Old 16: America's first international racing champ

The story about how a Locomobile became America's first champ
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Vanderbilt Cup Race,  Oct. 24, 1908. The winning Locomobile stopped at the end of the ninth lap to take on supplies. The tanks were filled in 75 seconds.

Vanderbilt Cup Race, Oct. 24, 1908. The winning Locomobile stopped at the end of the ninth lap to take on supplies. The tanks were filled in 75 seconds.

America’s first international racing champ is alive and well inside The Henry Ford. To earn its place inside that hallowed museum, the journey of that Locomobile race car best known as “Old 16” took it through the early Vanderbilt Cup Races (especially the 1908 event) and eventually to the hands of famed automotive artist Peter Helck.

As documented in John Bentley’s book “Great American Automobiles” (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1957) millionaire sportsman William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., kept road-raced automobiles in Europe and believed that such contests resulted in cars made there being superior to American-made cars. Working through the American Automobile Association (AAA), Vanderbilt hoped to change that situation by putting up a silver cup as the prize for races in the United States that would feature American and international race cars.

Peter Helck promised to never restore the car, which still wears its original paint

Peter Helck promised to never restore the car, which still wears its original paint

In “The Best of Old Cars Vol. 1” (Krause Publications, 1978), automotive historian Henry Austin Clark, Jr., explained, “Arranging to have a public race on the public roads of Nassau County, Long Island, must have been quite an undertaking. In any case, William K. and his friends were able to swing the deal. The 28.44-mile course was a big pie wedge with the point in Queens. There were controls taken and slow passage through towns was required. Naturally, this caused trouble and was abandoned the next year.”

The first Vanderbilt Cup race took place on Oct. 8, 1904. It was a wild and woolly competition that drew 25,000 spectators. The cars raced with two men aboard, the driver and a racing mechanic. There were many crashes. Politics were put into play with certain cars being disqualified and then some getting re-instated before the racing began. The “Mastodon-like” racing cars had mechanical problems and tire failures, which had to be attended to right on the race course — if roadside repairs were possible at all.

The Henry Ford gives the car’s story and specifications.

The Henry Ford gives the car’s story and specifications.

George Heath, an American who lived in Paris, won the 1904 race behind the wheel of a “square-shaped” French-made Panhard with a big “7” painted on it. This wasn’t exactly what Mr. Vanderbilt wanted to see, as the big dream he had was to watch an American car take the win and outdo the best of Europe’s racing machines.

“The next race, on Oct. 14, 1905, was very little better as regards problems,” Austie Clark wrote. As in 1904, rules issues, bad news reports and local political battles arose. The crowd was unruly. “Racers had to drive down a funnel of slowly retreating spectators standing in the road,” read Clark’s 1970s description of the venue. The winner was Frenchman Victor Hemery driving an 80-hp Darracq an average speed of 61.49 mph.

George Heath and his Panhard took second place in 1905, but the big news of that year was the car that came in third. “Joe Tracy, third in his Locomobile,” wrote Ken Purdy in his book “The Kings of the Road” (Little, Brown and Company, 1949) “The first time an American car and driver had ever placed in international competition.” Purdy said that Tracy’s car “hurtled into view, the pace killer of the age, bounding along with frightful velocity, its pilot releasing all semblance of sanity and caution with the goal in plain sight.”

Enter Locomobile

Locomobile started building cars in 1899 and lasted 30 years. The company began when John Brisban Walker (the publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine) and Amzi Lorenzo Barker purchased Stanley (makers of steam cars) and renamed it Locomobile. The two men hired electrical engineer Andrew Lawrence Riker to design the first gas-powered Locomobile, which made its debut at the 1902 Madison Garden Automobile Salon in New York City.

Riker had a previous interest in racing, but Locomobile didn’t until a mysterious Dr. H.E. Thomas — said to belong to the Chicago Auto Club — wrote suggesting that they build a car suitable for international competition. Thomas surprised the company by agreeing to put one-third ($6000) down on an $18,000 competition model. Racing mechanic Al Poole always felt that Dr. Thomas never existed; he thought that the story was a trick to justify Locomobile racing involvement to the company’s stockholders.

