SI Vault
 
Guts, Gumption—and Gum
Jennie Johnson Phinney
September 26, 1960
All three were needed when the author, a girl of 10, went on the Glidden Tour of 1911
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 26, 1960

Guts, Gumption—and Gum

All three were needed when the author, a girl of 10, went on the Glidden Tour of 1911

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

In the fall of 1911 when automobiles were still a novelty and paved roads a luxury of the future, a stouthearted band of goggle-eyed, linen-dustered "tourists"—including me—set forth on what was known as a Glidden Tour. Our car, a Stevens-Duryea, contained my father, a highly competitive-minded man at all times, now a dedicated pioneer hellbent on proving the make of car he was driving the best on the road; my mother, a quiet, competent little woman, who was wise enough to let Dad believe that neither Barney Old-field nor Ralph De Palma would stand a turtle's chance against him; and a Mr. Young, who had been sent along by the Stevens-Duryea factory as a spare driver. And of course there was I, a child of 10.

These tours, in a loose sort of way, could be classified as races. Each type of car was required to maintain a given rate of speed in order to turn in a "perfect score" over a specified course, in this case, between New York City and Jacksonville. Apparently the rate of speed was determined by snob appeal and the price of the car. Since my father's car was one of a team of three Stevens-Duryeas, his average was set at 20 miles per hour. This put him in the top echelon, a distinction in which he took unusual delight.

Twenty miles per hour may not sound like a burdensome requirement today, even taking into consideration the era of this particular "race," but it included all time-outs, and that was the kicker! A day seldom passed without at least one puncture or blowout, engine trouble of one kind or another, or a broken spring that had been pounded to pieces by the rough roads and mountain water breaks. There was also the inevitable leak, which would develop periodically in a different part of this new and miraculous mechanism known as the automobile.

The weather was an equally determining factor in each day's progress. On rainy days we skidded and swished through the mud, frequently having to be pulled by mule power or pushed by manpower from hub-deep ruts or the ever-hospitable ditches on both sides of roads.

It started to rain as we drove through Gettysburg, Pa., and it continued until we slid into South Carolina, three days and two nights later. Under the small, smooth-tread tires of those days, the narrow, winding clay roads through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina were treacherous even when dry; wet, they were reminiscent of the whirling disk at an amusement park which is designed to dislodge its load and send it scurrying. The gullies bordering these slimy pathways were fringed with cars, poised at an angle of 45�, their drivers patiently waiting to be rescued by friends or a farmer and his team of mules.

Mule power

Had it not been for the services of the kind, and occasionally enterprising, farmers and mountaineers who kept fires burning, both to designate and to illuminate our route after dark, and an ample supply of mules at each of the 10 unbridged streams we had to ford, only the three Stevens-Duryeas and two of the Pierce Arrows would have reached Jacksonville at all: they were the only cars on the tour with sufficient umph to plow through water up to their engine crankcases.

Whenever we splashed past some less fortunate fellow travelers, held in the grip of a swollen creek, my father would rear back and look as if he had singlehandedly parted the waters of the Red Sea for our unimpeded passing. If, by chance, the victims happened to be in a Maxwell, his day was a rip-roaring success.

From the very onset of the tour Dad and the three Maxwell drivers became archenemies. "They're all professional mechanics," he argued, "and have no business in a gentlemen's race."

Day by day, as their sturdy little cars chugged along, always managing to ease across the daily finish line within their required 16-miles-per-hour average, his enmity toward them increased. The sparks really began to fly the day one of our teammates was trying to make up the time he had lost changing two tires in a pouring rain, and the little Maxwells refused to concede the middle of a slick, muddy road to the faster car. When a penalty of 10 points was assessed against the delayed Stevens-Duryea, Dad charged in.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4