Friday, March 24, 2017

Locomobile and auto racing
Part one - the early years
Author’s note – this article began as a report on the 1923 Locomobile model 48 displayed at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River Oregon. However during the research, the story grew into a three-part article that encompass the history of Locomobile in general and in racing. The author found the Locomobile drama to be engrossing and hopes that you the reader enjoy it as well.  

Before the dawn of the twentieth century a single car united  two prominent men and led to the founding of one of America’s true classic automobile brands- Locomobile.  In 1898 prominent magazine publisher John Walker bought one of earliest Stanley steam wagons for $650 and later sold the used Stanley at a profit to multi-millionaire Amzi L. Barber the man known as “the Asphalt King.”

The next year, Walker purchased the Stanley brothers’ steam car manufacturing company for $250,000 then soon after sold half interest in the company to Barber for $250,000. The new company initially operated under the name of Automobile Company of America but quickly was reorganized as the Locomobile Company of America after Walker left the partnership and the company settled in Bridgeport Connecticut.
Locomobile manufactured an inexpensive ($600) low-quality runabout steam car but after the Stanley twins, Francis and Freelan, reentered the steam automobile business in1902 and their new Stanley steam carriages immediately cut into Locomobile sales, so Locomobile quickly began experimenting with another form of power. The ‘gasolene’ (as it was initially spelled) powered 1904 Locomobile Touring Car which could carry five passengers sold for the very high price of $2000. With the success of their ‘gasolene’ nine- and sixteen- horsepower machines, Barber and Locomobile sold the steam manufacturing rights back to the Stanley brothers.
The early Locomobile ‘gasolene’ automobiles equipped with the sixteen horsepower four-cylinder front-mounted “vertical engine” was an early performance car. In an advertisement in Automotive Topics magazine a customer was quoted “I have never been passed on the road and have never seen the machine I could not pass.” The advertisement copy also recounted the customer’s story of recent trip from Boston to Providence with four passengers aboard as the customer claimed “I passed 23 cars but was not passed myself. “    

16-horsepower Locomobiles stripped of fenders and tonneau were successful in racing such as the events held on Labor Day 1903. J. Murray Page won a five-mile “free for all”  Gentleman’s Driving Club race in Danbury Connecticut, and it was reported that the same day A.M. Kline and his Locomobile won the Labor Day races in Muncie Indiana. Less than an month later, on October 3 1903 Archie McNeil a Locomobile he called the “Grey Gem” won a five-mile special race run over the Empire City race track in Yonkers New York in a time of 7 minutes 19 seconds for an average speed of over 40 miles per hour (MPH).     

This performance came at a price as in 1908 a new Locomobile model 40 Runabout a 4-passenger touring car equipped with a 60-horsepower 990-cubic inch 4-cylinder engine sold for $4750 without a top. Stripped-down Locomobile ‘40’ cars proved to be formidable racing machines in the east; in 1905 Irishman Joe Tracy drove a 90-horsepower Locomobile in the Gordon Bennett Cup race in France but broke down early with transmission troubles. Later that year Tracy finished second in American elimination trial race held to winnow the entries prior to the Vanderbilt Cup race, then followed that up with a third place finish in Vanderbilt Cup race.

The following year, Tracy and his riding mechanic Al Poole, won the American elimination trial, then during the Vanderbilt Cup race they set a new course record with a time of 26 minutes and 20.8 seconds for the 29.1 mile lap in their number 9 Locomobile. Joe Tracy ran in 10th place when the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup race ended prematurely when a spectator was struck and killed when the crowds swarmed the course.

After Joe Tracy’s retirement from racing, George Robertson and his riding mechanic Glenn Etheridge won two major “stock chassis” races in the 1906 Locomobile during 1908, the first being the inaugural 200-mile race at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia in early October. Two weeks later the pair drove the 1906 Locomobile renumbered #16 to victory in the 4th Vanderbilt Cup race held on the closed Long Island Parkway and became the first American car and driver to win the Vanderbilt Cup.

