In 1905, two Oldsmobiles became the first cars to race across America. There was little by way of remarkable technology under the hood of those cars — the seven-horsepower one-cylinder engines could hit a top speed of 30 miles per hour, and they’d be taking on some of the harshest “roads” in the country. But behind the wheel of each vehicle was at least one man with a truly absurd name.
The first car was dubbed “Old Scout,” and it was driven by Dwight B. Huss and Milford Wigle. The other vehicle, called “Old Steady,” was driven by Percey F. Megargel and Barton Stanchfield.
We’re introduced to all of these facts within the first three paragraphs of Coast-to-Coast Auto Races of the Early 1900s: Three Contests That Changed the World by Curt McConnell. At that point, I had to put the book down and take a moment to collect myself, because the 12-year-old boy in me could not move past the humor of the names. There are few things funnier than old-timey early 20th century names, and the four men who first took on a cross-country race really topped the charts of humor. Megargel. Stanchfield. Wigle. Huss. Formidable legends of auto racing.
A little sense of that humor remained throughout McConnell’s book — which meticulously tracks the route of the racers via archives of local newspapers along the route. This particular event was hosted by an agent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to promote the “good roads” scheme that many in the government were dreaming up.
Essentially, this scheme said that America needed a series of decent-quality roads spanning from one coast to another (or at least connecting one town to another) in order to service all of the local folks who struggled with rutted roads. Competing in the event would also be a boon for Oldsmobile; should the cars finish the race, it would be a great promotion for the durability of their machines. The winner of the race would win $1,000 (over $30,000 today) while the runner-up would get to keep his car.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t a simple undertaking. In the early 1900s, some larger metropolitan areas had impressive city roads, but a significant portion of the country had very little beyond a trail rutted out by the frequent passage of horse-drawn carriages. If it rained, those “roads” would wash out, and both teams would have to dig themselves out of the mud. There were occasions where they’d only traverse a handful of miles despite driving a 14-hour stint. It was an exhausting read.
Old Scout was the first car to make it to the race’s final destination, Portland, Oregon. It arrived 44 days, 6 hours, and 28 minutes after leaving New York City. Old Steady arrived seven days later. One of the drivers estimated that the debacle cost Oldsmobile around $13,000 (about $404,000 today) due to repairs, overnight stays, and money paid to helping hands along the way.
Huss ended up becoming a fairly accomplished driver. He competed in a 200-hour nonstop test in Detroit in 1906, then competed in part of the 1907 Glidden Tour, and a three-day Toledo-Columbus-Cleveland reliability run in 1908. He then moved to become a production and sales engineer for Hupp Motor Car Company from 1913 until his retirement in 1930. Seven years later, he took a job at Ford’s River Rouge Plant.
Megargel later completed a there-and-back-again coast-to-coast trip in a Reo, though he died young in 1909. We know very little about what happened to the other two men, Wigle and Stanchfield.
At the end of the race, there was a lot of positive publicity for the good roads movement, but it took years for the government to act. Later races, like the New York to Paris race, were contested in the same miserable road conditions, leaving some European drivers scandalized by a shockingly abhorrent event.