Now Boarding: A History of Airports

Every day, hundreds of thousands of people travel through airports and millions of people travel by airplane. You grumble and bitch and complain about everything, don’t you? It’s far to walk, your bags are too heavy. You can’t take this, that, the other, and another thing, onto the plane. The gates and terminals are miles apart and you’re running late. Security-checks, baggage snafus, X-rays, immigration, and that endless standing and watching and waiting and walking and running…and at all possible hours of the day and night!

Airports are such a pain in the ass.

So, who do we have to blame for this nightmare? While you’re waiting for that flight which is three hours late, and which will last twelve hours from London to Singapore, why don’t you sit back and find out about the history of airports?

Before Airports

From the 19th century up until the 1950s and 60s, almost all international travel was done by railroad or ocean-liner. You rode in comfortable and luxurious Pullman cars across the vast expanses of the United States. You rode the Orient Express across the Continent. From ports like Southampton, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Calais, Port Sa’id, Tokyo and Bombay, your ship or ocean-liner took you all over the world. Shipping lines such as the Hamburg-America, White Star, Red Star, French, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (better known as the NYK Line) and Pacific & Oriental (better known today as P&O) were world-famous, and shipping lines were all in direct competition with each other to grab as big a slice of the customer pie as possible.

Ports and railroad stations were major hubs. Victoria Station in London, Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The Port of Shanghai, New York Harbor, Grand Central Terminal, Union Station, King’s Cross, Paris Gare du Nord, Victoria Dock in Melbourne; all names which were once as familiar to us today as United Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Pan-American.

We think that the Golden Age of Travel, the era when international large-scale passenger transport was possible for the first time, was confined solely to smoke-belching trains and ocean-liners, but even in the 1910s, airplanes and airports were beginning to make a name for themselves. And this is their story.

The Airfield

Starting in the mid-1910s, airplanes started becoming a serious form of transport. The First World War saw the first large-scale use of airplanes, for bombing, reconnaissance, artillery-spotting and the most thrilling of all – aerial combat – dogfights!

But what to do when the war was over?

Yes, airplanes had proved their worth, but for the large part, airplanes were still very experimental – most of them were made of nothing but wood and canvas, with struts and wire stays to hold the whole flimsy thing together.

But with the end of the war, there was suddenly a surplus of planes…and skilled pilots…who were suddenly out of a job!

So began the first experimental passenger flights, in the early interwar period.

With the first flights, came the first ‘airfields’.

Early airfields were nothing fancy – quite literally a field, with precious little besides, and usually belonging to, or purchased from a farmer. Fields owned by farmers were of necessity, flat, smooth, dry, and free of stones, tree-stumps and other impediments; ideally suited for aircraft landing. There were no terminals, no control-towers, not even any runways to speak of – nobody envisioned that air-travel would be used for anything more than the delivery of mail, anyway!

Early airfields were simply open fields…with grass. Handy for landing, not so great for taking off. Grassy fields created drag on the undercarriage and landing-wheels of early aircraft, which inhibited takeoff. Things were improved slightly when someone got out the lawnmower and the grassy field was replaced by dirt runways, but even these had issues – in wet weather, dirt runways turned to roads of sludge, making it impossible to take off, or land! It was clear that proper aircraft-handling facilities were required.

So when and where did the first airports pop up?

The World’s First Airports

The oldest airport still in operation was built so long ago, it was barely older than the machines it was built to handle! Opened in 1909 by Wilbur Wright, the College Park Airport, in Maryland, the United States, is the oldest airport in the world!

Originally, the College Park Airport was a training-ground, for the Wright Brothers to show off their new invention – the airplane! But by 1911, it had become an established airport, with wealthy civilians using the area to land and house their own machines. Among other historic events, College Park saw the first experimental helicopter test-flights in the 1920s.

In the postwar period of the 20s and 30s, large-scale passenger transport was still done with ocean-liners and steam-trains. But eventually, airlines started being formed, and they blossomed into the companies which we know today.

In Australia, a company called the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services commences operations in 1921. In 1926, Germany establishes Deutsche Luft Hansa (three words). The same year, Northwest Airways is established…wasn’t that in a movie somewhere, starring Cary Grant?

A year later in 1927, in the United States, something called Pan American World Airways first takes to the skies, in 1927 with its famous seaplanes.

In Europe, where there was an established flying culture because of the First World War, and where short distances between countries made early passenger flights practical, the first airports were established.

In 1927, Tempelhof Airport was built near Berlin. Around the same time in England, land near an old race-course is used for aerodrome purposes. In 1930, it will become the famous London Gatwick Airport.

The old Tempelhof Airport, Berlin

Early Airlines and Airplanes

Aerial services were slow to catch on in the United States. With such vast amounts of land to cover between major cities from state to state, it wasn’t possible for many early airplanes to make the distance. They simply didn’t have the size or the fuel capacity to fly that far. Instead, the Americans focused on transatlantic flights.

With the establishment of the famous Pan Am Airways in 1927, America had an airline that could fly its passengers to countries like those in South America, but also to Europe and up and down the east and west coasts of the United States. The early passenger planes were romantically called the Pan Am Clippers. The word ‘clipper’ comes from a type of fast sailing ship, so fast that it ‘clips’ or skims along the water. The analogy was transferred to aircraft which would ‘clip’ through the air. An age of romantic and stylish air-travel had begun.


Pan American route-map, 1936

Travelling by Pan Am clippers was expensive, and could only be done from certain cities – all the planes were seaplanes, which took off from, and landed at, coastal regions. Pan Am was one of the first airlines to offer transatlantic flights.

The limitations of aircraft in the 1930s meant that not all flights were direct. Although Pan Am was flying the latest seaplanes, as designed by the famous Boeing aircraft-manufacturers, sometimes, a plane flying from America to Europe might stop at Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland for refueling, before finally arriving in France or the United Kingdom. Some simply did not have the fuel-capacity or size to brave direct routes across the Atlantic Ocean. To restore passenger confidence, Pan Am had among the best pilots in the world – specially trained and carefully selected for their long-haul routes, where pilots were expected not just to fly the plane, but also fix it, if it had to make an emergency landing on the ocean, and get it back into the air again!

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away…
A Pan American clipper seaplane, typical of the 1930s and 40s

Despite technological limitations of the times and low passenger-capacities, the old ‘clipper’ seaplanes did have one advantage which most modern aircraft do not. As they were designed to take off and land on water, the likelihood of surviving an emergency landing on water (a real possibility in those days!) was generally quite high. One such Pan Am aircraft, the Honolulu Clipper, flying Pacific Ocean routes, was forced to land in the middle of the ocean in 1945, when its starboard engines failed. The plane made a safe water-landing, but the pilots were unable to restart or repair their dysfunctional engines. Radio-contact with passing ships saw the passengers safely offloaded, but attempts to tow or fly the plane back to a coastal service-area failed, and it was left to drift and sink.

The same thing happened again in 1947, when another Pan Am ‘clipper’ (this time, the Bermuda Sky Queen) ran out of fuel halfway across the Atlantic! In the middle of a fierce storm, the aircraft was forced to make a crash-landing on the heaving Atlantic Ocean. Against all probability, the seaplane survives the impact with the water, and remained afloat for 24 hours! Long enough for pilots to send out distress messages, and to offload passengers into inflatable life-rafts stored on the airplane. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the radio call for help, and rescue all passengers and crew.

It was incidents like this that assured the flying public of Pan America’s safety, boosting their numbers of passengers and increasing the need for better airports. Even if their ‘clipper’ got into strife, they knew that they would be able to land safely and be reliably rescued, thanks to radio communications.

Airships

From the 1900s until the late 1930s, what with airplanes being unable to travel long distances with safety, most people thought that the way forward for air-travel lay in the famous Zeppelin airships made famous by the Germans. Airships were slower than planes, but faster than ocean-liners, and could carry passengers in comfort. However, a series of devastating crashes in the 1930s, most famously, that of the Hindenburg, scared the flying public away from airship travel. And at any rate, by the end of the Second World War, aircraft design and capabilities had improved enough to make airships a thing of the past!

Airport Development

As air-travel becomes more and more appealing and romantic, the larger numbers of passengers all around the world means that serious thought must now be given to airport design and functionality. Below, we’ll find out about the origins of some of the features that would be found in any modern airport today.

Air-Traffic Control

A crucial component of all airports is one which most people never notice. Air-traffic control. Without it, no airport could possibly operate with any degree of safety or efficiency.

Air traffic control as we might know it today, has its origins in 1920s London. At Croydon Airport outside of the city, the first radio-operated air-traffic control systems are put in place in the early 1920s after two aircraft, one flying towards, and one away, from the airport, collide in midair.

To get better fixings on airplane-locations in the future, all airplanes are fitted with radio-beacons which send out waves. Three receivers around the airport bounce back the radio-waves, and by using three points of reference, are able to get an accurate fix on the location of any one aircraft at a time. This is the birth of modern aircraft tracking and positioning, which is eventually improved in the 1930s and 40s, with the arrival of 1st-generation RADAR.

Gates

As airports began to be more established in the 1930s, serious thought was finally being given to airport design. At the height of the Art Deco craze, airports of the 1930s were typically modeled after the only other example of large, passenger-handling buildings familiar to architects and designers at the time – grand railroad stations.

Modelling airports after the great railroad stations of Europe and the Americas had their pluses and minuses. Having large halls and gathering areas was convenient, but it could be tricky when it came to separating arriving and departing passengers. It would be too easy to get lost in the big central terminal which comprised the bulk of early airports. It was now that architects realised that some way of separating and organising passengers would need to be inbuilt into any future airport designs.

The idea of airport gates as we might know them today, came about in the 30s with London’s Gatwick Airport.

In order to load, offload and service as many airplanes as possible, Gatwick’s main terminal was built in a stylish “Beehive” shape:

The ‘Beehive’ meant that planes could circle around the central terminal, load up or offload passengers, and then taxi away smoothly, without the danger of crashing into other aircraft. This also allowed for passengers to be spread out, and be more easily organised, instead of being huddled up and being channeled through two or three doors. Corridors, walls and partitions inside the circular building could divide passengers into arrivals and departures. Now, they could move smoothly through the building, and in and out through multiple entrances and exits, speeding service and easing congestion.

Welcome to…’The Beehive’!

The first prototype gates were introduced at Gatwick. Previously, boarding a plane was an unpleasant experience – you left the terminal and crossed the tarmac and climbed a set of boarding-stairs onto the aircraft. This was bearable during good weather, but when it was rainy or windy, or even snowing, you probably felt more comfortable taking a train!

To provide passengers with greater comfort and protection from the elements, Gatwick Airport installed the first retractable, telescopic corridors ever to be used in airports – and which are the grandparents of all the covered boarding-ramps which we have today.

Numbering six in total, the telescoping corridors slotted neatly into each other and could be retracted when a plane was taxiing into position, and then rolled out once the aircraft was in place for boarding. Having six gates allowed for greater passenger organisation, and prevented overcrowding.

As airports boomed in the 1950s and 60s, with the arrival of the jet-age and the ‘jet-set’, and the vast advances made in aircraft design during the Second World War, airport improvements struggled to keep up. Organising passengers, providing amenities, providing parking, baggage-handling and other services became constant struggles.

Terminals

Terminals, large buildings which organise passengers, and provide them with the facilities and amenities which they need and require, are a key part of every airport in the world.

Imagine trying to board a plane, when you have to run from one building to another, to another, to another, then out onto the tarmac, and then onto the plane…

You’d rather walk from San Francisco to Chicago.

It was buildings such as the ‘Beehive’ (mentioned further up) that showed how all airport facilities could be housed, and how passengers could be sorted, all inside one building – comfortably, efficiently and without wasting time or money.

Airport terminals continued to evolve in the postwar period. Larger passenger-numbers meant that organisation was crucial. New York’s famous La Guardia Airport, which opened in the late 1930s, took the Gatwick model and upgraded it for even larger passenger loads, and better organisation.

The difference was that the ‘Beehive’ terminal at Gatwick is just one level – restaurants, ticket-counters and facilities are all on the ground floor – and upstairs is all offices. And arriving and departing passengers are all handled in that one, ground floor area. Yes, you can sort them out as they enter or leave, but not while they’re in the actual building. For the city which coined the phrase a ‘New York Minute‘, having thousands of passengers wandering around aimlessly inside their new airport terminal is a huge waste of time!

La Guardia Airport, 1940s. Note the seaplane dock, for Pan Am ‘clippers’

To nip this problem in the bud, the terminal at La Guardia is built on two levels! Departures are upstairs, arrivals are downstairs! They never mix, they never mingle, there’s no chance for someone to get lost. Passengers arriving at La Guardia can go straight in, where waiting friends or relations can meet them on the ground floor, without having to find their way upstairs and get lost. Departing passengers head to the upper level when they reach the airport, and wait for their aircraft, well out of the way of arrivals from overseas or other parts of the country. Also located in the departing area were restaurants, bathrooms, shops, lounges, public telephones and other facilities which allowed a departing passenger to kill the time between arriving at the airport, and actually sauntering out to his airplane.

Airport Security and Baggage Check-In

The one thing which everyone can’t stand – airport security. Metal-detectors, x-ray machines, dipweeds standing around waving wands up and down trying to find stuff on your body that ain’t there, and all eating up valuable time which you could be using to buy duty-free items. Like those chocolates. Or wine. Books for the flight, or CDs for your friend back home.

In the postwar era, airport security became a serious issue. With more and more people boarding aircraft and with more people flying, it became increasingly difficult to run security checks. Skyjackings forced the hands of many airports to try and find ways to stop terrorists at airports, before they boarded the planes.

Skyjackings were at an all-time high in the 60s and 70s; up to forty attempts were made on American aircraft in 1969 alone! Airports could not turn a blind eye to this. If people were afraid to fly, then airports would be bleeding money and losing customers nonstop, which would be a disaster.

The first airport metal-detectors and luggage-scanners entered terminals in the 1970s, taking inspiration from the log-scanners used at sawmills, to detect foreign bodies buried in tree-trunks, such as nails and bullets. Electromagnets on all sides scan a person as he goes through the metal-detector, and any metal on the body is reflected back to the magnets, which triggers that annoying beeping sound that we all hate so much!

At around the same time that airport security started becoming an issue, airport baggage-handling was taking a step up.

Previously, all luggage was handled by human bag-handlers. And generally, most of it still is. But the innovation came in how bags were sorted and organised in the airport. The way forward was shown in the mid-1970s, when barcodes, like those found on almost every type of consumer-product today, started becoming commonplace.

The idea of barcodes started back in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 70s that reliable printing methods (which didn’t smudge the ink, rendering the codes illegible) allowed barcodes to become part of everyday life. Poor printing of barcodes meant that the laser-scanners which read the codes could not distinguish between the different bars, when the ink smudged or ran together.

Now, when you check in, a tag is stuck onto your suitcase or roller-bag, with a barcode on it. And a simple scanning of the code tells the conveyor belts and baggage-handling systems where any particular bag is meant to be, and which flight it is destined to.

The Golden Age of Flight

The 1930s-1960s was the ‘Golden Age’ of commercial aviation. The time when it was new, exciting, and changing all the time. Yes, it’s still changing, but now it’s part of everyday life, and it’s frustrating and boring and just a means for getting from A to B. How much air-travel has changed since this period up to the modern day is staggering. And not just because now, we all have our own little movie-screens in our seatbacks, and can no-longer pack knitting-needles and crochet-hooks into our carry-ons.

Differences between aircraft travel then, and now, is the incredibly relaxed nature of older air-travel. Not just in security and luggage-allowances and whatnot, but also in the positioning of seats and greater attention being paid to style and passenger comfort, which to a certain extent doesn’t exist anymore.

