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


Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 6

The legend is that it was an impulsive barroom bet, and in the days when 10-horsepower engines were considered monsters and roads were trails of mud or dust where they existed at all, it looked like a loser: US$50 said that Horatio Nelson Jackson could drive an automobile all the way from San Francisco to New York City, something no one had ever done, and do it in less than three months.

He did it, rumbling down Fifth Avenue 100 years ago yesterday and becoming what a transportation specialist at the Smithsonian Institution calls "the Charles Lindbergh of 1903, no question about it."

Yesterday afternoon, a 1903 car like the one Jackson drove was expected to finish the trip again unless a wheel falls off (one almost did, in California) or the brakes catch fire (they almost did, in upstate New York on Thursday) or more than one tire goes flat (only one spare is on board).

At the wheel -- made of wood, with brass spokes -- will be Peter C. Kesling, an Indiana orthodontist and car collector who says Jackson had it easy: There were hardly any other drivers on the roads 100 years ago, honking, tailgating, pulling into the passing lane despite oncoming traffic.

Maybe there was no traffic in 1903. But for much of the way, there were no roads. Jackson and his companions on the trip -- his mechanic, Sewall K. Crocker, and a bulldog named Bud -- followed dusty trails and forded rivers because there were few bridges.

Jackson's time was 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, fast enough to win the bet, though he never collected on it. Kesling will complete the 6,200km trip in 40 days. Also arriving on Saturday, in a slightly newer 1916 vehicle, will be Charlie Wake, whose great-grandfather Alexander Winton made the car that made the first trip. The two drivers left San Francisco on June 17.

They largely followed Jackson's route, leaving San Francisco and heading through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and six other states before bumping across New York in cars that do not have shock absorbers. Or power steering. Or power brakes. Or air-conditioning. Or seat belts or air bags. Or radios or in-dash CD players.

There are things that are different from 1903: Leaving San Francisco, they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge; Jackson took a ferry. Later on, he killed time in whistle-stop towns, waiting for parts to be delivered by train. Now, wives have cell phones to call AAA.

Manny Souza, who was also making the trip in a 1904 Winton until it was hobbled by a breakdown on Thursday between Skaneateles, New York, and Cobleskill, New York, described what it was like to call for roadside assistance: "They kept saying, `You mean it's a 2004 car?' No, 1904. `You mean 2004?' Finally the lady understood that it was an antique car." She sent a flatbed truck that hauled it to a motel in Cobleskill, where Souza loaded it into a trailer for the trip home to Rehoboth, Massachusetts.

Kesling and Wake drove more than 130km from Cobleskill to Poughkeepsie on Friday. Their destination is the Travel Inn Motor Hotel on West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, which Kesling chose because it has a garage where they can park the cars.

A century ago, Jackson whizzed into Manhattan by night, chugging down Fifth Avenue and arriving at 4:30am Kesling and Wake planned to sleep on Friday night -- after all, they are not worried about rival drivers reaching New York first, the way Jackson was. They want to pull up to the hotel between 1 and 2pm, but they faced delay by lines at the George Washington Bridge.

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.