When motorized cars first appeared, most people thought they were a joke, or at best a novelty for the rich (kind of like Segways). How, people wondered, could these new “horseless carriages” compete with actual horses?
The story of how cars became the new horsepower, and how the petrol engine dominated greener alternatives, is told every year at the Race of the Century outside of Boston. The annual event, put on by the Collings Foundation, does this by pitting its collection of antique cars—as well as planes, bikes, and horses—against each other. This year’s race is on July 30 and 31.
The race starts with the 1904 Franklin, an early petrol car. At the time it was introduced, the idea of a machine that ran on gasoline made many people uncomfortable.
“Petrol in itself was scary because the way that this machine was powered was by controlled explosions,” says Hunter Chaney, the foundation’s director of marketing.
To regulate these new inventions, states passed “red flag laws” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These laws said that whenever you drove, you had to have someone with a red flag or a lantern walk in front of you to alert people and livestock.
“That really highlights this fear and uncertainty of this new type of machine,” says Chaney.
When the 1904 Franklin rolls out for the Race of the Century, there is always a person with a red flag walking in front of it. In the first race, the car goes up against a horse-drawn stagecoach, a runner, and a female bicyclist holding a “Votes for Women” sign, all proclaiming that their mode of transportation is superior to the newfangled horseless carriage.
Whoever wins the first race goes on to the second. Whoever wins that continues to the next one, and so forth. Each race introduces new concepts and technology, and the winners are different every time. (Though the antique cars are well-kept, they’re still old—slight weather changes can affect their performance.)
One of the next cars to race is the 1903 Pope Waverly—a 113-year-old electric car. These were marketed toward women because they were considered cleaner and easier to use than petrol cars. The foundation also brings out another alternative to petrol—a 1906 Stanley Steamer, which ran on steam and kerosene. In their day, both of these were touted as environmentally friendly alternatives to gas. (Read “Surprisingly Clean Cars You Can Buy Now.”)
“Back in the early 1900s, of course, steam power was known to be or thought to be the future in transportation power technology,” says Chaney. Many people thought that petrol was a poor option not just because it was a pollutant, but also because it was finite. (Sound familiar?)
Even so, gas eventually became the standard for cars for a number of reasons, one of which was efficiency. Steamers took about 40 minutes to start, and were liable to shoot out flames. Electric cars were easy to turn on, but you had to charge them for a whole day just to get an hour’s worth of driving.
As petrol engines proliferated, so too did refineries. Beginning in 1908, the mass production of the Model T Ford made gas cars more affordable. By the 1920s and '30s, people even began to build their own cars for racing. These early race cars are, of course, featured in the Race of the Century, as are the only races between antique cars and planes that you’ll probably ever see.
At the end of the race, the foundation tries to feature something forward-looking and fun. Sometimes this means a cute sketch with a DeLorean made up to look like the one from Back to the Future. Other times, the foundation might bring out something from Terrafugia, a company that makes actual flying cars (they look like little airplanes).
Evidently, where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Correction: This story previously listed the Stanley Steamer model as a 1909, but it is actually a 1906.
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