For one, aircraft interiors were designed to be much more open-plan, in a manner which most (unless it’s a private aircraft) are not, today. This flexibility and openness is sadly missing, from much of modern air-travel, where people have to fight for leg-room and moving-space, instead of being crammed into airplanes like sardines. The idea that ‘legroom’ was an issue on older aircraft is probably laughable! And before the days of personal video-screens, passengers had much more creative ways of killing time during those long flights.

Bored? Why not show off your music chops on the keys, and provide some live entertainment for fellow passengers? If they vote you off, a parachute is stored under the piano-bench.

Our Final Approach

The next time you’re hauling your luggage through the terminal, patting yourself down to make sure you didn’t forget your tickets, passport, wallet, photographs, iPad, pens, favourite book, keys, or other essentials, spare a thought for the long, trial-and-error journey that the modern airport took.

It’s come a long way from a farmer’s field that’s had a once-over with a lawnmower. The modern airport has everything from hotels, restaurants, shops, medical clinics, cinemas, internet-access and prayer-rooms. Even a multistory slide, if you’re stuck in Singapore’s Changi Airport for a few hours with nothing to do.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

Few other buildings have had the challenges of airports – organisation, people-management, security, luggage-handling, segregation and amenities. And yet without them, modern air-travel would be thoroughly impossible.

Want more information?

Documentaries:

Big, Bigger, Biggest:

Episodes – ‘Aircraft’, ‘Airports’.

Modern Marvels: ‘Airports’

Ten Things We Miss About Air-Travel

 

A Story on Two Wheels: The History of the Bicycle

In the history of transport, fewer inventions were more compact, innovative, liberating, practical and enjoyable than that of the bicycle. And yet, the bicycle as we know it today is only just over 100 years old. What is the story behind this invention? Why was it created? And how did it reach the design which we know so well today? Let’s take a ride…

The World Before the Bicycle

Before bicycles came onto the scene with their dingling bells and rattling drive-chains, transport was slow, dependent, and/or crowded. You had ships, boats, carriages, horseback, or your own two feet.

When it came to pre-bicycle travel, you had three options available when it came to the characteristics of the journey that you were likely to receive:

Fast, Private, Comfortable.

You may pick only two.

If it was fast and comfortable, such as a railroad-train, you were resigned to sharing the carriage, and even the compartment, with others.

If it was private and comfortable, such as a carriage, then it certainly wasn’t fast. The average speed of horse-drawn transport in the 19th century was about seven or ten miles an hour at best. In the same bag is walking. Private and relatively comfortable, but don’t expect to get anywhere in a hurry.

If it was fast and private, such as riding on horseback, alone, then it certainly wasn’t going to be very comfortable, being jolted around in a saddle for hours on end.

What was needed was a fast, relatively comfortable, individual mode of transport, that relied purely on the rider for propulsion, and which didn’t need to fed, fired, stabled, stoked, sailed, steamed or otherwise externally operated.

With the internal combustion-engine still a dream, and coal-fired steam-carriages being large, loud, slow and unpredictable (to say nothing of dangerous), there was a serious market for a convenient, fast, practical machine which a rider could use for individual transport: The Bicycle.

The First Bicycles

The first serious attempt at a bicycle-like machine was the German-made ‘hobby-horse’ or ‘dandy-horse‘ machine of the 1810s.

The ‘Dandy Horse’ bicycle was a fascinating…um…experiment. It was hardly what you could call a bicycle, and it was never utilised as a serious mode of transport. It was seen more as a toy, for the use and amusement of the ‘dandy’, the well-dressed, leisured, upper-class gentleman of Regency-era Europe. As you can see, the Dandy Horse has no seat to speak of, no driving-mechanism, no pedals, not even a real handlebar! Steering and propulsion are rudimentary at best, and without any form of suspension, riding one of these on the rough, dirt roads of 1810s Europe would’ve been hard on the back and spine!

You didn’t so much ‘drive’ or ‘operate’ the dandy-horse as you ‘glided’ on it, similar to a skateboard. You kicked it along the ground with your feet to build up speed and then coasted along until the momentum gave out. An amusing gimmick for a Regency garden-party, but hardly a practical form of transport!

During this time, the word ‘bicycle’ was not even coined. And wouldn’t be for several decades. Human-powered, wheeled land-machines were called ‘Velocipedes‘, from the Latin words for ‘Fast’ (as in ‘Velocity’), and ‘Foot’ (as in ‘pedestrian’). And as the 1800s progressed, there was a growing range of fantastical and ridiculous ‘velocipede’ machines with which to delight the population of Europe.

The next advancement in bicycle technology came from France, and we look to Joseph Niepce and his contraption known as the…um…’velocipede‘.

Any long-term readers of this blog may fancy that they’ve heard the name ‘Niepce’ before on this website. And you’d be right. Apart from tinkering with bicycles, he was also instrumental in the development of modern photography. 

Joseph N. Niepce’s contribution to the bicycle came in the early 1860s, although it wasn’t a great departure from what had existed before.

The Niepce ‘velocipede’ differed from the earlier ‘dandy-horse’, but only a couple of ways: The front wheel now had pedals, and a proper seat or saddle which was adjustable to the height of the rider, along with proper handlebars and steering. But other than these minor additions and improvements, the French velocipede was not much of an improvement.

A French ‘velocipede’, as invented by Joseph Niepce. Note the presence of the handlebars and steerable front wheel, and the centrally-mounted saddle

The Ordinary Bicycle came next. Invented in the late 1860s, the Ordinary was the first machine to be specifically called a ‘bicycle‘, using the two words ‘bi’, meaning ‘two’ and ‘cycle’.  The Ordinary also introduced something which has become commonplace among all bicycles to this day: Wire-spoked wheels!

The Ordinary was variously called a High Bicycle, a Boneshaker (due to its lack of suspension), or, most famously of all – a Penny Farthing, after the largest, and smallest denomination coins in circulation in Britain at the time.

The Ordinary was the first bicycle for which there was any serious commercial success, and they became popular for personal transport, as well as being used as racing-machines!

Despite its relative popularity, the Ordinary had some serious shortcomings: There were no brakes, there was no suspension, and they were incredibly dangerous to ride! The immense front wheel could tower up to six feet in the air, which made mounting and riding these machines quite a feat of acrobatics in itself! Accidents could cause serious injury and stopping, starting, mounting and dismounting were all big problems. Something better had to be devised!

The Safety Bicycle

The Ordinary or ‘Penny Farthing‘ was one of the first practical bicycle designs, but its many shortcomings and dangers meant that something better had to be found. Enter the ‘Safety Bicycle’.

The ‘Safety Bicycle’ is the direct ancestor to all bicycles manufactured today.

The prototype ‘safety bicycle’ came out in the late 1870s, in response to the public dissatisfaction with the fast, but dangerously uncontrollable Penny Farthing.

Henry John Lawson (1852-1925) developed the first such machine in 1876. Lawson, the son of a metalworker, was used to building things, and loved tinkering around with machines.

Lawson’s machine differed from others in that the rider sat on a saddle on a metal frame. At each end of the frame were spoked wheels of equal size, with a handlebar and steering-arrangement over the front wheel. The rear wheel was powered by the use of a simple crank-and-treadle-mechanism, similar to that used on old treadle-powered sewing-machines, a technology familiar to many people at the time.

The great benefit of Lawson’s bicycle was that the front wheel was used solely for steering, and the rear wheel was used solely for propulsion, and the rider’s legs were kept well away from both of them! On top of that, the wheels were of such a size that the rider’s feet could easily reach the ground, should it be necessary to stop, or dismount the machine in an emergency. Lawson was certainly onto something!

Lawson updated his machine in 1879, with a more reliable pedal-and-chain driving-mechanism, but sadly, although innovative, his bicycle failed to catch on. All the extra parts and the radical new design meant it was hard to produce and too costly to be sold to the general public.

Although Lawson’s machine was a commercial failure, his invention spurred on the development of this new contraption: The Safety Bicycle! Building on what Lawson had already established, over the next few years inventors and tinkerers all over the world started trying to produce a bicycle that would satisfy the needs of everyone. It had to be practical, fast, easy to use, safe to ride, mount and dismount, it had to stop easily, start easily, and be easily controlled.

All manner of machines came out of the workshops of the world, but in 1885, one man made something that would blast all the others off the road.

His name was John Kemp Starley.

Starley, (1854-1901), was the man who invented the modern bicycle as we know it today. And every single one that we see on the road today, is descendant from his machine.

Building on the ideas of Mr. Lawson, Starley rolled out his appropriately-named ‘Starley Rover’ safety bicycle in 1885.

The Starley Rover was revolutionary. Like the Lawson machine, it had equal-sized (or near-equal), spoked wheels, a diamond-frame made of hollow steel, a seat over the back wheel, handles over the front wheel, and a pedal-powered chain-drive in the middle, linking the drive-wheel and the rear wheel with a long drive-chain.

By the late 1880s, the modern bicycle had arrived. It was Starley who had brought it, and he cycled off into the history books on one of these:

This model from the late 1880s has everything that a modern bicycle has, apart from a kick-stand. And this is the machine that has revolutionised the world of transport ever since!

The ‘Rover’ was so much better than everything that had come before it. It was easy to ride, easy to mount, easy to dismount. It was close to the ground, but did not compromise on speed with smaller wheels, because of the 1:2 ratio between the pedal-wheel and the rear wheel. You could reach tremendous speeds without great exertion, and you could stop just as easily!

The Bicycle Boom!

At last! A functional, fun, fast machine. Something you could ride that was safe, quick, light, portable, quiet, comfortable, practical, and which could get you almost anywhere you wanted to go!

With machines like the Rover, and the ones which came after it, all other bicycle-designs were considered obsolete! The Rover had shown the way, and others would follow.

With the success of this newly-designed bicycle came the cycling boom of the the 1890s! For the first time in history, you didn’t need a horse to get anywhere! You needn’t spoil your best shoes in the mud! You didn’t have to worry about smoke and steam and soot! Just roll your bicycle onto the road, hop on it, kick off, and down the road you went. What a dream!

With a truly practical design, the true practicality of the bicycle was at last, fully realised. At last, the ordinary man or woman on the street had a machine which they could ride anywhere! Although, that said, most bicycles in the late Victorian era were expensive toys for the wealthy. But nonetheless, they were used for everything from cycling through the park, cycling around town running errands, cycling to and from work, cycling to visit friends and relations across town, cycling to take in the sights! What a wonderful invention!

The ‘Gay Nineties‘, as this period of history is fondly called, saw the first big boom of the bicycle. Or a medium-sized one, at any rate. There were still a few problems: Bicycles were still rather expensive. And it was considered scandalous for a woman to ride a bicycle! Women opened their legs for one thing, and one thing only. How dare they sit, mounted…on a bicycle! Lord knows what other things they might be mounting next!

Women and Bicycles

A woman on a bicycle? Who’da thunk it?

The mere idea of this radical collaboration sent Victorian men into a tizz! Famously straitlaced and buttoned-up, Victorian morality dictated that a woman’s legs remained covered and obscured at all times. In fact, legs of ANY kind had to be covered at all times. Some people even draped floor-length covers over their pianos to prevent offense to visitors!

Women were generally expected to ride a horse side-saddle. But it was impossible to do this on a bicycle, since both legs were required to drive the pedals. And it was also impossible to ride a bicycle with the huge, floor-sweeping dresses and skirts of the era.  Something had to be done!

Fortunately, tailors came up with a solution!

The second half of the 1800s saw the arrival of the Rational Dress Movement, also known as the Victorian Dress Reform. Aimed mostly at women, this movement said that it was impractical for women to wear the clothes that they did, and still be expected to do all their wifely and womanly duties. The clothes were too bulky, too restricting and far too uncomfortable! Especially for such activities as sports, riding, walking and bicycling! Something had to be done! And fortunately, something was.

It came about in the 1850s, when Elizabeth Smith Miller of New York State, invented a sort of pair of baggy trousers for women. When their legs were together, they looked like a full skirt, but they parted company quite easily, for greater comfort and freedom of movement.

Women’s Rights advocate Amelia Bloomer, a strong supporter of more sensible women’s attire, liked the idea of these newfangled trousers, and they were eventually named after her: ‘Bloomers‘.

With bloomers, a woman could ride a bicycle safely and comfortably. But even if she didn’t have bloomers, a woman could still ride a bicycle in a skirt. She simply had to buy a woman’s bicycle!

Instead of a regular bicycle with a diamond-shaped frame, a woman could buy a step-through bicycle, like this one:

A step-through was identical to a regular bicycle in every way, except one. Figured it out yet?

Without a central bar between the handles and the seat, it was possible for a woman wearing a skirt to ‘step through’ the frame, so that she could get her feet either side of the pedals. Then, she simply hopped onto the seat, put her feet onto the pedals, and cycled away!

If that wasn’t handy enough, a woman could also purchase bicycle-clips, or ‘skirt-lifters’, which clipped onto the waist of her dress or skirt, and trailed down the sides of her skirt. Here, they were clipped onto the fabric to keep the hem of the skirt or dress off the road, but also, away from the pedals, where the fabric might get caught and tangled in the drive-chain!

The Safety Bicycle was ideal for women. Even with bloomers or bicycle-clips or skirt-lifters, it was almost impossible for a lady dressed in Victorian or Edwardian garb, to operate a Penny Farthing! The bikes were too big, too cumbersome, far too unstable, and generally unladylike to ride!

With the safety bicycle, a woman was able to ride with much greater comfort and security. The risk of accidents was smaller, they were easier to mount and dismount, and much easier to operate and control.

The Social Impact of the Bicycle

From the mid-1880s onwards, the bicycle became more and more popular, as safer, easier-to-ride models were invented, produced, and put on sale to the general public around the world. Bicycles caught on quickly, and were popular then, as they are now, for the very same reasons.

They provided free, motorless, quiet, smooth, quick transport, without the need of a horse. They were relatively easy to ride and control, and with a little practice, you could use one to get almost anywhere, and so much faster than walking!

A bicycle also had load-bearing capabilities, and could be used to transport and carry all kinds of things, provided that they could either fit in the front basket, or were strapped securely enough to the rear luggage-rack. Some bicycles even had side-satchels which hung over the back wheel for even greater storage.

Bicycles allowed people who previously couldn’t travel very far, the chance to explore much further afield. Women and children were no-longer restricted to riding in carriages or on railways, or horseback – they could climb onto a bicycle and ride around the village, go to the park, cycle through town, ride along the canal-paths. They did not need men, or older people around, to operate a horse and carriage, or a railroad train, or a steam-powered canal-boat. They simply needed two functional legs, and a decent sense of balance.

This ease of use and versatility allowed the bicycle to be used for almost anything. It was a commuting vehicle for office-workers and labourers. It was a cargo vehicle for anything from the weekly trip to the high street, to a day on the town. With the spread of bicycles came the rise of home-delivery and advertising. Now, bicycles could be used by butcher’s boys and apprentice bakers, shop-boys and telegraph-delivery boys, to provide effective and swift home-delivery of everything from bread, to meat, parcels, mail, telegrams and pre-ordered items of clothing or other items that might be small enough to be delivered safely on a bicycle.

Their open, light frames meant that it was possible to hang signs from the horizontal connecting-bars between the seat and the handlebars. Local businesses could paint advertisements on these signs, or on the mudguards of their store-owned bicycles. At the same time, a business could deliver merchandise or produce, and tell strangers where these things could be purchased.

