The ex-J. Herbert Carpenter, Western Reserve Historical Society, Joe Tracy
1908 Thomas Flyer Model F 4-60hp Tourer
Chassis no. F 1526
Engine no. 1631
The SS Lorraine was docked at the French Line pier in New York, and its cargo and occupants were being unloaded. Aboard this ship that sailed from Le Havre was some very important cargo: the first American automobile to win a major international race. This race was not a standard road or track event, but instead was a race around the world. The Thomas Flyer aboard had won the New York to Paris competition and made Thomas the world's most famous car. As the historic auto was being unpacked, her drivers and mechanics exited the gangway where they were greeted by E.R. Thomas himself, officials from AAA, and Mr. J. Herbert Carpenter, representing his Auto Club of America. Mr. Carpenter would host the heroic drivers at a lunch at the club headquarters in New York that afternoon.
E.R. Thomas may not have made many cars, but his impact on both automotive and motorcycle history is deep. Like many of his contemporaries, he started out by working in the bicycle industry. Thomas ran the Lozier bicycle factory in Canada. This involvement with wheeled transportation and manufacturing obviously helped fuel his vision for the direction of mechanized transportation. His first project was a motor that would propel a bicycle. Instead of grafting an off-the-shelf European motor to a bicycle, Thomas developed his own air-cooled power plant. Heavily influenced by the De Dion-Bouton motors of the time, the 1½ hp unit was beautifully designed and constructed. The motor was brilliantly grafted to the bicycle through a sturdy engine mounting plate and a simple leather belt drive to the rear wheel. Thomas soon constructed the whole unit in house and sold them as complete ready-to-ride motor bicycles. The Thomas Auto-Bi would be the first all-American motorcycle. The motorbike project quickly expanded and tricycles and quadcycles were offered with larger engines. Eventually a proper four-wheeled automobile was introduced. Thomas used his own engine on all of his offerings. This approach differed from his competition, such as Pierce Arrow and Peerless, who were sourcing drive trains from De Dion-Bouton.
Thomas continued to evolve his products. The scale of the motorcars and their power plants escalated quickly. The Auto-Bi division was sold off as Thomas saw the future in big powerful European-style autos. As with his earlier products, he studied the Europeans carefully. Like an artist, he stole the best ideas from his contemporaries. Thomas began on a series of cars that followed the pattern of the best of the day: Mercedes and Panhard. Thomas began development of a cross-flow, T-head engine-powered dual-chain drive automobile. This was the most advanced design for automobiles designed for high-speed use. The dual chain-drive rear-end made for minimal unsprung weight that improved handling and allowed for almost limitless gearing options. The downside was a bit more noise and oil flying about off the exposed chains. Any drawbacks are forgotten today as any red-blooded early car buff's heart melts at the sight of a powerful dual-chain drive car. After a brief run of three-cylinder cars, the proper line of Thomas Flyers was introduced in 1905. Offered in 40, 50, and 60 hp variants, this was a bold move from a company that was making only one-cylinder cars merely two years previously. Thomas's line-up was arguably the highest powered line of American cars to date, and Thomas quickly became the American answer to the dominant European competition.
The heart of this new line-up was the potent T-head four-cylinder motor: four large individually cast jugs lined up on an alloy crankcase. The T-head design produced good cross flow breathing, and the relatively short stroke made for a spirited engine that revved freely. Up until the war, the four cylinders would remain the choice for performance cars. Simplex, Mercer, and Mercedes all used the four-cylinder motor for their competition cars as it had the flexibility and lack of destructive vibration and crank flex the sixes possessed. Thomas continued to hone their four-cylinder engine to produce an output of 60 hp.
