Old Cars Weekly archive – April 24, 2008 issue
Story and photos by Brennan Clarke
For more than a quarter century, Harry Blackstaff kept one of the rarest antiques in automotive history hidden away in his cluttered workshop just outside the Vancouver Island town of Ladysmith.
But when he heard about the planned re-enactment of the 1908 Great Race from New York to Paris, Blackstaff decided the time had come to share his secret with the world.
Harry and his brother Jimmy, well known in the region for their expertise in restoring pre-1915 automobiles, recently completed work on the original 1906 Zust that represented Italy in the legendary around-the-world rally 100 years ago this month.
“We’ve done a lot of research and there’s no doubt this is car that was in the race,” said Blackstaff, who lives near Ladysmith. “When we bought it, we had a sense that it might be the one.”
Only three of the six vehicles entered in the 1908 race completed the 22,000-mile journey to Paris, and the Zust is the last to be fully restored.
The 1908 Thomas Flyer that won the race for America is on display in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev., while the second-place German Protos is in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.
About 500 people turned out to catch a glimpse of the Zust during an unveiling event March 23 in Ladysmith.
Blackstaff and his wife Shirley, who spent countless hours researching and verifying the vehicle’s pedigree, expect to tow the Zust across the U.S. route showing the vehicle off at various rest stops along the way.
Starting with little more than the original chassis, engine block, cylinder heads and a pair of hickory-spoked wheels, the brothers completely rebuilt the antique motor car’s machinery. Many of the replacement parts, for example the transmission gears, had to be custom manufactured.
Harry Blackstaff said the finished product is identical to the original, right down to the brass cap on the gas tank and the leather wind screen that protected the Zust’s crew from flying debris.
Steve Paul, media consultant for the National Association of Antique Automobile Clubs of Canada, called the car a “historical treasure.”
“It’s a very significant historical artifact in the automobile world,” he said.
“When you talk about a legend, that’s what this is. The New York-to-Paris race is an incredible story, and this particular vehicle is world-renowned.”
Purchased from well-known Vancouver car collector Buck Rogers in 1980, the Blackstaff’s Zust came with an original copy of “Around the World by Automobile,” a memoir of the 1908 race written by Italian crew member and journalist Antonio Scarfoglio.
Over the last two decades, Shirley Blackstaff has assembled a compelling body of evidence by comparing the Zust’s “battle scars” with Scarfoglio’s accounts of breakdowns and damage sustained during the trip.
For example the book details a crash in Nebraska that claimed one of the Zust’s pinion gears. A replacement was ordered from Omaha and installed in a blacksmith’s shop by the crew’s resourceful German mechanic, Heinrich Haaga.
One of the pinion gears on the Blackstaff’s Zust features rivets that have been “hot-set” by a blacksmith, indicating the part has been replaced as described in the book.
Shirley Blackstaff has also determined that two of the vehicle’s bearings were replaced with hand-cast replicas, consistent with the book’s account of a bearing-related breakdown in eastern Siberia.
Scarfoglio described how Haaga manufactured two replacement bearings by making a mold out of mud and pouring in a mixture of melted lead bullets and tin from an old bucket.
The Blackstaffs had the metallic composition of their bearings tested and found that two contained 0.3 per cent lead, while two others contained about 70 percent lead.
The back wheels of the Blackstaff’s Zust are fitted with rubber adaptors that were likely added after its rear wheels were damaged by fire while the vehicle was on display in England following the race.
Additionally, the Zust’s chassis is riddled with cracks that have been repaired or reinforced by metal strips, consistent with Scarfoglio’s accounts.
Definitive proof would require a New York City registration document bearing the serial number stamped on the Zust’s engine block and the licence plate number depicted in historical photographs.
However, Shirley Blackstaff, with assistance from Holly Hulfish, director of exhibits at Saratoga Automobile Museum in New York, has confirmed that those records do not exist.
“Without matching the serial numbers, I don’t think anyone can say 100 percent for sure this is the car,” Hulfish said. “But if it isn’t the real thing, it’s as close as you can get.”
Blackstaff has also pieced together credible evidence on how the Zust made it from England to Canada.
Reports in the Dawson News confirm that the vehicle arrived in Dawson City, Yukon, in the summer of 1910, under the ownership of O.B. Perry, a gold-mining superintendent with the Guggenheim Exploration Co.
Perry’s boss, M. Robert Guggenheim, was a well-known racing enthusiast who sponsored the 1909 New York-to-Seattle race.
Shirley Blackstaff contends that Guggenheim’s connections in the auto racing world would have given him access to the Zust, which he likely purchased and shipped to Perry in Dawson City.
Buck Rogers, who bought the Zust in Dawson City in the early ’60s, also suspected it was the long-lost survivor of the New York to Paris race.
“Oh I think he knew. He certainly wanted good money for it,” Shirley Blackstaff said, declining to say exactly how much the car cost.
“It was a pretty sum for us when we were younger, that’s for sure.”
Nor would Harry Blackstaff speculate on how much the car might be worth today.
“I don’t know and I don’t care because I’m not selling it to anyone,” he said. “The real value is we want to have this thing restored so we can show people all about the history of the automobile.”