Cycling clubs became incredibly popular. Friends and relations would gather and ride around the countryside for a day’s outing. They might go picnicking, or they might ride from town to town, visiting new shops, restaurants and public houses. This kind of freedom of movement had never been possible before. Not with a horse, that you had to feed and rest and saddle, not with a carriage which was slow and cumbersome. Not even with a steam locomotive and carriages, which was restricted to the railway lines. Before the rise of the automobile, only a bicycle allowed this level of freedom. No waiting, no fuss. Jump on, kick off, and pedal down the road.

Bicycles in Literature

The impact of the bicycle can be seen by its inclusion in literature of the late Victorian and Edwardian age. In ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist‘, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ client is a piano-teacher who uses her bicycle as her main mode of transport, and who is shadowed everywhere by another cyclist.

In the mid-1890s in Australia, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo‘ Paterson, wrote the famous comic poem, “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle“. The cocky Mulga Bill declares that he can control absolutely any form of transport, even this newfangled ‘safety bicycle machine’. He purchases it from the local store and cycles off down the street with it, before losing control of the machine and spectacularly crashing it into a pond, deciding thereafter to stick to riding a horse!

The Bicycle in Wartime

During times of war, the bicycle proved to be a very popular mode of transport. Driving off-road was almost impossible, and at any rate, petrol was often in short supply and severely rationed. On the home-front and on the battlefront, civilians and soldiers often left motor-vehicles behind and fell back to the old-fashioned, reliable bicycle to get themselves around. During the First World War, British soldiers even formed bicycle infantry units! Bicycles didn’t need to be fed like horses, they were quieter, and they could get troops moving a lot faster!

During the Second World War, bicycles were used extensively by both sides. The Allies developed folding bicycles which soldiers could strap to their backs and jump out of airplanes with. Once they landed, they threw away their parachutes, unfolded their bicycles, braced them up, and cycled off to their rendezvous points.

The soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army, maybe even to mock the British and their severe lack of preparation, invaded the Malaysian Peninsula and Singapore…on bicycles! It was impossible to drive tanks through the thick Asian jungles, but a bicycle on a dirt track could go anywhere!

As well as being used for military transport, bicycles were also highly popular on the home front. With petrol-rationing strictly enforced, driving became almost impossible. Unless you were in a reserved occupation (you had a job which was essential to the war-effort), or had some other important status which allowed you a larger petrol-ration, chances were that your car was going to be up on blocks for the duration of the war.

Bicycles don’t need petrol. They only needed whatever strength you could muster from your new diet of rationed food. At any rate, it would be easier to cycle through the bomb-shattered streets of London, Coventry, Singapore and Shanghai, than to drive a car! Most roads were so covered in craters, downed powerlines or the rubble from collapsed buildings that even if your car had fuel, it wouldn’t be able to make it down the road for all the obstructions!

Bells and Whistles

As bicycles became more and more popular during the Edwardian era, more and more features were added to them. One of the most famous additions is the bicycle-bell!

The idea of some variety of warning-device on a bicycle goes back to the 1870s, when the safety bicycle was in its infancy. The modern, thumb-operated bicycle-bell, which you clamp onto the handlebars of your machine, was invented in 1877 by John Richard Dedicoat, an inventor and eventual bicycle-manufacturer in his own right.

The bicycle bell works on a very simple spring-operated lever system. Pressing the button on the side of the bell rotates gears inside, which vibrates a pair of discs which jangle and ring when they move, a bit like a tiny pair of cymbals. This dingling noise is amplified by the bell-housing. Then, the spring simply pushes the bell-button back, ready for the next ring.

Dedicoat also invented a sort of spring-loaded step for helping people mount their bicycles. When Penny Farthings were still the rage, the step was designed to give the rider a boost into his seat. It worked rather well, but if the spring was more powerful than the rider was heavy, it might accidentally shoot him over the handlebars, instead of giving him a helping leg up onto his bicycle-seat!

The popularity of the safety bicycle meant that it was ridden at all times of the day, and night! To make it safer to ride at night, bicycle lamps were clipped to the front shaft, underneath the handlebars.

As with automobiles of the Edwardian era, bicycle headlamps were gas-fired calcium-carbide acetylene lamps. The reaction of water and calcium-carbide produced a flammable gas which could be ignited, and produced a bright, sustained glow. These lamps and their reaction-chambers were small enough to clamp onto the handlebars of early safety bicycles.

Pellets or chunks, or even powdered calcium-carbide was stored in the lower reservoir of a two-chamber reaction-canister. Water was poured into the upper chamber, and a valve between the two chambers allowed water to drip from the top canister onto the calcium-carbide stored in the lower canister. The reaction caused the production of acetylene gas, which escaped through a valve into the headlamp, where it could be ignited, producing light.

Increasing or decreasing the amount of light coming from your bicycle lamp was a simple process of adjusting the opening of the water-valve on the reaction-canister. The more water, the greater the reaction, the greater the amount of gas, which caused the flame to burn brighter. Less water meant fewer chemical reactions, which reduced the overall supply of gas to the headlamp.

At the dawn of the 20th century, bicycles could also be fitted with dry-cell battery-powered headlamps, and alternating-current dynamo-systems. A dynamo really works very simply: You clip the headlamp to the front of the bicycle, and clip the dynamo and its lead, near to a wheel on your bicycle, usually on the mudguard, or on the frame if there isn’t a guard. Engaging the dynamo presses a small wheel against one of your bicycle wheels. As the bike wheel spins, it rotates the dynamo generator, which produces the electricity necessary to power the lamp.

The Bicycle Today

Whether it be a racing-machine, a manner of commuting, an A-to-B mode of transport, a delivery-wagon, a cargo-bicycle or a method of exercising, the humble 1885 safety bicycle remains essentially unchanged since its entrance onto the transport stage back in the closing decades of the Victorian era. The bicycle remains popular because of its simplicity, ease of use, and its seemingly endless practical advantages over various other forms of transport.

The Bicycle World Record


‘Flying Pigeon’ bicycle manufactured in China

Based in Tianjin, in northeast China, the Flying Pigeon is the most popular make of bicycle in the WORLD. In fact, it’s the most popular VEHICLE in the world. That includes motor-cars. The Flying Pigeon company was established in Tianjin in 1936. The Flying Pigeon model, after which the company was renamed, came out in 1950. The communist government in China demanded that the company produce a strong, practical, easy-to-use, and aesthetically pleasing bicycle. It had to ride good, and look good. And it’s been doing that for the past sixty-odd years. Cars were expensive in China, and bicycles were far cheaper and more practical for the average working Chinaman. So much so that the Flying Pigeon was seen as a sign of prosperity in China.

Echoing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chinese president Deng Xiaoping said that prosperity in China meant that every household would own its own Flying Pigeon bicycle.

Most popular car in the world: Toyota Corolla
Units made: 35,000,000+

Most popular bike in the world: Flying Pigeon
Units made: 500,000,000+

I think we have a winner.

More Information?

I found the documentary “Thoroughly Modern: ‘Bicycles‘”, to be very helpful. I wonder why…At any rate, it’s fascinating watching.

World’s Top Five Most Successful Cars

 

Packing with Style – Vintage Luggage

Some time back, I wrote a piece about the “Golden Age of Travel“; the period from the third quarter of the 1800s, to the late 1930s, when for the first time in history, it was possible for ordinary people of moderate means, to travel cross-country, and around the world. Social changes and technological improvements in transport and communications meant that for the first time in history, it was really practical for the middle-class couple, single, or family, to go on a holiday!

This posting will look at the various bits and pieces of luggage which people brought with them on their whirlwind tours of the Continent, the American interior, the Dominion of Canada, the Far East, the Mediterranean, or the South Pacific. The kinds of bags and cases which would’ve been checked onto trains, steamships, taxi-cabs, and in and out of hotel-lobbies in cities ranging from Melbourne, London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Nanking, Saigon and Hong Kong. The sort of luggage which is plastered with those old steamship-tickets, hotel-room numbers, claim-tags and name-tags. The kind of luggage that went around the world and back again in a haze of smoke, steam and gasoline.

The Appeal of Vintage Luggage

There are people out there who collect vintage luggage. Some people use it when they travel, some people use them as coffee-tables, storage-spaces, decorative items or as photography-props. But what is their appeal?

Vintage luggage was made with care and attention. Back before the days of excessively widespread travel, and before the days of airplanes and jetliners, luggage was made to be pretty and attractive. Because back then, it was unlikely that somebody would throw around a 500-pound steamer-trunk.

The luggage of the Golden Age of Travel reflected very much, the types of transport available at the time, together with the fashions of the period. It’s this, being-of-its-time, its style and the “stories it could tell”, that makes vintage luggage so appealing to collectors and nicknack-snatchers. Here is a typical vintage luggage setup which you might find on someone’s bed, or strapped to the back of an old car:

These are actually my own vintage luggage-pieces. From left to right, we have an old hatbox, a gladstone bag, a typewriter-case, and a suitcase (underneath). I’ll break them down, piece by piece and look into their history and their significance, but I’ll also be discussing other pieces of luggage which aren’t shown here.

Hat-Box

Back in the 20s and 30s, it was almost taken for granted that a man owned at least one hat. Either a Panama, a trilby, a fedora, a homburg, or a bowler. On instances where a man traveled and took more than one hat with him, the hat not worn on his noggin would be stored in the hat-box.

The boxes were made rigid and circular, so that any hats (typically felt hats) could be stored inside without fear of being crushed, misshapen or otherwise damaged during travel. If you’re looking for one, hat-boxes are very distinctly shaped, with a circular profile to hold their contents. Some hat-boxes even came with their own hat-brushes for keeping the hats stored within clean during travel.

Typewriter-Case

With the rise of travel during the early 20th century came a corresponding rise in communications. Companies such as Underwood, Corona, Royal and Remington, were among the first manufacturers of typewriters to produce portable, carry-anywhere machines. Granted, they could still weigh as much as 10lbs (about 5-6kg), but they were considered a damn sight more portable than the enormous desktop typewriters of the period (weighing up to 30-50lbs).

Portable typewriters took a while in coming. While the basic form of the typewriter was pretty-much agreed-on by all the major manufacturers by ca. 1900, the portable didn’t really show up until the early 20th century.

There were a few false starts in the 1890s, but  it wasn’t until after World War One that portables became truly practical. The issue was trying to shrink down all the major elements of a larger desktop typewriter into a small enough, but also practical enough, size and form so that it could be used reliably.

Starting in 1919, companies such as Underwood, Remington, Corona and Royal produced the first practical portable typewriters. They advertised that their new machines could be used ANYWHERE on earth! One Remington advertisement from the late 1920s said that their machines could even be carried up to the top of Mount Everest, where they would still function perfectly!

The public were quick to grab onto these new portables, and soon, there was fierce competition among typewriter-companies to produce better, stronger, smaller, more stylish, more feature-filled machines. Just as larger typewriters were variously called “Office”, “Standard” or “Desktop” machines, smaller typewriters were called “Juniors”, “Travel” typewriters, “portable” and even “Household” typewriters, to differentiate them from their larger cousins.

The case which you see there belongs to my 1920s Underwood Standard Portable. Here’s the case, opened, with the typewriter inside:

Gladstone Bag

The humble “Gladstone” has been a fixture of luggage for over a century. It was invented by English leather-worker and bag-manufacturer J.G. Beard in the late 1800s. Beard was a strong supporter of the British Prime Minister; at the time, one William Ewart GLADSTONE (1809-1898). Gladstone was a prolific politician. He was elected to the office of P.M. not once, nor twice, but FOUR TIMES during his long life.

Mr. Gladstone was obviously a popular man, but he didn’t hang around much. He was famous for charging off all over Europe at a moment’s notice, and was one of the most-traveled politicians of his age. Putting two-and-two together, Mr. Beard named his new creation after the long-serving P.M., and his love of travel.

The Gladstone Bag, in its various permutations – Strapped, strapless, square-profiled or curved, was a constant companion to the tourist of the Golden Age of Travel. Everyone from Dorian Gray, to Sherlock Holmes, and countless actual, real-life people, carried one of these bags around with them where-ever they went!

Gladstone bags were used for everything! They were tool-bags for tradesmen, briefcases for lawyers, overnight-bags and weekend-cases for travelling salesmen, and sample-cases for company-representatives.

Undoubtedly, however, the Gladstone is most famously remembered in the 21st Century, as the kind of bag which old-time family physicians carried around with them. Back in the days when doctors still made house-calls, you could count on him to show up at your front door in a three-piece suit, homburg hat and his trusty Gladstone bag.

It’s become so common for these bags to be associated with physicians that sometimes, an eBay or Google search under “Gladstone bag” will yield nothing, whereas a search for “Doctor’s bag” will bring up everything, and then some.

Why was it that Gladstones were so popular with doctors? What was it that made them stick so firmly to this particular profession? And why, decades after most family practitioners stopped making house-calls, are they still called doctor’s bags?

The Gladstone bag is unique among bags and cases in the sense that it is both hard, and soft-sided.

A Gladstone bag is held shut by a combination of catches, hooks, straps and buckles (not all Gladstones have straps and buckles, but some do). When these fastenings are released and the bag is pulled open, the steel frame around the mouth snaps rigid, (or it should, if your bag’s in working order!).

With the mouth reinforced and held in-place with the steel frame, it would be easy for a doctor to shove his hand into the bag and grab whatever necessary and essential piece of equipment he would need in the event of an emergency. Much more easily than if he had to fumble with the soft, sagging, floppy sides of a knapsack, a backpack, a messenger-bag or other type of hold-all.

Also, because the bag closes smoothly in the center, over the top of the storage compartment, and not down one side like with a conventional briefcase, there’s no danger of the contents, which might include glass bottles and needles, spilling everywhere and smashing to pieces when the bag was carried for transport.

Don’t forget that in the early 1900s, it was still common for many operations to be carried out in the home, by your doctor. He could show up after a telegram, a telephone-call or a private message, to perform anything from stitches to dressing, to removing your appendix. And he’d do it right there on your dining-room table. Having a bag which he could easily access in an emergency was essential for his job to run smoothly.

Vintage Suitcase

This suitcase is not an antique. But it is representative of the style of suitcase carried by almost every traveler and tourist during the early 20th century, when steamships and railways were in their prime.

Back when men still wore suits on a regular basis, and suits were stored in suit-cases, travel-bags of this style were common around the world. Not all of them featured expandable tops and reinforcing straps such as this one, but in almost every railway-station, bus-depot and on every dockside in the world, suitcases like these could be found in abundance. Made of leather, lined in cotton and reinforced with rivets and studs as seen here, suitcases like these are highly popular today among vintage luggage collectors. They have an enduring charm and style that transcends time.

Several months back, a cousin of mine was over for a visit. He was hunting for antiques as gifts for his girlfriend. When he saw the suitcase, he was instantly attracted to it. But I couldn’t bring myself to part with it. I’ve owned it for longer than I care to admit, and don’t use it nearly as often as I might, but it is certainly a conversation-starter.

Suitcases of this style were sometimes part of an entire suite or set of luggage. Such a suite might include a set of matching suitcases, and a variety of smaller suitcases, all of the same style, which went together as one big set. Such as shown here by this beautiful set of Louis Vuitton cases:

Larger cases stored clothes such as jackets, coats and suits. Smaller cases stored shirts, shoes, collars, cuffs, scarves, gloves and undergarments. Still smaller cases might be used to store important items such as jewellery. The smallest cases were used to store toiletries and grooming-supplies, such as shoe-polish kits, brushes, combs, razors, and tooth-brushing supplies.

Steamer Trunk

Oh, for the days before luggage-weight restrictions, when you could carry a whole piano onto a ship, and the only thing the load-master would say was: “That better not rock around when the ship’s underway”.