The race car that resulted was a behemoth. According to Robert C. Ackerson, writing in “The Best of Old Cars Vol. 2” (Krause Publications, 1979), the Locomobile racer had a 1150-cid engine that was rated by the factory at 90 hp. It was capable of reaching speeds up to 102 mph! Driver Joe Tracy had planned to debut the car in the 1905 Gordon Bennett race, but the transmission broke in practice runs. However, the transmission had been repaired so that the car could zoom to third place in 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race that fall.

A ride in Old 16 was always good for excitement and fun (and sometimes speeding tickets).

A ride in Old 16 was always good for excitement and fun (and sometimes speeding tickets).

Tracey’s strong showing was publicized and brought many customers knocking on Locomobile’s door. This cleared the way for work to begin on two new racing models that the company thought could perform even better in the 1906 races. Costing $20,000 apiece, these cars featured a four-cylinder F-head engine with a 7-1/2 x 6-in. bore and stroke (990 cid) and 125 hp, as well as a new European racing-style cone-and-pin-drive clutch.

The problems swirling around the Vanderbilt Cup Races since their start came to a climax in 1906 when a crowd that some put at a quarter-million people (and others at two million) jammed the entire course. Today it’s believed that this was the largest audience for any spectator sport — ever! The people who came weren’t well-behaved, either.

In a practice race, driver George Robertson had wrapped his Apperson around a tree so badly that the two ends of the car were touching. Somehow Robertson survived, but with him not having a really competitive replacement car for the Vanderbilt Cup Race, Joe Tracy was in an excellent spot to do well. The car he drove ran as the new No. 9 Locomobile in 1906, but later became “Old 16.” With it, Tracy set a course record, but also suffered a flat tire on all laps save one — 11 flats in all! In another incident, he ran into a 13-year-old boy (who somehow survived and actually became a lifelong friend). Among the many spectators that year were Peter Helck and the father of Henry Austin Clark, Jr.

With all the mayhem that took place, the Nassau County Board of Supervisors declared that the time had come to halt the races and none was held in 1907. Despite this decision, Vanderbilt and his friends continued building a new modern road called the Long Island Motor Parkway. They argued that the parkway would allow more control of future races and they eventually won approval to revive the Vanderbilt Cup series for 1908.

The Vanderbilt races return

For various reasons, the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup run didn’t pull in the same quality of cars, but the two Locomobiles that bowed in 1906 were prepped for George Robertson and Jimmy Florida. This year both cars were equipped with demountable wheel rims and Michelin tires. Robertson himself painted the number 16 on his car’s radiator and hood. Glenn Etridge was picked to ride shotgun as his racing mechanic. Florida’s Locomobile was the first car to leave the starting line on the wet, foggy morning of Oct. 24.

Vanderbilt Cup Race, Oct. 24, 1908. The winning Locomobile stopped at the end of the ninth lap to take on supplies. The tanks were filled in 1 min. and 15 sec.

Vanderbilt Cup Race, Oct. 24, 1908. The winning Locomobile stopped at the end of the ninth lap to take on supplies. The tanks were filled in 1 min. and 15 sec.

Robertson set the pace of the race from the time he took off. One report said that he rounded Cemetery Corner “without any apparent thought for the hereafter.” After the first three laps, the Locomobile was outrunning Willie Haupt’s Chadwick until a tire blew. Fixing the tire took time and dropped Robertson back to fourth place, but he fought back and got into second place when the Chadwick developed magneto problems.

With 18 miles to go on the 11th and final lap, the Loco threw a tire. The car carried two spares at the rear, but had only one left. It also had a four-minute lead over Herbert Lytle’s 50-hp Isotta-Fraschini. That car had started 10 minutes before the Loco, so Lytle actually crossed the finish line first, but Robertson would win if he could fix the tire and get to the same spot in less than 10 minutes. He won by a minute and a half, covering the 250-mile course in 4 hours and 48.2 minutes at an average speed of 64.8 mph. He was the first American driver to win and international race with an American-made car.