The #16 Locomobile was proclaimed in the press as “The Greatest American Racing Car” and Robertson, Etheridge and the car were featured in parades and feted at lavish banquets. To commemorate their 1908 Vanderbilt Cup victory, the Locomobile factory utilized a miniature reproduction of the Vanderbilt Cup as the radiator cap on the 1909 models, and offered similar versions to Locomobile owners for retrofitting at a cost of $2.25 each with nearly 900 such cups sold. Today these miniature Locomobile/Vanderbilt sterling silver cups are extremely prized collector’s items.

George Robertson and his teammate James Florida posted pair of strong finishes (second and fourth) in the June 1909 Crown Point Indiana road races before the Locomobile factory dropped out of racing. Robertson finished the 1909 season behind the wheel of a Simplex, won the Fairmount Park Founder’s Week trophy race for the second time and the 318-mile Lowell trophy race in Massachusetts and was later retroactively crowned the 1909 AAA (American Automobile Association) champion.

George Robertson was seriously injured in a bizarre pre-race practice crash in a Benz prior to the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup race and retired.  Robertson later worked part-time for the AAA and served as the assistant starter of the first Indianapolis 500 mile race under chief starter Fred Wagner. The unrestored “Old 16” Locomobile driven by Robertson to victories in Long Island and Philadelphia was later donated to the Henry Ford Museum collection in Dearborn Michigan.     

During the same time frame, the years 1908 – 1909, Locomobile achieved considerable racing success on the West Coast which has been overshadowed in history by the Vanderbilt Cup and Fairmount Park successes.

A Locomobile ‘40’ driven  by the company’s representative for the West, J. Murray Page, won  the 24-hour race held on the one-mile (original) Ascot Park track located near what is now downtown Los Angeles. Page drove R.S. Wilson’s Locomobile for 21 of the 24 hours in the race which started on noon on October 31. Page finished on November 1 1908 as he completed 916 miles and won the Diamond Trophy and the $1000 purse.

During the 1909 racing season, Murray Page in a Locomobile ‘40’ won a 150-mile race on Sunday March 28 at Ascot Park and established a new “World’s Record” as he completed the distance in two hours and 47 minutes and won two laps over Bert Latham who drove a Stearns.     

Three months later in the Wemme Cup race an “open event” held on the 14.6 mile Portland road race course, Murray Page and the Locomobile led the first two laps before the engine faltered during the third lap. Bert Dingley in the smaller Chalmers-Detroit car swept by into the lead followed by Sam Christopherson in a Stoddard-Dayton before the Locomobile returned to form.  

Page could not close the gap over the last four laps and finished third but after the race Murray Page protested the finish.  Murray claimed that Charles Arnold in a second Chalmers had “persistently jockeyed and intentioned fouled” him in the far turns out of sight of the referees. This was early in the development of the sport of automobile racing which were governed by thoroughbred racing rules long before competitors embraced the modern NASCAR maxim that “rubbin’s racin.’”  

Murray Page finished fourth in the July 1909 Dick Ferris Trophy “stock chassis heavy car’ race over Santa Monica road course behind Harris Hanshue in the Apperson ‘Jackrabbit’ which averaged 64 miles per hour. After the Santa Monica race, a “match race of the giants” between the Locomobile and the Stearns was scheduled for August 15 1909.

Advertised as rematch of the March 28 Ascot Park race, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the stakes for the 300-mile match race were $5000 from each team. The driver lineup was different than the March race, with Charles “the Old War Horse” Soules (at age 33) listed as the Stearns driver and the unknown “little Billy” Orr behind the wheel of the Locomobile.

Before a large crowd on a warm Sunday, the Stearns built up a five (or six depending on the source) lap lead as it turned consistent laps at one minutes three seconds, or 57 MPH  while the Locomobile was forced to stop five times with tire trouble. The Stearns’ race ended when its crankshaft (or clutch depending on source) broke on its 109th lap. Orr and the Locomobile completed the distance in six hours and forty-three minutes at a leisurely 44 MPH average speed to claim the $10,000 stake.              

Amzi Barber passed away in 1909 and beginning with the 1910 model year, Locomobile’s marketing under the direction of President Samuel T. Davis, who was Barber’s son-in-law, deemphasized racing and speed and instead focused on the advertising promotion of the car’s durability and comfort.

In the second chapter of the story of Locomobile and racing, you’ll learn that while Locomobile struggled financially through the nineteen twenties under the control of a reckless investor, the company still managed to build magnificent automobiles. 


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