Enormous carriage trunks and steamer-trunks, similar to the one shown above, were common sights on railway platforms and steamship docks around the world during the Interwar Period of the 20s and 30s. When going from one place to another meant a long sea-voyage, you had to pack into a steamer-trunk absolutely everything that you needed when you traveled.

Did I say long?

Southampton to New York = 7 Days by steamer.

Naples to Shanghai = 8 Weeks by steamer.

Melbourne to San Francisco = 2 Weeks by steamer.

San Francisco to Chicago = 7 Days by train.

Southampton to Sydney = 9 weeks by steamer.

A round-the-world cruise (not an uncommon event back then), could take the better part of a year. On a long voyage, a steamer-trunk was an absolute must-have!

Don’t forget that you weren’t going from A-to-B directly, in most cases. On a trip from Italy to China, you might leave Naples. But then you’d dock in Cairo, drop off passengers and mail, pick up more passenger and mail, take on coal and provisions. Then you’d sail through to the Indian Ocean, drop anchor at Bombay, drop off and pick up passengers, mail, coal and provisions, then sail to Singapore. The process was repeated. Then to Hong Kong, where it was repeated again. Until you finally reached Shanghai, in China.

It would be a very long time at sea.

Portmanteau 

A portmanteau is a really rare bit of travel-kit these days. You don’t see them very often. Back in the days of steamship travel in the early 1900s, a portmanteau was used for storing shoes, coats, suits and other items which were too bulky or oddly-shaped or delicate to be just thrown into a suitcase or stuffed into a steamer-trunk. They were basically portable wardrobes, into which you could hang your clothes without fear of them being creased, crushed or otherwise damaged. In the closing scenes of the movie: “Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban“, Professor Remus Lupin is seen packing his luggage at the end of the school year. One of his travelling-trunks is a portmanteau. Portmanteaus are mentioned at least once in Bram Stoker’s novel: “Dracula”, in which there is a lot of travelling, as Dr. Van Helsing and his friends attempt to destroy the evil vampire lord, Count Dracula.

Luggage like this is either impractical or quaint today. Sometimes both! Certainly, you couldn’t get a steamer-trunk or a portmanteau onto an airplane these days! At least, not as carry-on baggage! Some people who dash around from place to place, such as pilots, still use gladstone bags as handy and compact overnight bags to store basic supplies in, when they might only be staying a night or two, in any one location.

Largely, though, luggage like this is relegated to storage, display or to film and TV sets, museum exhibits and photography-props. But there was a time, not too long ago, when they steamed off around the world on ocean-liners and steam-trains, faithfully accompanying their masters on their travels around the world.

 

‘The Underland Route’ or the History of the Subway

In the 1860s in the years during and after the American Civil War, two railroad companies completed America’s first transcontinental railroad, colloquially called the “Overland Route”. This cut down the travel-time from cities such as Chicago in the East, to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West, from several weeks or even months by wagon-train…to a few days by steam-powered locomotive. Instead of stocking up on rifles and muskets, provisions and supplies…a person could pack his steamer-trunk or suitcase, buy a ticket and ride the rails in what was then a fast, comfortable and convenient way to travel.

Around the same time that the Americans completed their “overland route”, a hop across the pond called the Atlantic Ocean to England would see the British people’s first…”underland route”…and the birth of the modern subway system.

The London Underground: The World’s First Subway

The London Underground (more commonly called ‘The Underground’ or ‘The Tube’ today), is the world’s oldest and is one of the world’s largest subway systems. It’s famous all over the world for its stations, its red, white and blue logo or ’roundel’ and the similiarly-coloured, tubular railway carriages. It’s famous for being used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War and for appearing in a James Bond movie where an invisible Aston Martin is delivered to Bond on a flatbed railway carriage.

Beneath all this fame and glory and fortune, people tend to forget that the London Underground is the world’s first and oldest underground railroad and is now nearly a hundred and fifty years old and still running. The story of the London Underground is the story of the development of the modern subway system and the story of one is generally entwined with the other.

The Need to go Under

Subway systems are not built for their novelty aspect or because “they can”. In each particular city where a subway exists, there are reasons for their construction. But what was it that led to the whole idea of the “under ground” railroad to begin with?

To understand this, we must flashback to London in the 1850s and 60s. Here, we meet a city which is the center of an empire, which is increasing in population every day due to the vast changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and which is suffering the consequences of such rapid population-growth…traffic congestion.

By the 1850s, railroads were fast becoming the most popular way to move around. It was quick, comfortable and convenient. While cities had several large railroad stations for big, main train-lines, the problem was that once passengers arrived in town, they clogged up the roads with horse-drawn carriages and taxi-cabs. It was reasoned that if there were trains right in the heart of town, they would be able to move people around more effectively and cut down on congestion. This wasn’t easy in a city as old as London, though. Railroad lines took up a lot of space and with congestion as bad as it was, threading railroad lines all over the road was hardly the best solution. Instead, it was decided that the best method of getting trains into the city was to go underground. It would be relatively easy to follow the roads, stops and stations could be easily planned and it would provide valuable employment to the thousands of unemployed people living in London in the second half of the 19th Century.

The First Subway

The first part of the first subway, the London Underground, was born in 1863 as the Metropolitan Railway and stretched from Paddington Station north to Farringdon Station, via King’s Cross. The man responsible for this new, quite literally groundbreaking task of an ‘under ground’ railroad was Charles Pearson, a London lawyer and Member of Parliament. Throughout the 1830s, 40s and 50s, Pearson had campaigned for an ‘underground railroad’ to help ease the increasing traffic congestion in central London during the mid-19th century. After numerous government meetings, debates and discussions, an act of Parliament was passed for the construction of the first stage of what would become the world’s first subway system.


The Metropolitan Railway under construction near King’s Cross Station; February, 1861

To make things easy, the Metropolitan Railway was constructed using the ‘cut-and-cover’ method of tunnel-construction. This involves digging a huge trench in the middle of the street, right down to the level where the railroad lines would go. The rail-lines would be laid and the tunnel walls and roof would be built above it. Once the roof was completed, the excavated rubble and soil was dumped back over the top to reform the original roadway, giving the process its name of ‘cut and cover’. While relatively easy, safe and quick to carry out, Pearson probably won himself a great deal of enemies by building his railroad this way – the Cut and Cover method meant that entire roads and city blocks had to be shut down for construction-purposes. Building the railroad took nearly three years, from February, 1860 – January, 1863. Unfortunately, Pearson wouldn’t live to see his masterpiece open for operation; he would die on the 14th of September, 1862, of dropsy. He was 68 years old.

Underground Trains

Having built the subway, it was now necessary to get trains into it. Obviously, conventional steam-trains were out of the question. They were huge, bulky, noisy digusting things, far too unsuitable for subway tunnels. Instead, an entirely new form of railroad locomotive had to be invented. While still coal-fired, steam-powered engines, these new machines were significantly smaller than their above-ground counterparts.


Metropolitan Railway A-Class subway locomotive. Engine #23 was made in 1864

The steam-engines developed for the London Underground were compact, fat, low-profiled tank-engines. Despite the obvious problems of smoke and steam from these newly designed machines, the London Underground proved popular with Victorians. Nearly 27,000 passengers were using the Metropolitan Railway within the first few months of its opening in January of 1863.

Electrification of Subways

It’s hard to imagine that from the 1860s until the early 1900s, the world’s first, oldest and at the time, biggest subway system, was pulled along using nothing but steam-power. In the crowded, cramped and claustrophobic environment of the London Underground, steam-power was hardly ideal. In fact, it was very uncomfortable riding in the Underground during this period and adequate ventilation had to be installed if the Underground was to maintain a practical, working public service for the people of London. Electrification of the Underground was proposed as early as 1880, but it wasn’t until about 1905 that electrical technology and understanding had progressed far enough to make this a practicality. Starting in the early 20th century, many of the original steam-trains that pulled carriages through the Undergorund were scrapped and replaced by modern, electrically-powered locomotives. Very few of the original Underground steam-locomotives from the 1860s and 70s survive today.

Under and Outwards

With the initial success of the original Metropolitan Railway, other underground railroad companies sprang up, almost overnight. Throughout the second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, private companies dug and developed their own subway lines throughout London. As the 20th century progressed, the subway became more and more familiar and important to London. By the end of WWI, England had over a hundred big and small railroad companies. In the end, many of these were merged together with the Railways Act of 1921. Nationalisation of the railway system was completed in 1947 with the Transport Act. By the Second World War, the London Underground had grown immensely. By the early 1940s, there were many abandoned stations and stretches of the Underground which were never completed, due to a lack of money or a lack of necessity. Stations that were too close together were considered unnecessary and were closed down. Many of these were converted to air-raid shelters during The Blitz. Many of these stations still exist today and some are set aside specifically for filming-purposes by film-production companies, so that the actual London Underground won’t be disrupted by camera-crews and actors.

The Subway Goes Global

After the success of the London Underground, the subway began to spread around the world. The next subway opened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1891. The first American subway was opened in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897! The New York City Subway system was started in 1904. Previous to this, New York City had been serviced by its famous elevated railroad (commonly called the ‘El’). A horrific blizzard in 1888 dumped several feet of snow all over New York, which brought its above-ground train-service to a screeching halt.


Manhattan’s famous elevated railroad. Started in the 1860s, it lasted until the 1960s when it was gradually destructed. This photo was taken in 1944. The affect of heavy winter snowfalls on the New York elevated railroad was what prompted the construction of the now, world-famous New York City Subway in 1904

To prevent a repeat of this, the New York City Subway was constructed. Subways continue to be popular in countries where snow can affect above-ground railroad traffic, such as in Russia, Germany and Canada. While today subways are seen as modern, bright, fast and wonderful, or at times, a pain in the ass when your train comes late or it’s cramped or overcrowded, remember that they were born in an age of steam and steel, bricks, mortar and feverish industrial revolution.

 

An Impossible Dream: The History of Flight

For centuries, man has wanted to do lots of things. He has wanted to ride in a wheeled vehicle unpowered by a walking manure-factory. He has wanted to sail the open seas…without sails. He has wanted to communicate long distances without having to travel long distances, he has wanted to invent a form of illumination that won’t set the house on fire and he’s wanted to explore under water without ending up under ground. But of all the dreams that mankind has had, none has been stronger than man’s desire…to fly.


Mr. Wile E. Coyote provides a historically-accurate practical demonstration of mankind’s early experiments with flight

For centuries, flight was considered impossible – the dream and fancy of fools, a pipe-dream, a hallucination, an idiotic fantasy. And yet today, we can fly halfway around the world within twenty-four hours. How? And…Why? This article will explore the history of manmade aircraft – anything that didn’t come with a beak, claws and a feathery lining, from the first experimental aircraft to airliners as we know them today.

Flight of Fancy

Since time immemoriam, man has looked at the skies, and has seen birds. Or maybe bats. Probably even flies. On the off-chance, even a mosquito. He puzzled and fumed and fussed over the fact that all these things could do the one thing that he couldn’t – Fly.

Mankind has had dreams of flight for centuries. Even the famous inventor and painter, Leonardo from Vinci, invented a bloody helicopter before the word had even been thought up! But even with wonderful sketches, ideas, dreams and brainstorming, man couldn’t make a successful flying machine. To many, it was considered impossible. Man did not understand what made something fly and, once it was flying, how to keep it flying and, once it was kept flying, how to make it stop flying!


Leonardo’s fantasmagorical flying machine…would it ever have really worked?

The very first flying machines never left the pages that they were drawn on. Leonardo, who created the world’s first helicopter prototype as well as a primative parachute, never actually manufactured his inventions, although modern reconstructions and testing has shown that, with enough persistance, the right materials and a whole heap of chutzbah, it could be done! So…when did man first take to the air?

Full of Hot Air

The first real flying machines that mankind created out of his own hands which really worked were primative hot-air balloons. Hot air balloons had been known for centuries; they were toys and novelties. Cute little fun displays to be seen at garden parties, a toy for the children to marvel at and something for older people to ponder: “What if…?”

The first unmanned hot-air balloons were introduced into the world centuries ago. Early experimenters realised two things about the air which we breathe: Cold air descends. Hot air rises. By this logic, if you put hot air (produced by a continuous heat-source, say, a candle) inside a sealed compartment (like a paper bag), then the hot air would cause the bag to rise, once it had been filled up enough. This proved to be the case, and the hot air balloon was invented.

The idea of travelling by hot air balloon took a while to ehm…get off the ground, though. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the first experiements by European scientists and inventors were begun. The big problem confronting these early experimenters was weight! For this fancy-schmancy ‘hot air balloon’ gizmo to actually lift anything of value off the ground, it would need a massive envelope (the big ‘balloon’ part) and it would need even more hot air! It was all these scary weight-concerns that kept mankind grounded for so long. For a balloon flight to be successful, weight had to be kept to an absolute minimum!

It wasn’t until November 21, 1783 that the world’s first manned balloon-flight happened. The two lucky fellows in the basket on this historic day were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, a physics teacher and a soldier, respectively. The balloon being flown was a creation of the famous Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. One likely reason why it took so long for man to take to the skies in hot air balloons was because of how long these things took to make! Apart from the exhausting testing that the Montgolfier brothers carried out on their balloons, there is also the physical size of the balloons themselve to consider. The historic balloon which took de Rozier and d’Arlandes into the air on that day in November, 1783 was absolutely massive! Here are the technical specifications of that famous balloon, as translated from the original French document:

Height of Globe: 22.7m (75ft).
Weight of Globe: 780kg (1,700lbs).
Diameter: 14.9m (49ft).
Lifting capacity: Max approx 830kg (1,800lbs).
Volume of Globe: 2,000 cubic meters (73,000 cubic feet).
Gallery (a doughnut-shaped basket attached to the envelope): 1m wide (3ft).

Needless to say, getting such a massive balloon into the air was not easy, but when it happened, history was well and truly written and made. The Montgolfier brothers’ success was so amazing that King Louis XVI elevated the entire Montgolfier family to the French nobility as a reward! If the Montgolfiers had known that the French Revolution was just a few years away, they might have decided to take the second prize of a two-door, 4hp carriage with guilded windowframes instead…


The hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers

The Hot Air Balloon was now here to stay, and from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, it dominated flight around the world. Hot air balloons were popular attractions at public events, they were used as observation-posts during warfare and for the first time in history, man could fly over the land he owned and see everything from a bird’s eye view.

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

Although the hot air balloon allowed mankind its first proper view down on the world, it did have one major drawback – Hot air balloons were slow, hard to navigate and dangerous to fly. They could only move where the wind blew and could only move as fast as the wind allowed. This was deemed unsatisfactory, by some, and it was decided that what mankind really needed was a flying machine that could be completely controlled by man – A machine that could take flight, stay in the air, go where the pilot wanted it to, and land when and where he wanted it to land.

Like the balloon before it, the aeroplane was slow to take off. As Betty Boop says in one of her cartoons, “It was called insane by ‘most every man!”…and it was! The idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine was proposterous! How could such a thing ever work?

At the turn of the last century, mankind was only just beginning to understand aerodynamics, or how airflow affects moving objects. Chief among this group of people who were studying aerodynamics was a pair of brothers named Wilbur and Orville.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, (born 1871 and 1867, respectively) are the two men credited with inventing the world’s first controllable airplane, and it took some doing, too. And it’s proof that you don’t have to have a college education to be a genius…neither of the Wright Brothers attended university!

The Wright Brothers initially led very different lives. In 1885, Wilbur was hit in the face by accident during a game of hockey. There was no significant damage done (although he did lose a few teeth), but the shock of the blow did make him more introverted than he used to be. He spent most of his time at home, reading and looking after Susan Wright, the Wright Brothers’ mother who was by this time, dying of tuberculosis (she did eventually pass away in 1889).