The 1909 Vanderbilt Cup Race became more of a stock car race and the 1910 edition was the last early race held on Long Island. The next three host cities were Savannah, Ga., (1911); Milwaukee, Wis. (1912); and Santa Monica, Calif. (1914). In 1915, it was San Francisco, Calif., then back to Santa Monica in 1916. Revival contests were held in 1936 and 1937 at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, but they weren’t the same. However, George Robertson led the 1936 ceremonies with a parade lap driving Old 16.

A crowd, including a Keystone Kop, watches as Old 16 recently toured Greenfield Village.

A race car survives

Immediately after the race, the Locomobile company held onto Old 16 and used it for car show and dealership promotions all over the country. Gradually, the car’s historical significance faded and it wound up in a barn on Mr. Riker’s farm. In 1914, a man named Joseph Sessions, who made castings for Locomobile, purchased Old 16 and took it to his farm in Bristol, Conn. During the ’20s and ’30s, he took the car out a couple of times each year and sometimes won a “fast driving award” from the local constabulary.

Joseph Sessions died in 1941 and his passing inspired Joe Tracy to arrange for his longtime friend, Peter Helck, to become the car’s next owner. The purchase was completed and Old 16 was delivered to the artist’s home in Boston Corners, N.Y., by Tracy and Helck’s handyman, Ernest Roberts, at 3 a.m. on a cold morning in January 1942.

The 990-cid F-head four-cylinder engine was fitted with many brass components.

The 1150-cid F-head four-cylinder engine was fitted with many brass components.

Helck let Tracy and Robertson drive the race car on some occasions. In 1944, it was displayed at a car show in Fairfield, Conn., to raise money for the China Relief Fund and in 1946, it participated in the first revival of The Glidden Tour. Helck was also photographed several times driving the car with his son, Jerry. Later on, Helck gave sound-barrier-breaker Capt. Chuck Yeager an exhilarating ride in the historic racing car.

Many of these facts were contained in Bob Ackerson’s story about the car. He interviewed the artist, for which we thank this past Old Cars contributor and author. We never had a chance to meet Peter Helck, but we came close. In the fall of 1987, we traveled to the Carlisle and Hershey events in Pennsylvania and took a trip to New England between the two shows. We visited Stan Brown and the then-new owner of Hampton Coach in New Hampshire and LeBaron-Bonney in Massachusetts. On our way back to the Keystone State, George Jonas, of Stainless Steel Brakes Corp., invited us to overnight at his home, which we believe was in Clarence, N.Y.

While talking to George that night, we mentioned that we had an art background from our time living in New York City and he asked if we would like to meet Peter Helck, who lived fairly close. Helck was 94 at the time and ill, so when George called in the morning, Helck’s wife nicely explained that he was not up to greeting visitors. On April 22, 1988, the well-known early automotive artist passed away.

2020-24D Fast Brass Photo 04

Recently, we had an opportunity to chat with Peter Helck’s grandson, Tim, by email. “Thanks for getting in touch,” he told us. “I’m sorry that you missed getting to meet my grandfather, but at the time that you wanted to visit him, he was not well and was nearly blind and deaf. He died and my grandmother died a few months after that.”

Tim added this, “Our current Website (www.peterhelck.com) is old, so I am working on one that is much more extensive. My grandfather’s automotive work needs no publicizing, but I think his other artwork should be much better known. The website features some of the (non-automotive) paintings that he thought was his best stuff.”

The famous car is still wearing the paint applied for the 1908 running of the race. Artist Peter Helck, who owned the car between 1941 and his death in 1988, promised the original crew members that he would leave the car as original as possible and not restore it. When he passed, it then went on to his son, Jerry,, followed by The Henry Ford Museum.

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