 55: Kesling's Winton is going fast at 30. It slows to half that speed on hills.

At 4km per liter, the Winton is a gas guzzler. And there's not an eight-way power seat in sight.

"Imagine putting some lawn chairs on the hood of your car and bringing the steering wheel up through the hood and just taking off down the highway," Kesling said. "See how you like it."

They tried to keep to back roads. Kesling's wife, Charlene, said there had been breathtaking scenery along the way -- the cornfields in Nebraska, for example.

"Not bored," he said. "Can't relax. And you sure can't fall asleep at the wheel."

Like Jackson, Kesling had trouble with rain in upstate New York -- he was drenched in a downpour as he closed in on Cobleskill. Jackson got so wet that he sent a telegram to Winton headquarters saying that if it did not let up, he would need "paddles for the wheels and a rudder for the rear of the car. May have to take out navigation papers."

Kesling has felt every kilometer. "It drains you," he said. "A current car is like a magic carpet, almost. It's so smooth, just flows, really. You can't compare them, I don't believe. There's no similarity. They both have four wheels, maybe, and a steering wheel, but that's about where it ends."

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns chronicled Jackson's trip. "This guy's essentially driving a sit-down lawn mower," he said.

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