Orville Wright worked as a printer after dropping out of highschool. Wilbur, getting rather bored with sticking around at home all the time, joined his brother in business, and the two boys worked together as editor and publisher respectively, of various small-town newspapers.

In the 1880s, a new machine was invented. It was light, fast, easy to ride and safer to operate than its predecessors, allowing the rider to balance on its frame more easily and control its speed and movement more comfortably.

The bicycle had been introduced to the world.

Wanting to make as much money as they could, the Wrights packed up their printing press and jumped onto the cycling craze, opening a bicycle repair and manufacture-shop in the 1890s. Throughout the 1890s, flight pioneers were constantly making the headlines, with newer, ‘better’ flying machines. All this talk of flying got the brothers thinking. Wilbur was the one who really got interested in flying, and he set about trying to make a flying machine. Orville joined in later, once Wilbur’s work was showing a sufficient degree of promise.

The Wright brothers started out small, practicing their flying first with kites and then with gliders before attempting anything that we’d recognise today as a conventional airplane. Wilbur studied the movements of birds to try and discover the secret ingredient to Lift, the necessary component of flight to compensate for gravity. The Wrights theorised that it was the gliding motion of birds and the movement of air over their wings that allowed them to fly like they did, rather than the actual flapping motion which some inventors had tried for years to reproduce.

The brothers made a breakthrough when they discovered wing-warping, that is, bending or angling a pair of wings to create the correct kind of airflow to provide lift for the aircraft as well as giving it the ability to turn, rise and fall through the air. It was easy enough to bend a wing – just make it out of something light and flexible. The problem was how to control wing-warping. Left to their own devices, early wings would warp of their own accord, depending on wind-conditions. By attaching ropes and pulleys to the edges of their wings, the Wright brothers were able to pull on the cables and affect wing-warp themselves, giving them for the first time, an aspect of control over their aircraft!

Throughout the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers experimented with gliders to give them an idea of how wings and angling these wings affected flight and lift. To aid them with this, they built one of the world’s first wind-tunnels! With wind on demand, the boys were able to test their flyers more and more often and were able to record data more effectively.

Powered Flight

The dream of mankind was to have powered, controlled flight. By the early 1900s, the Wrights were already working on the “control” part, but they still needed to address the issue of power. They knew from their experiements that any power-source onboard an airplane would have to be as light as possible. Fortunately, their experience working on bicycles meant that the Wright Brothers already had some grounding in light and powerful machines.

The world’s first airplane, Wright Flyer I, took to the air in 1903. Using a custom-made internal-combustion engine created in their own bicycle-shop (after no established engine-manufacturers of the time were able to make one small, light and powerful enough for their needs) and propellers made of wood, tested relentlessly in their wind-tunnel, the Wright brothers were ready to fly.

For obvious reasons, this milestone was fraught with danger. Steering a glider, launching a glider and landing a glider was relatively safe – there were no moving parts. But with their new airplane, the boys had to be careful of the rotating propellers, which were literally revolutionary at the time, since nobody had yet figured out how an airplane’s propeller actually worked!

The historic first flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903.

Actually, more than one flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903, on the beaches near Kittyhawk, South Carolina. Four flights in total were conducted. A number of people came out to witness this historic event: Adam Etheridge, Will Dough, W. C. Brinkley, Johnny Moore, a local lad who was on the scene at the time, and John T. Daniels, a member of a nearby lifesaving station.

Of the four flights taken, the first, third and fourth were photographed. The famous “First Flight” photograph (With Orville at the controls and Wilbur jogging alongside) was taken by John T. Daniels, the lifesaver, and a man who had never operated a camera before (or since!). Daniels had been given instructions by Orville to take the shot when he saw the machine move in front of the camera. Daniels, too excited by what was going on around him, nearly forgot to take the photograph! At the last minute, he tripped the shutter and history was made…

The Airplane Takes Off

If the Wright Brothers thought that their newfangled “flying machine” (Oh what an absurd notion!) was ever going to be a wonderful, amazing, popular, attention-grabbing, imagination-stimulating, sought-after and life-changing machine!…They were wrong.

In fact they were so wrong they probably wondered why the hell they started in the first place. The truth was that very few people were actually interested in their new flying-machine. It didn’t make the headlines that they’d expected it to (probably because so many other flying-machines had done so, and they’d all failed!) and the military was not in the least bit interested. The planes were too light, too flimsy, too dangerous to fly. What possible military application could they have?

The Rise of the Airplane

Just like early anythings, planes were not seen as having much application in the world of the time. Cars were slow, tempermental things, new on the scene, expensive and prone to breakdowns. Similarly, planes were seen as expensive, rich, playboy toys which could never have any practical application in the real world. This changed during the years of the First World War when armies soon discovered the advantages of having an aerial wing which could fly over battlefields, bombing and strafing the enemy, which could take photographs and which could report on enemy troops and movements. By 1918, the airplane had proven itself as a practical and important machine in warfare.

If the 1900s were the experimental stages of airplane-operation, then the 1910s and the 1920s became the era of aircraft endurance-testing. All kinds of famous airplane-related events took place in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which are still fondly remembered today. Here’s a list of them:

1912 – April 16th. Harriet Quimby is the first woman to fly across the English Channel (Dover-Calais, in 59 minutes). Unfortunately, her moment in the sun and her chances of making the front pages were dashed when a little-known watercraft called the R.M.S. Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean the night before…

1927 – May 20-21. Charles Lindbergh flies the Spirit of St. Louis from New York City to Paris, France, in the world’s first solo nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

1928 – 31st May-9th June. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith & Co make the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean in a three-leg journey from California, USA, to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji, Fiji to Brisbane, in Australia.

The 1920s also saw the founding of several famous commercial airline companies. United Airlines is founded in 1926 as Boeing Air Transport. The famous Australian airline company Quantas is founded in 1920. The German airline company Lufthansa is founded in 1926. Pan Am, the American airline is founded as Pan-American Airways in 1927.

Luxury Travel

From the second half of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, luxury long-distance travel was to be had in only one way. That one way was in an amazingly grand and luxurious ocean-liner, which would transport you across vast stretches of water from England to America, America to Australia, Australia to Asia, Asia to Europe and so-on. The largely experimental status of aircraft in the early 20th century meant that the ocean-liner trade was still going strong well into the 1950s, but things were all about to change.

The 1920s showed everyone that airplanes, just like steamships, could safely travel amazing distances, and what’s more, they could do it in significantly more comfort and at faster speeds! This led to the 1930s boom of the airline industry.

Sometimes we like to kid ourselves that airline travel today is really luxurious…little personal TV screens, computer-games, telephone and internet access, luxurious onboard dining and crayons and those cheap, crappy plastic model-airplanes for the kiddies are all the luxury that we need.

In the 1930s, though, there was a whole new kind of luxury…the airship!

The airship was like a hybrid between the airplane and the hot air balloon. Invented in the 1900s, the airship had its golden age from the 1910s-1930s. Less noisy, larger and capable of carrying more passengers than early conventional, fixed-wing airplanes, the airship became the way to travel in style, comfort and most importantly…speed, in the early 1900s. A number of countries operated airship lines, from the United Kingdom, the United States and most notably of all…Germany.

Although large and amazing, airships were dangerous machines. The hydrogen gas which inflated the huge envelopes of many airships was highly explosive and extensive precautions were taken to prevent fires – in Germany, for example, you couldn’t take your camera or your cigarette-lighter onboard an airship – They were confiscated by the crew and locked in a special cargo-area, to be returned by the crew when the ship had reached its destination. The sparking of a cigarette-lighter or the burning flash from early, magnesium flash-bulb cameras was seen as a fire-hazard.

Due to their large size, airships could be difficult to control in bad weather. When the weather was fine, flying in an airship was an exciting and wonderful experience, but when there was a storm, heavy rains or lightning around, the experience could become quite frightening. Winds could rip at the cloth covering of the airship’s enevelope, dangerous static-electric charges could build up on the airship’s frame (although this could also create a spectacular display of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ to dazzle and awe passengers!) and heavy winds and rain could affect handling and manuverablity. The airship USS Akron crashed in April of 1933 due to flying in a storm after spending only 18 months in civilian service. Of the 76 passengers and crew onboard, only three people survived and were picked up by US. Coastguard watercraft after the crash.

The most famous airship crash is, of course, that of the Hindenburg, which spectacularly erupted into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey in early 1937 and crashed and burned to the ground in a matter of seconds! Of the 97 passengers and crew onboard, roughly one third (36 people) of them died, including one member of the ground-staff. Destroyed after just over a year in service, the Hindenburg’s demise saw the end of grand airship travel, which was written off as just being far too dangerous.


The Hindenburg Crash. The structure on the right is the airship mooring-tower

To understand why the public was so drawn to airships, these flying death-traps, one has to see what they were really like and what they meant to people at the time. Airplanes are faster, but they’re smaller, more cramped, more uncomfortable.

The interiors of German commercial airships that flew through the air during the 1920s and 30s were bright, modern, luxurious, airy and with plenty of space to move around and stretch your legs. Passengers even slept in their own cabins, instead of trying to sleep strapped into their chairs like we have to do these days. Add to this the fact that travelling by airship was so much faster than travelling by…ship-ship. Steaming from England to America took at least five days using the fastest and most modern ocean-liners in the 1930s. Flying from Germany to America by airship in the 1930s took two or at a stretch, three days. For speed and convenience, the airship certainly won out here.


A period airship advertisement from the 1930s boasting a two-day crossing from America to Europe, which was three times faster than a similar crossing by ocean-liner

The risks of airship travel and the spectacular crashes that involved airships soon spelt an end to their aerial dominance, though. They were seen as just being far too risky a thing to use. Why speed up your trip by a few days when you risked crashing, falling from the sky and being killed when you could cross the ocean in a week by ship? And even if the ship was to sink, you could still get into a lifeboat and radio for help! By the late 1930s, the glory days of the airship were over.

Postwar Boom

The 1950s saw many things – the emergence of the Cold War, television, rock and roll and do-wop music. But it also saw the downfall of many things, such as the gradual dying-out of the transatlantic passenger-ship industry and the end of the airship industry. But from the ashes of the airship industry, a new form of transport was to emerge…

…the modern airliner.

Capable of transporting more people to more places with more speed, airliners were the thing of the future. Although the airliner of today probably shares several characteristics with the airliners of the past, early airliners had various perks such as the ability to smoke onboard planes (thank god that’s over with!) and being served meals with real cutlery, chinaware and glassware (something that doesn’t happen today!) and being able to listen to live piano-music! Yes, believe it or not, but early airliners used to have (specially made) pianos onboard them, usually in First Class, where passengers could listen to live music!


An airliner’s piano-bar in the 1960s

Continued safety-concerns and space-restrictions mean that spaces reserved for piano-bars, cocktail lounges, drinks bars and other public-seating areas on airplanes where passengers could mingle and chat, are now a thing of the past, leaving us with nothing but tantilising images of what is, what was, and what might have been…

 

Cranks, Keys and Carriageways: A Brief History of the Motor-Car

Today, the car, the automobile, the horseless carriage and that stupid rust-bucket that’s parked in your garage right now, is as much a part of life today as is the television, the internet, the iPod, Phone, Pad and (regrettably) rap ‘music’. But spare a thought for the fact that motoring as we know it today is only a little over a hundred years old. It would be fair to say that the average man on the street wouldn’t know a single thing about the history of the very thing he’s driving around at that very moment: The motor-car. This article will be a brief peek into the history of the greatest thing since the steam-engine…

Before the Car

It’s hard to imagine life before the car, isn’t it? A world of steam-trains, ocean-liners and horses and carriages. A world where horsepower was literally horse-powered. If you didn’t own a horse and carriage of some kind, you were stuck with either walking, or taking a train or streetcar somewhere. While self-powered land-vehicles that could move on the road existed in the 19th century, it wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that they would become seriously practical. And it wouldn’t be for a few more years, that your regular Tommy Ryan could afford to buy one of these new horseless-carriage gizmoes out of his own pocket and drive it around town.

The Birth of the Motor Car

This…is genesis:

This here is the Benz Patent Motorwagen and it is quite literally, the first car ever made. It was powered by a two-stroke, one-horsepower engine and it was introduced into the world in 1885. Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Jack the Ripper was still sharpening his butterknife and Sherlock Holmes was still a blob of ink inside an inkwell. But this contraption, born in an age of the horse and buggy, was about to show everyone that personal, motorised transport was possible.

Although the Benz Motorwagen was hardly ideal as a car: It had no safety-features, it had three wheels, it had a tiller steering-handle and a pathetically small fuel-tank, not to mention a hopeless range of operation, Benz was not about to give up. Over the next few years, he refined and modified his machine to such an extent that in August of 1888, what was possibly the world’s first stolen car report was filed at the local police station (okay that’s a joke, it wasn’t, but you’ll soon see why it might’ve been). For on a day in August in ’88, Mrs. Bertha Benz, Karl Benz’s wife, successfully started her husband’s car and, with her two sons along for the ride, drove them off to visit their grandmother, before driving back home three days later. The length of the trip was 120 miles! Mrs. Benz had successfully shown the world that the car could travel long distances!


The Benz Motorwagen No. 3, made in 1888. This was the car which Karl Benz’s wife started up and drove off in, on that August day, over 120 years ago

Over the years, more and more people started experimenting with these newfangled “internal combustion engines”, in attempts to create their own ‘horseless carriages’ as they were still widely called. The British Government didn’t take kindly to scientific and technological advancement in the world of transport, however, because it slapped a FOUR MILE AN HOUR speed-limit on early motor-cars! The first speed-limit ever imposed for self-powered vehicles was 10mph in 1861. In 1865, the Brits made the law even tighter, saying that self-propelled vehicles could travel at the breakneck speed of four miles an hour in the country but only two miles an hour in town! Finally in the 1890s, though, with the arrival of the motor-car, British lawmakers allowed a speed-limit of 14 and later, 20 miles an hour, starting in 1896.

Car companies sprang up almost overnight as the 20th century approached. Some notable early ones included Renault (1899), Ford (1903), Mercedes (1902) and Stanley (also 1902), which was famous for making steam-powered motor-cars. Slowly, the world took to the road.

Starting Something Totally New…

    “…For making the carriage walking at the first speed, take back the drag of the wheel backward crowbar of the right and take completely and progressively back, the crowbar of embriage…”
    – Jeremy Clarkson, “TopGear”.

Okay, I kid, I kid…that’s actually French translated into English. But as you can see, early motor-cars were far from easy to drive. These days, we get in, we insert the key, we turn it, we swear for a couple of minutes and then we get moving. Early cars were nowhere near as easy to operate. To start with (literally), you had to crank these cars to get them going.

Early cars did not have ignition keys, they didn’t have electric starter-buttons, starter-motors or anything like that. To get them going, you had to crank them by hand. And while this looks like a lot of fun, it wasn’t exactly easy. You’ve probably seen vintage cars in movies or cartoons being the subject of slapstick comedy where someone tries (hopelessly) to get a car started by cranking it, only to fail miserably. The truth is that some (but not all) early cars were that hard to start. And not only hard to start, but also dangerous! You needed considerable strength to start a car in the old days, because everything inside the car was mechanical and made of metal. If you didn’t have the muscles to turn the crank-handle (which could be particularly tricky in some cars), then the car never started. Usually, you slid the crank-handle into a hole in the front of the car, which sent the crank through the crankshaft inside the engine. Then, you grabbed the crank and with considerable force, turned it clockwise in an attempt to get the pistons moving to start the engine-cycle.

