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The open fields and neat villages of Long Island echoed to the thunder of roaring engines. From Mineola, through Jericho, and a half-dozen tiny hamlets along the dusty roads, the cars hammered by with flaming exhausts and a shower of stones spun back by the spinning rear tires. At the wheel of each machine a tense driver bent forward against the rush of air, peering critically through dust covered goggles, maneuvering the heavy car by sheer physical strength. At his side sat an anxious mechanic, pulse tuned to the heartbeat of the engine, glancing from time to time at the tires, scanning the few gauges, sensing the pounding and flexing of the frame.
This was 1905, the second running of the Vanderbilt Cup, America's first real road race. Cars were entered from every automobilebuilding nation, crowds lined the roads, sometimes boiling over into the very path of the speeding racers, and the celebrities of the time made sure they were seen in the grandstands. Twenty cars entered this race of more than 250 dusty dangerous miles and when the final flag fell, a Darracq and a Panhard held the first two places, but in third place came a Locomobile. It was a notable occasion, for it was the first time in racing history that an American machine had placed in an international contest.
America went race mad following that event and there was even a Broadway musical comedy on the boards called The Vanderbilt Cup. Not content with the leading actors of the time, the producers somehow persuaded the famous Barney Oldfield to star in the show!
But that particular race and the musical comedy were mere previews for the main event. In 1908 the entire country became hysterical over the Vanderbilt Cup race. It was memorable in many ways: higher speeds, more spectators, fiercer competition. But the big thrill came when an American car crossed the finish line ahead of all others. It ended an era and began another, for it was the first time that the Vanderbilt Cup had been taken by an American machine. The car in front was a Locomobile with a big 16 painted on the radiator and sides.
This car became a legend in itself. There have been better cars and greater exploits since that time but Old 16 had won a unique and exciting victory. It destroyed the myth of the superiority of European cars and gave the budding American automobile industry a tremendous boost in prestige. But there is one small extra fact that is overlooked by many. Old 16 was not a freak one-shot - a super special tuned up for this one effort. It was a stock Locomobile finely tuned and stripped for racing. An Isotta took second place but right behind it, claiming a solid third, was another Locomobile!
The first Locomobile was really a Stanley Steamer. The founding of the company came about as a result of a straight business deal. There were no hard-working inventors and engineers planning a car. There was only a magazine publisher named J. B. Walker. In 1899 the Stanley brothers had an astounding success with their steam car, but they were short-sighted and allowed themselves to be talked into selling all the assets of their company and the patents. Walker purchased the lot and proceeded to manufacture the Stanley under the name of Locomobile. Sales mounted for the new name and the Stanley brothers, now regretting their hasty action, began to build a new steam car. Somehow they forgot that the original patents were no longer theirs to use and the Locomobile company took them to court. But the inventive Stanleys rapidly made enough changes in the car and avoided a legal judgment. They kept on with steam, but the Locomobile executives - realizing that gasoline was the future power source - had a new machine designed. Their engineer was Andrew L. Riker and he was the man responsible for the racing Locomobiles.
Except for the fame of Old 16, Locomobile remained a minor firm. They produced well built and expensive luxury limousines, but it was a losing battle all the way. After World War I the company was purchased by Mercer, also in a financial predicament, and as the depression of the late 1920's approached both firms quietly closed down.
However Old 16 is still running. It has passed down through the years from loving owner to loving owner. Each man carefully preserved the old champion's body, nursed the engine and running gear, and even now the veteran racer can still turn a lap at close to its old speed. The present owner is artist Peter Helck who has willed the car to the Smithsonian Institution. There, future generations will be able to admire the square-cut hood, the huge wheels, and rakish lines of the machine that sped along the dusty roads of Long Island and showed Europe that Americans could build a winner.