|Described by auto experts as "the
Mona Lisa of American historic automobiles," it became the first U.S.-built car to
win an international auto race when it captured the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup. The Locomobile was aptly named as
it was built as strong as any locomotive. It was built for nearly 30 years in Bridgeport,
Connecticut. It had a reputation as one of the finest and most carefully built cars ever
manufactured in the United States. It was also one of the most luxurious and most
prestigious -- and the most expensive. Everything about the Locomobile bespoke elegance.
Its massive body gleamed with innumerable layers of paint, each hand-rubbed to a gleaming
finish. The owner of a 1918 touring car, when asked if she did not fear that her car might
be irreparably damaged in a collision on the highway, said loftily, "Oh, it's the
other car you should be concerned about, not the Locomobile."
The Locomobile Company's first cars were steam
carriages, modeled after the highly successful Stanley Steamers, developed by the Stanley
brothers in Watertown, Massachusetts. But steam cars were inconvenient for touring as
their water tanks had to be refilled every 15 to 20 miles. Boilers frequently burned out,
and there was always the danger of an explosion. Locomobile officials decided to explore
the gasoline engine, and in January 1902 they turned to a young inventive genius, Andrew
Lawrence Riker, who proceeded to design and build Locomobile's first gasoline car.
Designing motor vehicles was nothing new to Riker
who, at the age of 14, constructed his first electric motor vehicle in the basement of his
family's home in New York City. The Riker Electric Vehicle Company, which he founded in
1889, became one of the country's largest manufacturers of electric cars and trucks.
In the summer of 1902, under Riker's direction,
Locomobile began building two- and four-cylinder cars. The cars quickly became known for
their power, speed, and reliability. The company's claim that the Locomobile was "the
best built car in America" was no idle boast. Its engine base and gear case were of
manganese bronze. Its chassis was of heat-treated steel. Every motor was tested before it
was placed in the chassis and a record was made of the horsepower test. Every chassis was
road-tested several hundred miles. Production was limited to "Four Cars a Day,"
the company's motto.
Encouraged by their third place
finish in the epic 1905 Vanderbilt, the Locomobile Company of America proceeded to build a
pair of sixteen-liter racing cars for the 1906 event. The two new Locomobiles
immediately justified their $40,000 cost by hitting nearly 110 mph on their first outing
and displaying excellent controllability. It seemed at last that America might have a car
that could beat the Europeans at their own game.
During the race their lead driver was hobbled by the
lack of removable rims as Joe Tracy and his
mechanic, Al Poole, had to change a heartbreaking total of eleven tires on the Locomobile
- all by hand, and on several occasions with the limited tools carried on the car. The two
1906 cars were modified with a new transmission and removable rims were now mounted on all
four wheels. All manner of tires had been raced and experimented with since the previous
Vanderbilt, and Riker had decided that one car would be fitted with Diamond, the other
with Michelin tires.
The next Vanderbilt Cup race was held in 1908 and all of the major European firms decided to not to make the trip to the United States. Efforts were made to improve spectator safety so as not to repeat 1906. Seventeen cars were entered for the race and selected to drive that year's entry for Locomobile was a
23-year-old New Yorker, George Robertson,
was selected to drive the Michelin-shod entry. Robertson had a reputation as something of a wild man on the track and on this day he certainly lived up to expectations leaving the circuit no less than 5 times during the course of the race. Robertson and mechanician Glenn Ethridge repeatedly broke the lap record. Yet on the final lap, leading by 2 minutes and 22 seconds, Robertson’s car suffered a tire failure. Robertson and Ethridge frantically installed their last spare. The spectators, close to 250,000, were never quite sure whether to bemoan his demise or cheer his resurgence for Robertson would not be denied this day, winning the race in record time,
setting the fastest lap while leading the race for eight of the eleven circuits. The Cup, at long last, was America's at a new record of 64.3 mph for 258 miles and thus No. 16 became the most famous American race car in history.