One of the big risks of crank-starting a car was personal injury. By cranking the starting-handle, you moved the crankshaft inside the motor and this got the pistons inside the engine moving. Once the sparking-plugs ignited the fuel and the engine started working by itself, the car could be driven. But when this happened, one of the biggest risks was of the crank-handle being thrown backwards, against the driver’s hand, by the force of the pistons coming to life. The most common injuries included broken wrists and broken arms. Nasty stuff! Several early motor-car companies tried to introduce braces or catches or modified engines where the starting-handle either jammed or was stopped in some way, if the engine backfired, or else disengaged the starting-handle when the engine caught on, so that it wouldn’t kick back and break the driver’s arm.


A 1909 Model T Ford with prerequisite antique car crank-handle at the front. Apparently this one disproved that a motorist could have his car any colour so long as it was black

Early motorists were instructed to grasp the crank-handle in a certain way, with all fingers on ONE side of the crank, instead of four fingers on one side, and the thumb on the other (as you might do with other crank-handled appliances). The reason for this, was so that if the engine kicked back, the handle would swing away from your hand and nothing went wrong. Grasping the handle the traditional way meant that at the very least, you suffered a broken thumb when the engine came to life. The increasing power and size of car-engines as the 1900s progressed, meant that it began to take more and more strength to crank start a car and eventually, electric starter-motors were introduced.

Of course, not everything was this easy. Headlamps on the earliest cars were gas-powered. These had to be lit either manually, or with pilot-lights or sparkers. And starting a steam-powered car, such as those manufactured by the Stanley company up until 1925, was almost like trying to get a steam locomotive going from a cold start. First you had to fill up the boiler with water, and then you had to make sure that there was enough kerosene in the tank, you had make sure that the pilot-light was on and that the water was being boiled sufficiently. With the water boiled, you had to wait for the steam-pressure to build up before you could actually drive the car away. Considering how tricky it was to get a steam car started, it’s rather surprising how long they survived. The reasons for building steam cars, however, was rather obvious when you consider that the steam-engine had been around for about a hundred years longer, starting in 1900, than the internal-combustion engine, the bit of machinery that drives almost every car in existence today.

Driving Along in my Automobile

Early motoring was a thrill. It really was. These days, we use a car for everything. Going to school, going to work, going to the shops, going to visit friends and family…but things were very different a hundred years ago when you were probably the only person on the block who owned his own motor-car! Having got the car started, you didn’t want to just waste all that petrol and water and oil driving somewhere for a PURPOSE, did you?

No! Once you got that thing going, you wanted to muck around with it, yeah? Which is exactly what many people did. Having a family car in the 1900s or the 1910s was considered a real luxury, and many of the times that the car drove off down the road would have been with the entire family onboard for a roadtrip or an excursion. Barrelling along at twenty or thirty miles an hour was a thrilling experience when you consider that the other way to move around was by horse and cart.

However, taking the family out for a spin in your new automobile wasn’t always safe. Most early roads were almost lethal to drive on. They were mostly dirt roads or cobblestone or flagstone roads, which gave no joys to the passengers in your shiny new ride when suspension hadn’t really been thought of yet. And even if you found a nice road to drive on, when you parked your car, you had to make sure that nobody tried to pinch it! Henry Ford used to have to chain his car to a lamppost everytime he parked it and secure it there with a padlock, otherwise, the moment he stepped away, some inquisitive bystander would try and crank up his new toy and drive off with it!

However, getting to treat the family to a ride in the automobile was something that was nothing but a dream, and for many men, remained a dream until 1908.

Model T Fords and Mass-Production

One of the biggest problems of early motor-cars was the fact that they were dizzyingly expensive. A car in the 1900s could cost upwards of $1,000. While this doesn’t sound too bad today, remember that in 1900, a good pocket watch cost $50, a fountain pen cost $2, a film-ticket was five cents and it was cheaper to send a telegram than to use the telephone! Groceries for a family of four for a week could be bought for less than $20!

Because of the dazzling cars and the equally dazzling price-tags, it’s not surprising that for many people, motor-cars were something to be seen driving by, but never to be seen driving in. Cars were handmade with expensive coachworks which were made up of leather and brass and chrome and other fancy-schmancy things that cost a fortune. Only the richest of the rich could afford cars. Millionaires, businessmen, royalty, heads of state and so-on. For everyone else, the only rubber that was going to hit the road for them was the soles of their shoes.

That was until Henry Ford put two and two together and made Ford. Or the Ford Model T, to be precise.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. He didn’t even invent mass-production. But what he did invent was a way to put the two things together. By working on a moving production-line, Ford realised that, with work coming to his men, instead of his men going to their work, a lot of time could be saved in manufacturing a car. One reason why cars were so damned expensive was because they took literally days, weeks, in some cases, even MONTHS to make. Not just a line of cars, I mean literally ONE car. If Henry Ford could cut down how long it took to make cars, then he could make more cars in a shorter amount of time. More cars meant that the prices went down and if the prices went down, then ordinary people could buy them.

The Model T was introduced in 1908, when Ford started mass-producing cars. The chassis, the wheels, the seats, the engine and everything else was built at one part of the factory and progressively joined together. At the end of the line, the body of the car was dumped on top. The final touches were added, the car was gassed up, cranked up and then driven off into the world. It was amazingly simple.

One reason that Ford managed to make his car plants so efficient was that he kept breaking down jobs. If making an entire door was too hard for one workman to do by himself, then Ford broke the door down into component parts. One man made the hinges, one man painted the panels, one man screwed on the doorhandles and one man put in the window. It meant that the Ford car plants had to employ hundreds, thousands of people, but it also meant that they could work for longer hours. Ford workers worked eight-hour shifts and earnt $5 a day. $5 a day when Cocoa Cola cost 5c, was a lot of money. And by having eight-hour shifts, the factories could operate literally around the clock.


This Ford Model T four-door tourer was typical of the millions of Model Ts produced by Ford: Simple, tough, reliable and understated

When Ford Model Ts were being sold, they originally started out at $850-950 (in 1908 dollars). If this sounds steep, then you can try and find something else for $900. Not easy when the next least expensive car skyrocketed upwards to $3,000!! As Fords continued to be made, however, the price did (thankfully) drop, to about $280 in the 1920s, which which time literally half the cars in the world were Model T Fords.

The Model T wasn’t a great car. It wasn’t fast (45mph top speed), it wasn’t classy (“a customer can have a car painted any color he wants, as long as it’s black”, Henry Ford), it wasn’t easy to operate (“…it’s more complicated than doing eye-surgery!…”, thank you Jeremy Clarkson) and it certainly wasn’t big (one of its nicknames was the ‘Tin Lizzie’! and you can be sure that doesn’t sound very chunky!), but what it was, was a car that allowed everyone from Dr. Jones right down to Mr. Bentley at the corner shop, to drive around town.

Changing the World, One Car at a Time

Everyone generally assumes that a car built before a certain time is either “classic”, “vintage”, “veteran”, “crap” or some other delightful categorical name. But what is what?

“Veteran” cars signify any cars made between the 1880s up to 1919. These include the very first cars ever made by most companies, and the earliest Model T Fords.

“Brass-Era” cars are cars manufactured in the period between Veteran and Vintage, generally accepted as been between 1905-1914/15. So named because of the heavy use of brass on these cars (headlamps, grilles, dashboards, side-mirrors, etc).

“Vintage” cars were cars manufactured from after the end of WWI to the Wall Street Crash, so, from 1919-1929. It was during this period that cars stopped looking like ghost-carriages without horses at the front, and started representing what we would sort of recognise as a car today, with a passenger area, the engine out the front with a bonnet or hood, four wheels and a roof and windows! It was during this time that cars also started being widely manufactured with self-starters; everything from electric starter-buttons to…*gasp*…car-keys!! Yes! No more broken wrists!


A 1929 Model A Ford, a typical vintage car of the 1920s and 30s, with curved mudguards and a less angular body, but boxy in appearance nonetheless


1916 Cadillac Type 53. Yes, that’s James May and Jeremy Clarkson from TopGear in the front, with Clarkson at the wheel. I think I’ll walk

According to the automotive TV show “TopGear”, it was the Cadillac Type 53 that gave us one of the greatest pieces of metal in the world. The car-key! With that, cars became safer, easier to start and more fun to drive. This template for the modern car was introduced to the rest of the world thanks to Herbert Austin, founder of the Austin Motor Company. The first car other than the Caddy Type 53 to have car-keys and all the gears and pedals in the configuration that we know today was the famous and miniscule Austin 7…


1922 Austin 7 “Chummy” Tourer

As you can see, the Austin 7, while ‘modern’ in the sense that it had all the controls in the right order, was hardly luxurious or any of that rot. It was basically an updated, more modern and British version of the Model T Ford. In fact the Austin 7 was so incredibly small, it was popularly nicknamed the “Baby Austin”. If you think you recognise the Austin 7 ‘Chummy’ Tourer, it’s because a 1/2-scale fully-functional model of the car (in bright yellow!) is used in the popular British TV series “Brum”.

Last but not least, we have “Classic” cars. For a car to be a ‘Classic’ car, it has to have been built between 1930-1960. Such ‘Classics’ might have included several cars manufactured by the famous “Deusenberg” company, the Chevrolet Bel Air, the Auburn Boattail Speedster and countless other wonderful machines.

As cars became more and more popular and companies started producing luxury as well as cheap models, the car began to take over the world, but the world wasn’t quite ready for it. Many roads were still unpaved and hideously dangerous to drive on. Ironically, when we think of early motor-cars, we think of them as delicate little sardine cans held together with chicken-wire which fell apart if you farted too loud, but actually, some of them were rather tough. The Model T Ford was able to start in almost any weather, it could drive through water, through snow, through mud, through dirt roads, up and down hills, it could literally drive off-road without breaking down and it did all this with a top speed of just forty five miles an hour and wooden-spoked wheels! It might’ve looked flimsy, but on the other hand, it might also have given the Jeep a run for its money.

And yet, the horse and cart still hung around. The last horse-drawn taxi-license was issued in London in the late 1920s. Police-forces did not start using regular patrol-cars until the 1920s and in some places, horse-drawn tram-services continued well into the 30s and 40s (although in all fairness, horse-tram services returned to some countries in the 40s because they needed the petrol to fight the Axis. You can’t use horse-poop for anything in warfare).

By the 1920s and 30s, the era of motoring had really taken off. The road-trip became a popular kind of holiday as families and their friends packed up their Packards, Studebakers, Austins, Fords and Maxwells (Hello, Jack Benny!) and took to the road. Petrol-stations, diners, roadside inns and caravans popped up almost overnight as cars started driving around the world. Cars gradually became safer as shatterproof glass began to replace the brittle glass that was previously used in windscreens and windows. In 1903, French chemist Edouard Benedictus dropped a glass flask which had the leftovers of cellulous nitrate plastic inside it. His happy accident led to his development of what we now know today as laminated or shatterproof glass. Not originally used in motor-cars, it would be another thirty years before this newer, stronger, safer type of glass replaced the dangerous and brittle glass then used in car-manufacturing.

The birth and development of the car was going along nicely until a small hiccup called the Second World War came along in 1939. Because of the strain of total war, car-production ceased the world-over, starting in 1940 in the UK and in 1942 in the USA, with no new cars being produced by either of those two countries (or indeed, several other countries) until 1945 at the very earliest.

Postwar cars were just as fascinating as their prewar parents and the boom years of the 1950s saw larger, chunkier cars being produced, such as one of the most iconic cars of the 1950s, the Chevrolet Bel Air:

The Chevy Bel Air symbolised cars of the 50s: Large, bold, excessive bodywork with more fins than a seafood restaurant and so much chrome that the car was basically a massive mirror on wheels. To its credit, though, the chrome-plating did have a practical use: It prevented the car from rusting from exposure to moisture.

From its humble beginnings as the crazy invention of a German engineering and metalworks student to one of the most important modes of transport in the modern world, the car changed everything around it, everyone in it, and everything that it drove past, forever.

 

Cranks, Keys and Carriageways: A Brief History of the Motor-Car

Today, the car, the automobile, the horseless carriage and that stupid rust-bucket that’s parked in your garage right now, is as much a part of life today as is the television, the internet, the iPod, Phone, Pad and (regrettably) rap ‘music’. But spare a thought for the fact that motoring as we know it today is only a little over a hundred years old. It would be fair to say that the average man on the street wouldn’t know a single thing about the history of the very thing he’s driving around at that very moment: The motor-car. This article will be a brief peek into the history of the greatest thing since the steam-engine…

Before the Car

It’s hard to imagine life before the car, isn’t it? A world of steam-trains, ocean-liners and horses and carriages. A world where horsepower was literally horse-powered. If you didn’t own a horse and carriage of some kind, you were stuck with either walking, or taking a train or streetcar somewhere. While self-powered land-vehicles that could move on the road existed in the 19th century, it wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that they would become seriously practical. And it wouldn’t be for a few more years, that your regular Tommy Ryan could afford to buy one of these new horseless-carriage gizmoes out of his own pocket and drive it around town.

The Birth of the Motor Car

This…is genesis:

This here is the Benz Patent Motorwagen and it is quite literally, the first car ever made. It was powered by a two-stroke, one-horsepower engine and it was introduced into the world in 1885. Queen Victoria was still on the throne. Jack the Ripper was still sharpening his butterknife and Sherlock Holmes was still a blob of ink inside an inkwell. But this contraption, born in an age of the horse and buggy, was about to show everyone that personal, motorised transport was possible.

Although the Benz Motorwagen was hardly ideal as a car: It had no safety-features, it had three wheels, it had a tiller steering-handle and a pathetically small fuel-tank, not to mention a hopeless range of operation, Benz was not about to give up. Over the next few years, he refined and modified his machine to such an extent that in August of 1888, what was possibly the world’s first stolen car report was filed at the local police station (okay that’s a joke, it wasn’t, but you’ll soon see why it might’ve been). For on a day in August in ’88, Mrs. Bertha Benz, Karl Benz’s wife, successfully started her husband’s car and, with her two sons along for the ride, drove them off to visit their grandmother, before driving back home three days later. The length of the trip was 120 miles! Mrs. Benz had successfully shown the world that the car could travel long distances!


The Benz Motorwagen No. 3, made in 1888. This was the car which Karl Benz’s wife started up and drove off in, on that August day, over 120 years ago

Over the years, more and more people started experimenting with these newfangled “internal combustion engines”, in attempts to create their own ‘horseless carriages’ as they were still widely called. The British Government didn’t take kindly to scientific and technological advancement in the world of transport, however, because it slapped a FOUR MILE AN HOUR speed-limit on early motor-cars! The first speed-limit ever imposed for self-powered vehicles was 10mph in 1861. In 1865, the Brits made the law even tighter, saying that self-propelled vehicles could travel at the breakneck speed of four miles an hour in the country but only two miles an hour in town! Finally in the 1890s, though, with the arrival of the motor-car, British lawmakers allowed a speed-limit of 14 and later, 20 miles an hour, starting in 1896.

Car companies sprang up almost overnight as the 20th century approached. Some notable early ones included Renault (1899), Ford (1903), Mercedes (1902) and Stanley (also 1902), which was famous for making steam-powered motor-cars. Slowly, the world took to the road.

Starting Something Totally New…

    “…For making the carriage walking at the first speed, take back the drag of the wheel backward crowbar of the right and take completely and progressively back, the crowbar of embriage…”
    – Jeremy Clarkson, “TopGear”.

