By Rich Place
For Springville resident Jeff Mahl, a 17-day road trip from eastern New York to San Francisco was about more than just seeing the country.
It was about more than taking his 1929 Model A Roadster Pickup for a joy ride and there was definitely reasoning behind enduring 100-plus degree heat in Death Valley without air conditioning.
His journey was a re-creation of the American leg of the 1908 New York to Paris Race that took him through America’s heartland as a tribute to his great-grandfather, George Schuster, who famously won the 1908 race and helped put automobiles on the minds of the everyday individual.
“It really went terrific,” Mahl said during a recent interview. “It was surprisingly well for the 90-year-old vehicles we were driving. We quickly came to appreciate some of the advances with modern cars like side windows, air conditioning and all the things we didn’t have.”
Mahl piloted one of three vehicles to complete the journey — the others were a 1928 Plymouth Roadster driven by John Quam and a 1929 Model A Boat Tail Speedster piloted by Jack and Mary Crabtree. They arrived in San Francisco on July 5.
Roger and Kathy Hershberger, who drove a 1941 Packard Model 160, also joined the trio on part of the journey.
The trip technically started in Hyde Park in eastern New York on June 19 and included a stop in Springville on June 23. On July 24, they joined another group of vintage car enthusiasts — who were bound for Nova Scotia as part of the annual controlled-speed endurance rally known as “The Great Race” — for their official start from Buffalo.
The trip west included plenty of memorable moments for Mahl, including being escorted by mounted patrol in Wyoming and getting to meet the state governor; having a conversation with the great-grandson of a rancher in Nevada who helped Schuster during the 1908 race; and enduring sweltering heat in Death Valley and Stovepipe Wells, Calif.
But as a history aficionado at heart, Mahl constantly kept the whole trip into perspective. While he and his companions sweated through 110-degree heat with no air conditioning, for example, he remembered what his great-grandfather endured with the lack of amenities in his Thomas Flyer.
“We were still so much better off than they were in 1908 because they had no roof and no windshield — basically they were doing this in the winter time with no roads,” he said.
THE TRIP took Mahl and the other two participants mostly down U.S. Route 30 to follow the original route taken by Schuster and his team more than 100 years ago. At that time, there obviously was no main thoroughfare across the country but present day U.S. Route 30 — nicknamed the Lincoln Highway — follows a similar path, Mahl said.
“It was ironic because in 1908 they took sort of a natural route across the country, which was essentially due west from Chicago to San Francisco,” he said. “It turns out what they perceived as being a good, natural route was also the best route for the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.”
Taking the road allowed them to follow in the footsteps — or, perhaps more appropriately the tire tracks — of Schuster and his team. But it also allowed them to get a better feel for America’s heartland.
“There was absolutely jaw-dropping beauty that we passed through,” Mahl said. “When you drive on the interstate you don’t really experience this country. When you get off the interstate, you really begin to realize how great this country is and not only the vastness but the variety.”
There was more nostalgic aspects to the trip than just the route. In Evanston, Wyo., for example, the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office escorted the vintage cars into town via mounted patrol, just like they did in 1908 when the Thomas Flyer passed through.
“It was just over the top in terms of a welcome,” he added. In Cheyenne, Wyo., Gov Matt Mead greeted the travelers and presented them with a Wyoming state flag.
In Nevada, Mahl and his companions met with members of the Fallini family at Twin Springs Ranch, where 100 years earlier Giovanni Fallini had assisted Schuster after his vehicle broke down in a nearby creekbed.
“We got to meet the great-grandson of the rancher who was there in 1908,” he said. “It was an amazing experience talking to him and comparing what great-grandpa had told me with what his great-grandfather had told him.
“With experiences like that, the only way you can experience them is to actually go there and do it. That experience could never have been re-created through a telephone call or an email. You had to be there to soak it all in. Everywhere we went the whole trip it was that way.”
FOR THREE vehicles approaching 100 years old, there were little troubles on the trip, Mahl said. He experienced a minor electrical issue resolved by a fuse replacement and one of his companions was riddled with a flat tire.
“It something goes wrong it’s much easier to fix,” he said. “I think it’s that simplicity that even after 90 years makes them so viable. They were designed for endurance first and comfort second.”
Mahl emphasized the importance of the 1908 race, which has its ties to Springville because Schuster lived here, operated a dealership here and is buried at Maplewood Cemetery. He said the race showed to the world the power and endurance of the automobile and only months later Henry Ford was able to manufacture them cheaper than ever before.
Just five years after the American victory, the first paved road was completed with the Lincoln Highway.
“All of this would have eventually happened,” Mahl admitted. “But what the victory did in 1908 was expeditiously accelerate this whole process because it created an enormous demand not only in the U.S. but in the world for automobiles because they were proven.”
There’s hopes of eventually completing the international leg of the 1908 race through Asia and Europe, although Mahl said that’s currently on hold until international relations are better settled and it’s safer to proceed with the route.
Area residents can revisit the 1908 race through an exhibit at the Heritage Building on Franklin Street dedicated to George Schuster and the Thomas Flyer.
For Mahl’s day-by-day account of the trip, visit his blog at www.2018nytoparisnews.com.