Okay, I kid, I kid…that’s actually French translated into English. But as you can see, early motor-cars were far from easy to drive. These days, we get in, we insert the key, we turn it, we swear for a couple of minutes and then we get moving. Early cars were nowhere near as easy to operate. To start with (literally), you had to crank these cars to get them going.

Early cars did not have ignition keys, they didn’t have electric starter-buttons, starter-motors or anything like that. To get them going, you had to crank them by hand. And while this looks like a lot of fun, it wasn’t exactly easy. You’ve probably seen vintage cars in movies or cartoons being the subject of slapstick comedy where someone tries (hopelessly) to get a car started by cranking it, only to fail miserably. The truth is that some (but not all) early cars were that hard to start. And not only hard to start, but also dangerous! You needed considerable strength to start a car in the old days, because everything inside the car was mechanical and made of metal. If you didn’t have the muscles to turn the crank-handle (which could be particularly tricky in some cars), then the car never started. Usually, you slid the crank-handle into a hole in the front of the car, which sent the crank through the crankshaft inside the engine. Then, you grabbed the crank and with considerable force, turned it clockwise in an attempt to get the pistons moving to start the engine-cycle.

One of the big risks of crank-starting a car was personal injury. By cranking the starting-handle, you moved the crankshaft inside the motor and this got the pistons inside the engine moving. Once the sparking-plugs ignited the fuel and the engine started working by itself, the car could be driven. But when this happened, one of the biggest risks was of the crank-handle being thrown backwards, against the driver’s hand, by the force of the pistons coming to life. The most common injuries included broken wrists and broken arms. Nasty stuff! Several early motor-car companies tried to introduce braces or catches or modified engines where the starting-handle either jammed or was stopped in some way, if the engine backfired, or else disengaged the starting-handle when the engine caught on, so that it wouldn’t kick back and break the driver’s arm.


A 1909 Model T Ford with prerequisite antique car crank-handle at the front. Apparently this one disproved that a motorist could have his car any colour so long as it was black

Early motorists were instructed to grasp the crank-handle in a certain way, with all fingers on ONE side of the crank, instead of four fingers on one side, and the thumb on the other (as you might do with other crank-handled appliances). The reason for this, was so that if the engine kicked back, the handle would swing away from your hand and nothing went wrong. Grasping the handle the traditional way meant that at the very least, you suffered a broken thumb when the engine came to life. The increasing power and size of car-engines as the 1900s progressed, meant that it began to take more and more strength to crank start a car and eventually, electric starter-motors were introduced.

Of course, not everything was this easy. Headlamps on the earliest cars were gas-powered. These had to be lit either manually, or with pilot-lights or sparkers. And starting a steam-powered car, such as those manufactured by the Stanley company up until 1925, was almost like trying to get a steam locomotive going from a cold start. First you had to fill up the boiler with water, and then you had to make sure that there was enough kerosene in the tank, you had make sure that the pilot-light was on and that the water was being boiled sufficiently. With the water boiled, you had to wait for the steam-pressure to build up before you could actually drive the car away. Considering how tricky it was to get a steam car started, it’s rather surprising how long they survived. The reasons for building steam cars, however, was rather obvious when you consider that the steam-engine had been around for about a hundred years longer, starting in 1900, than the internal-combustion engine, the bit of machinery that drives almost every car in existence today.

Driving Along in my Automobile

Early motoring was a thrill. It really was. These days, we use a car for everything. Going to school, going to work, going to the shops, going to visit friends and family…but things were very different a hundred years ago when you were probably the only person on the block who owned his own motor-car! Having got the car started, you didn’t want to just waste all that petrol and water and oil driving somewhere for a PURPOSE, did you?

No! Once you got that thing going, you wanted to muck around with it, yeah? Which is exactly what many people did. Having a family car in the 1900s or the 1910s was considered a real luxury, and many of the times that the car drove off down the road would have been with the entire family onboard for a roadtrip or an excursion. Barrelling along at twenty or thirty miles an hour was a thrilling experience when you consider that the other way to move around was by horse and cart.

However, taking the family out for a spin in your new automobile wasn’t always safe. Most early roads were almost lethal to drive on. They were mostly dirt roads or cobblestone or flagstone roads, which gave no joys to the passengers in your shiny new ride when suspension hadn’t really been thought of yet. And even if you found a nice road to drive on, when you parked your car, you had to make sure that nobody tried to pinch it! Henry Ford used to have to chain his car to a lamppost everytime he parked it and secure it there with a padlock, otherwise, the moment he stepped away, some inquisitive bystander would try and crank up his new toy and drive off with it!

However, getting to treat the family to a ride in the automobile was something that was nothing but a dream, and for many men, remained a dream until 1908.

Model T Fords and Mass-Production

One of the biggest problems of early motor-cars was the fact that they were dizzyingly expensive. A car in the 1900s could cost upwards of $1,000. While this doesn’t sound too bad today, remember that in 1900, a good pocket watch cost $50, a fountain pen cost $2, a film-ticket was five cents and it was cheaper to send a telegram than to use the telephone! Groceries for a family of four for a week could be bought for less than $20!

Because of the dazzling cars and the equally dazzling price-tags, it’s not surprising that for many people, motor-cars were something to be seen driving by, but never to be seen driving in. Cars were handmade with expensive coachworks which were made up of leather and brass and chrome and other fancy-schmancy things that cost a fortune. Only the richest of the rich could afford cars. Millionaires, businessmen, royalty, heads of state and so-on. For everyone else, the only rubber that was going to hit the road for them was the soles of their shoes.

That was until Henry Ford put two and two together and made Ford. Or the Ford Model T, to be precise.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. He didn’t even invent mass-production. But what he did invent was a way to put the two things together. By working on a moving production-line, Ford realised that, with work coming to his men, instead of his men going to their work, a lot of time could be saved in manufacturing a car. One reason why cars were so damned expensive was because they took literally days, weeks, in some cases, even MONTHS to make. Not just a line of cars, I mean literally ONE car. If Henry Ford could cut down how long it took to make cars, then he could make more cars in a shorter amount of time. More cars meant that the prices went down and if the prices went down, then ordinary people could buy them.

The Model T was introduced in 1908, when Ford started mass-producing cars. The chassis, the wheels, the seats, the engine and everything else was built at one part of the factory and progressively joined together. At the end of the line, the body of the car was dumped on top. The final touches were added, the car was gassed up, cranked up and then driven off into the world. It was amazingly simple.

One reason that Ford managed to make his car plants so efficient was that he kept breaking down jobs. If making an entire door was too hard for one workman to do by himself, then Ford broke the door down into component parts. One man made the hinges, one man painted the panels, one man screwed on the doorhandles and one man put in the window. It meant that the Ford car plants had to employ hundreds, thousands of people, but it also meant that they could work for longer hours. Ford workers worked eight-hour shifts and earnt $5 a day. $5 a day when Cocoa Cola cost 5c, was a lot of money. And by having eight-hour shifts, the factories could operate literally around the clock.


This Ford Model T four-door tourer was typical of the millions of Model Ts produced by Ford: Simple, tough, reliable and understated

When Ford Model Ts were being sold, they originally started out at $850-950 (in 1908 dollars). If this sounds steep, then you can try and find something else for $900. Not easy when the next least expensive car skyrocketed upwards to $3,000!! As Fords continued to be made, however, the price did (thankfully) drop, to about $280 in the 1920s, which which time literally half the cars in the world were Model T Fords.

The Model T wasn’t a great car. It wasn’t fast (45mph top speed), it wasn’t classy (“a customer can have a car painted any color he wants, as long as it’s black”, Henry Ford), it wasn’t easy to operate (“…it’s more complicated than doing eye-surgery!…”, thank you Jeremy Clarkson) and it certainly wasn’t big (one of its nicknames was the ‘Tin Lizzie’! and you can be sure that doesn’t sound very chunky!), but what it was, was a car that allowed everyone from Dr. Jones right down to Mr. Bentley at the corner shop, to drive around town.

Changing the World, One Car at a Time

Everyone generally assumes that a car built before a certain time is either “classic”, “vintage”, “veteran”, “crap” or some other delightful categorical name. But what is what?

“Veteran” cars signify any cars made between the 1880s up to 1919. These include the very first cars ever made by most companies, and the earliest Model T Fords.

“Brass-Era” cars are cars manufactured in the period between Veteran and Vintage, generally accepted as been between 1905-1914/15. So named because of the heavy use of brass on these cars (headlamps, grilles, dashboards, side-mirrors, etc).

“Vintage” cars were cars manufactured from after the end of WWI to the Wall Street Crash, so, from 1919-1929. It was during this period that cars stopped looking like ghost-carriages without horses at the front, and started representing what we would sort of recognise as a car today, with a passenger area, the engine out the front with a bonnet or hood, four wheels and a roof and windows! It was during this time that cars also started being widely manufactured with self-starters; everything from electric starter-buttons to…*gasp*…car-keys!! Yes! No more broken wrists!


A 1929 Model A Ford, a typical vintage car of the 1920s and 30s, with curved mudguards and a less angular body, but boxy in appearance nonetheless


1916 Cadillac Type 53. Yes, that’s James May and Jeremy Clarkson from TopGear in the front, with Clarkson at the wheel. I think I’ll walk

According to the automotive TV show “TopGear”, it was the Cadillac Type 53 that gave us one of the greatest pieces of metal in the world. The car-key! With that, cars became safer, easier to start and more fun to drive. This template for the modern car was introduced to the rest of the world thanks to Herbert Austin, founder of the Austin Motor Company. The first car other than the Caddy Type 53 to have car-keys and all the gears and pedals in the configuration that we know today was the famous and miniscule Austin 7…


1922 Austin 7 “Chummy” Tourer

As you can see, the Austin 7, while ‘modern’ in the sense that it had all the controls in the right order, was hardly luxurious or any of that rot. It was basically an updated, more modern and British version of the Model T Ford. In fact the Austin 7 was so incredibly small, it was popularly nicknamed the “Baby Austin”. If you think you recognise the Austin 7 ‘Chummy’ Tourer, it’s because a 1/2-scale fully-functional model of the car (in bright yellow!) is used in the popular British TV series “Brum”.

Last but not least, we have “Classic” cars. For a car to be a ‘Classic’ car, it has to have been built between 1930-1960. Such ‘Classics’ might have included several cars manufactured by the famous “Deusenberg” company, the Chevrolet Bel Air, the Auburn Boattail Speedster and countless other wonderful machines.

As cars became more and more popular and companies started producing luxury as well as cheap models, the car began to take over the world, but the world wasn’t quite ready for it. Many roads were still unpaved and hideously dangerous to drive on. Ironically, when we think of early motor-cars, we think of them as delicate little sardine cans held together with chicken-wire which fell apart if you farted too loud, but actually, some of them were rather tough. The Model T Ford was able to start in almost any weather, it could drive through water, through snow, through mud, through dirt roads, up and down hills, it could literally drive off-road without breaking down and it did all this with a top speed of just forty five miles an hour and wooden-spoked wheels! It might’ve looked flimsy, but on the other hand, it might also have given the Jeep a run for its money.

And yet, the horse and cart still hung around. The last horse-drawn taxi-license was issued in London in the late 1920s. Police-forces did not start using regular patrol-cars until the 1920s and in some places, horse-drawn tram-services continued well into the 30s and 40s (although in all fairness, horse-tram services returned to some countries in the 40s because they needed the petrol to fight the Axis. You can’t use horse-poop for anything in warfare).

By the 1920s and 30s, the era of motoring had really taken off. The road-trip became a popular kind of holiday as families and their friends packed up their Packards, Studebakers, Austins, Fords and Maxwells (Hello, Jack Benny!) and took to the road. Petrol-stations, diners, roadside inns and caravans popped up almost overnight as cars started driving around the world. Cars gradually became safer as shatterproof glass began to replace the brittle glass that was previously used in windscreens and windows. In 1903, French chemist Edouard Benedictus dropped a glass flask which had the leftovers of cellulous nitrate plastic inside it. His happy accident led to his development of what we now know today as laminated or shatterproof glass. Not originally used in motor-cars, it would be another thirty years before this newer, stronger, safer type of glass replaced the dangerous and brittle glass then used in car-manufacturing.

The birth and development of the car was going along nicely until a small hiccup called the Second World War came along in 1939. Because of the strain of total war, car-production ceased the world-over, starting in 1940 in the UK and in 1942 in the USA, with no new cars being produced by either of those two countries (or indeed, several other countries) until 1945 at the very earliest.

Postwar cars were just as fascinating as their prewar parents and the boom years of the 1950s saw larger, chunkier cars being produced, such as one of the most iconic cars of the 1950s, the Chevrolet Bel Air:

The Chevy Bel Air symbolised cars of the 50s: Large, bold, excessive bodywork with more fins than a seafood restaurant and so much chrome that the car was basically a massive mirror on wheels. To its credit, though, the chrome-plating did have a practical use: It prevented the car from rusting from exposure to moisture.

From its humble beginnings as the crazy invention of a German engineering and metalworks student to one of the most important modes of transport in the modern world, the car changed everything around it, everyone in it, and everything that it drove past, forever.

 

They Go Together like a Horse and Carriage: The Variety of Horse-Drawn Transport

Before the car came along in the 1880s and spoilt everything, land-based transport was always centered around the horse and the various things that it pulled along behind it. Everyone will probably now take a long, tired yawn…go on…it’ll energise your brain for the task ahead: Four pages about the horse and cart.

Horse-drawn transport was a lot more varied than most people would think. Horse-drawn vehicles came in as many varieties as our cars do today. They performed different functions, they could travel at different speeds and they were painted different colours, as well.

So, what were some of the more common types of horse-drawn vehicles that existed during the 18th and 19th centuries?

The Horse and Cart

Duuuuuh!! Yes, the humble horse and cart. A two or four-wheeled wooden vehicle pulled by a single horse: Handy, unluxurious and as interesting as a clump of dirt. Let’s skip this, shall we?

The Dog Cart

The dog-cart was one of the simplest vehicles you could ever find. They could transport two to four people, and a small amount of luggage and were typically pulled by one to two horses. They recieved their name because they were originally used to transport hunting-dogs when the masters of sprawling country estates went out hunting.

The Trap

A trap was a simple, two-seater cart (say, for a husband and wife) which was pulled by one horse. Some traps were so small, they could even be pulled by ponies! Depending on their size, a trap may or may not have had space to carry luggage at the back.

The Barouche or the Caleche

A barouche, a carriage of German origin which was introduced into England in the 1760s, was a light, fast vehicle with only a small leather folding top at the back. Barouches were high off the ground and pulled by two horses. Barouches generally carried between two to four persons (dependent on the size and design of the carriage’s interior), not including the driver. The Caleche was an earlier version of the barouche, which also seated two to four passengers.

The Brougham

When most people think of horses and carriages, they probably think of something along the lines of a brougham, an enclosed carriage for four people with doors on the sides, comfortable seats and glass windows. Broughams were named after Baron Henry Brougham, an English nobleman who died in the 1860s. Broughams were four-wheeled vehicles with room for luggage on the roof. They were designed to be comfortable, discreet, private and fast. The driver sat on the driver’s box up the front and the carriage was pulled by two horses.

The Coach


A royal coach with Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Phillip inside

The coach is probably the ultimate horse-drawn vehicle. They of course, varied in size, style and luxury, but they were commonly seen as the limosuines of their day. They were meant to be large, bold, spacious, luxurious and a show of the owner’s wealth and power. Coaches were lavishly furnished and decorated and very comfortable, often pulled by two or even four horses and transporting anywhere from four to six passengers, not including the footmen (usually two of them) and the driver, more commonly in this context called the coachman. Coachmen had to be particularly skilled with driving and handling horses since the four horses that pulled a coach along meant more reins for the driver to hold onto. The necktie knot known as the “four-in-hand” is believed to be adapted from the four-in-hand knot which coachmen tied with their reins so that all the reins for all four horses could be easily held and controlled with one hand.

Coaches often had carriage lamps on the front of the coach to light the way in the dark, since coaches were often used for long, long journeys, since they were one of the few vehicles capable of carrying large amounts of luggage. In the days before license-plates, the coaches of royalty or the aristocracy often had coats of arms colourfully painted on the carriage doors. Wealthy people who were unable to own coats of arms (they had to be specially issued and granted), had monograms painted on their carriage doors. These monograms and coats of arms identified the coach and its occupants and who its owners were.

Horse Drawn Service-Vehicles

Apart from the various kinds of private vehicles, before the motor car came along, there were also horse-drawn versions of emergency vehicles such as fire trucks, police-vans and ambulances…


A horse-drawn ambulance from 1908


A horse-drawn fire-engine from 1915. Many horse-drawn fire-engines of this era had steam-powered water-pumps onboard, which is what that big metal thing at the back is. Earlier fire-engines had manual pumps. You can’t see it in the photo, but then, just as now, fire-engines were painted bright red so that they could be easily recognised

Horse-drawn ambulances and fire-engines often had various markers on them, indicating that they were emergency vehicles: Red lanterns, crosses, bells and sirens, to name just a few.

Horse-Drawn Public Transport

The Hansom Safety Cab

Often just called a “Hansom”, the Hansom Safety Cab was introduced into the streets of London in the mid 1830s, where it was the main form of taxicab for the next roughly 100 years, until they were finally phased out in the 1920s and 30s with the widespread replacement by motorised taxicabs. The Hansom cab had space for two passengers (three, if you crammed them in good) and the driver. As you can see from the photo above, the driver sat at the back of the cab, instead of the front. His higher vantage point at the back of the cab gave the driver a clearer view of the road and better control of his vehicle; something that was very important in the congested and traffic-jammed streets of Victorian London.

The Hansom was called the “safety cab” because it could go fast, but it could take corners quickly but without fear of being involved in a rollover accident, due to its low center of gravity. Its high wheels kept the cab off the ground and allowed it to travel very fast. It was light enough that it could be pulled by one horse.

The Hackney Carriage

The Hackney carriage, coach or cab, also called the Four-Wheeler or more rudely, a “Growler”, was the larger of the two horse-drawn taxicabs that operated in the 19th century. The Hackney carriage could carry more passengers than the Hansom due to the larger size of its cabin and number of wheels. As the names suggest, the Hackney coach made a hell of a racket when it moved through the cobbled streets of Europe, earning itself the derrogatory title of the “Growler” due to the sound of the wheels bumping, scraping and grindng along the road.

The Omnibus

“Omnibus” is a Latin word meaning “For all”. These buses (yes, that’s what they are, horse-drawn buses!) were popular from the early 19th century until the early 20th century, when the first motorised buses took their place. Horse-drawn omnibuses were either one or two-decker buses pulled by a pair of horses along fixed omnibus lines within crowded cities, and they were an effective way to move large numbers of people quickly around a city along a predetermined and fixed route.

 

Peking to Paris: The Original ‘Amazing Race’.

Arm-wrestling, thumb-wars, Naughts and Crosses, Snakes and Ladders, Chess and Monopoly, all games of competition, skill, cunning and perseverence. But the ultimate game to mankind is racing. Racing bicycles, horses, snails, huskies, cars, boats and in the world of The Simpsons…Fruit. But in today’s world of racing, where we have the Tour de France, the television show The Amazing Race, the Sydney to Hobart yacht-race and the Melbourne Cup, how many remember a true grandfather of racing, which, by now, took place over a hundred years ago?

Real car nuts, historians or racing-enthusiasts may be aware of this event, but the likelihood of someone else knowing that it ever took place, is rather slim. I’m talking about the granddaddy of motor-racing, the original automotive endurance-test. Forget race-tracks and timers, flags, cheering crowds and the best of the best cars on the road. When this race took place, the car barely existed!…Until then.

Built in 1885, when the black cab of London was still a horse-drawn Hansom on two wheels, the Benz Motorwagen, created by Karl Benz (of ‘Mercedes-Benz’ fame), became the world’s first motor-car. It had seats, it had wheels, it had an internal combustion engine and it had a steering wheel. Or rather, a steering-tiller. Back then, nobody thought the car was anything more than a stupid toy. A giant version of idiotic, clockwork, wind-up tinpot pieces of junk that kids played with. But over the next twenty years, leading into the 20th century, the automobile began to drive a wedge into the world of transport, to proclaim to everyone that it was here to stay.

By the early 1900s, motor-cars were gradually becoming more common, but they were still expensive showpieces, affordable only to the wealthy. Car-manufacturers were few and far-between, but the public were amazed by these new machines and began to wonder if this was…the future? Had something come along that could finally replace the horse and cart? To find out, people decided to take this new toy and see what it could really do.

Le Matin newspaper

Le Matin was a French newspaper, which ran from 1883 to 1944. When it was still being printed, it was a popular, daily newspaper, rising up to 100,000 copies a day in 1900, increasing that sevenfold by 1910. In 1907, it ran the following challenge to anyone who would read it and accept it (translated into English):

    “What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere. Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?”


French newspaper ‘Le Matin’; Thursday, 31st January, 1907. Note the title of the article on the top right of the front page

The challenge to drive from Peking, China (modern day Beijing) to Paris, France in 1907, using totally untested automobiles, was taken up by five men:

– Prince Scipione Borghese, accompanied by his mechanic Ettore Guizzardi. They were further accompanied by Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, Sr.
– Charles Goddard, accompanied by journalist Jean du Taillis.
– Auguste Pons and Octave Foucault, his mechanic.
– Georges Cormier.
– Victor Collignon.

Officially, eleven men in five cars started the race, however I wasn’t able to track down the names of everyone who participated. Each car had a driver (the actual contestant) and a journalist to ride as a passenger and media correspondent. The race was to start in Peking and go northwest and later southwest, through the Asian and European interiors. By following an established telegraph-cable route, the accompanying journalists would be able to send back telegraphed reports of the race to keep newspapers in Europe and elsewhere, informed of the race’s progress across Asia and Europe.

The Cars

Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…five cars going across some dirt to some city somewhere…meh. What’s so special about that? Some endurance-test! Pfft!!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen. Before you click that tantilising ‘Back’ button on your browser-window, hear me out here. While today something like this might not sound that amazing, five cars driving from China to France, one has to remember the context in which this race was run.

In 1907, cars were only just becoming common on our roads. They were flimsy, delicate machines, with frames made of metal and wood, wire-spoked wheels and delicate glass windscreens. They were started up by grabbing a crank-handle and winding it up until the engine caught on. They weren’t our modern racers that we have today. Half the time you were lucky that the car started at all! It was these, experiemental, new, fantastic horseless carriages that these brave pioneers of racing and consumer-confidence, that the eleven men in the race were attempting to use to cross a distance of…wait for it…9317 miles!…That’s just shy of 15,000km, folks. No mean feat for a machine that had only been invented a few years before and which was famous for breaking down every few miles. The point of the race was to show people that cars could, and would…do amazing things for society, and that if they could conquer this torturous trial by fire, they would have proved themselves worthy to replace the horse and carriage…plus, everyone would want a car! Now that they had proven themselves to be reliable machines.

But what cars were used in the race? Mercedes? Porsche? BMW? You wish.

The five cars used in the race were as follows:


A 1907 Itala. 7L engine with 40HP. That’s Ettore Guizzardi, Prince Scipione’s mechanic, sitting in the driver’s seat, just before the start in Peking. The car was stripped down to bare essentials to keep it light and fast. The weird-looking mudflaps are actually floorboards!


The very same Itala, 103 years later! Now in a museum in Italy


A 1907 Spyker. Actually, THE 1907 Spyker. This very car was used by Charles Goddard in the original race. It was used again in 2007, when a commemorative 100th anniversary rally of the race was held, along the same route

A Contal three-wheeler cyclecar, driven by Auguste Pons and his mechanic. This car was so unique and so obscure that a reproduction of it had to be manufactured from scratch for the 2007 anniversary race. Here it is:

This car was just hell on wheels. The power comes entirely from the back wheel. If the Contal went too fast, the entire thing could flip over backwards, if the front passenger area was not sufficiently weighed down. This caused all kinds of problems for the 2007 reenactors, and probably just as many problems for Pons and his companion, Foucault.


A pair of identical, 10HP, 1907 De Dions, donated by two French car-dealers, were also entered in the race. Here is a photograph of one of them

The Starting Line

The race’s start-date was June 10th, 1907. The contestants were warned beforehand that this race was not going to be a family drive in the countryside. Where the cars would be going, there would be no roads. At best, there were country lanes, furrowed dirt tracks and slippery, fine sand. The cars would have to drive across two deserts and several mountain ranges on their way to Paris, but the contestants were undeterred.

And so, with all this in mind, the race began! On the morning of the 10th of June, 1907…History would be made!…or not. Eleven men in five cars drove off from Paris, excited, eager, anxious and thinking of that big, fat, delicious prize at the end of the run…a magnum (that’s a 1.5 litre bottle, folks) of delicious French champagne! A band played music and Peking locals set off strings of loud, red Chinese firecrackers which exploded everywhere! Crowds cheered the men off on their epic and historic journey.


Peking, 1907. This photograph shows the five cars that participated in the race, driving off into history

The Original ‘Amazing Race’

If ‘Le Matin’s intention was to show the durability of the car and how it could be driven anywhere and do anything, its editors would have been biting off their fingernails like beavers when they saw the dreadful state the race was in, after just a few hours! Everything was going great for the competitors, if you discount the fact that once they got out of the Chinese capital, there was nothing but dirt roads…and the fact that it started raining…and the fact that there was a huge mountain range between China and Mongolia.


The route taken by the race’s competitors, from Peking, China, in the East, to Paris, France, in the West

This first mountain range was the death of almost everyone. The cars primative engines were too weak to power them up the steep and narrow mountain roads and men often had to push the cars up by hand, or get mules to pull on the cars with ropes. Going downhill was no fun either! Cars like these weren’t Humvees or Jeeps, they weren’t designed for cross-country, off-road driving! Their brakes, while sufficient on adequately paved roads, were unable to stop the automobiles on their harrowing downhill slides on the narrow and treacherous mountain passes! Prince Scipione’s Itala went sliding off down the mountain roads with his mechanic at the wheel, struggling to apply the brakes and keep the car on the road! An inch too far to the left or right and the car would go crashing down the side of the mountain!

After the mountains came the Gobi Desert. Here, Auguste Pons and his companion barely made it out alive. Their rickety and unpredictable automobile, which was little more than a tricycle with a gas-tank on it, ran out of go-juice! There were no Shell or Mobil gas-stations around and Pons hadn’t brought spare cans of petrol with him! Deciding that it was too dangerous to continue, Pons and his mechanic/co-driver left the race and headed back to China. On foot. Mind you, this was in the middle of a desert. If not for some wandering Mongolian gypsies, they would’ve died from dehydration! But what about their Contal? It was left to rust in the desert and was never recovered.

The other four racers kept right on truckin’. They knew where they were going because they were able to follow telegraph-wires through the desert, which was their plan, so that they wouldn’t get lost. At one of the checkpoints, a tiny village called Hong Pong in nothern Mongolia, Luigi Barzini, the Italian journalist, headed into the town’s only telegraph office to send his report back to Europe. He picked up the telegraph-form to fill out his message and noticed the number ‘1’ on the top of the sheet. He mistakenly assumed that he was the first person to send a telegram that day, from Hong Pong. In a way, he was correct. He was the very first person to send a telegram…FROM Hong Pong! This was the first time the telegraph had been used in the village since it had been introduced back in 1901!

The race was not all smooth sailing, as this photograph graphically illustrates:

That’s Prince Scipione’s Itala, which broke through the deck of a bridge while driving through Mongolia! Fortunately, the car’s well-inflated tyres prevented any serious damage. It took three hours to get the car out of the hole it made for itself, but once on four wheels again, the prince’s mechanic gave the crank a few turns and the car started right up again!

The race certainly took its toll on the cars. And not just by having them crash through bridges! There were flat tyres, engines overheating and a myriad of other problems. To prevent their cars from boiling over in the searing Gobi Desert heat, the contestants fed their cars their own drinking-water! Prince Scipione’s Itala lost a wheel in the race and had to have it remade by a Russian blacksmith halfway through the race! Using only a hatchet to shape the wood, the highly-skilled village wheelwright managed to build a new wheel from scratch for a machine he most likely, had never seen before in his life! Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli, famous tyre-manufacturers, sponsered various race-competitors to use their tyres to prove their longevity.

But of course, cars can only drive so far before they run out of fuel. Fortunately, the race-planners had thought of this in advance. At each checkpoint along the race-track, apart from food, drink and a telegraph-key to send journalistic reports to Europe, there were also fuel-dumps so that the cars could top up on gas during the race.

So far, the cars had gone through everything imaginable. Rivers, blistering heat, flat tyres, overheating engines and now, freezing sub-artic temperatures as the race entered the unforgiving terrain of Siberia. Driving through the frigid air was tricky at best. Charles Goddard was lucky to know how to drive! He’d never been behind the wheel of one of these newfangled…motor-cars…before the race! He had to have lessons on how to drive before he entered!

On the 20th of July, well in the lead, Prince Scipione, his mechanic and their journalist travelling-companion arrived in Europe. They were winning and nothing could stop them! NOTHING!!…ahem…apart from a stubborn Belgian policeman. While passing through Belgium, a police-officer ordered Prince Scipione to pull over! He had stopped the prince for exceeding the speed-limit. The prince gave the officer a good talking-to, explaining that he was in the middle of a race! The officer, on learning that this car with all kinds of weird damage on it, had just driven from nothern China halfway around the world to Belgium, had to consult his superiors before allowing the prince to drive on in the race; he simply did not believe the prince, first time around. Fact is truly stranger than fiction!

On the 10th of August, 1907, the race was over. Triumphant and exhausted, Prince Scipione, Luigi the journalist and Ettore, their mechanic, drove into Paris, the winners! In his final article on the race, Luigi Barzini penned the following lines:

    “It all seems absurd and impossible; I cannot convince myself that we have come to the end, that we have really arrived!”

On the 30th of August, twenty days later, the Spyker, followed by the two De Dions, arrived in Paris. Charles Goddard wasn’t behind the wheel of the Spyker; due to money-troubles, he wasn’t able to finish the race! But his car won second place and that was probably good enough for him! Georges Cromier came third and in last place, Victor Collignon. As Monsieur Pons had never finished the race, he was disqualified and wasn’t offered an official place in the race’s end.

Of all the cars used in the race, the Spyker and the Itala still survive, restored and currently preserved in motoring museums. An interesting little story: Prince Scipione’s Itala, painted bright red for the race, fell into the harbour when it was being unloaded for the big event! To prevent rust, the car was repainted battleship grey…the only paint the harbour-workers had on hand at the time. If you’ve ever wondered why Italian race-cars are red today, it’s because after the Prince won the race aaaaall the way back in 1907, Italy adopted red as its official racing-colour and red remains that colour to this day.


The winning 1907 Itala, as it appears today

As a finishing point, this article was a fascinating bit of history to read, research and write about. Anyone wanting to know a bit more about this historic race can read about it below:

http://www.pekingparis.com/index.html

http://www.unmuseum.org/autorace.htm

These two links were my main sources for this article and they provided invaluable little titbits and pieces of information while I was reading up on it.