This answer to European dominance was brilliantly illustrated in 1908. An off the shelf 4-60 model Thomas Flyer was selected to compete against a group of competitors from around the world in what would be the toughest race yet devised. The New York to Paris around the world race would test cars in ways that no other competition had. The six-month trek would proceed through some of the most desolate areas on earth where cars had likely not been before. The race was front-page news around the world. Countries' pride was at stake, and in the end the Thomas and all of America were victorious. "It shows the American car is on par with the foreign machine, and it marks the beginning of the end of the European supremacy," claimed Robert Lee Morell at the Auto Club of America at a luncheon upon the car's arrival in the US. E.R. Thomas drivers Shuster, Miller, and McAdam, as well as Auto Club of America founder J. Herbert Carpenter all attended this first event honoring this historic accomplishment.
One can imagine Carpenter, who at this point owned several high-powered Mercedes cars, ordering his new 4-60 Thomas from E.R. himself that day. Feeling pride and confidence that America was producing a car as good or superior to Mercedes, Carpenter even specified the car be painted Mercedes Red and that its be of the latest 1909 specification.
E.R. Thomas granted his request and would have the car delivered the car to Carpenter at his Ossining, New York home on October 20th, 1908. Carpenter was more than pleased with his new machine and used it extensively; he would end up keeping it for more than 30 years. Because of Carpenter's high profile in the motoring world, the Thomas was present at many of the most historic motor races of the period, including the Briar Cliff races. Mr. Carpenter also had many of the finest drivers of the day at the wheel of his car or as passengers. Oldfield, Poole, and Shuster all had a go of the Thomas and were said to easily distance the big Simplexes and Loziers. Carpenter's involvement with great drivers probably explains why, when Carpenter finally parted with his beloved machine, it went to the famous Joe Tracy.
In the course of his ownership and prior to passing on to Tracy, Carpenter, who was still actively driving the car in the 1920s, drove the big Thomas cross country. Carpenter also used the car in the earliest AACA events. Very few important cars of this era were in their original owners' hands when the antique car collecting hobby began.
Because of the long term ownership of the car, there are many photographs of it. The photos from 1925 with Carpenter behind the wheel clearly show the body work the car wears today. The fenders had been modified to a style more typical of the 1920s, and wheels had been cut down slightly due to lack of tire availability, but the car is remarkably similar to its current appearance. One could look at these changes as authentic elements of this car's amazing history and impeccable provenance.
Other photos illustrated here, show Joe Tracy removing the car from the Carpenter family home, by then in Essex, Connecticut. When he in turn sold the car to the Thompson Products Company, which would be the basis of the Crawford/Western Reserve Historical Society Museum collection in Cleveland, Ohio, he drove it all the way across the country, no small feat for a 37 year old automobile!
By 1951 the burgeoning collection at W.R.H.S. was clearly a concern and following a valuation made by a local Detriot expert the Thomas was de-accessioned. Valued at $150, an offer of $300 was considered rather generous and the fact that the proposed buyer was C. F. Greiner a former worker for E.R. Thomas who proposed to restore the car made his offer all the more acceptable. In a bizarre turn of fate, after his restoration was finished two or three years later, the Historical Society exercised their 'first right of refusal' and re-acquired the car. There she would remain until 1990. As curator Ruth Franklin wrote to J. Herbert Carpenter Jr.'s widow, in the late 1960s, it was for some time one of the most popular exhibits and was regularly demonstrated, a badge for an early Glidden Tour on the dash attests to this. In 1990, part of this collection was brought to the market, including the Thomas, its buyer on the day was a new collector, Vijay Mallya of the Kingfisher Breweries fame. Mr. Mallya retained the car for a couple of years in the U.K. selling it with the Brooks/Bonhams team to the current owner.
The present custodians of the Thomas have always maintained that old cars are to be used rather than looked at, and for this reason the car received a generous amount of attention to ensure that it would provide the ultimate road tour car. In the mid-1990s during an engine rebuild, this necessitated casting of one replacement cylinder jug, and as a concession to advancing years and 2000s driving conditions a modern clutch was fitted. The patterns, a spare jug and the original clutch are with the car. Similarly, to obviate turning over the enormously powerful 60hp engine a starter motor is fitted. It is fair to say that whenever attention has been required, it was carried out, although no attempt was made to restore the car in its entirety and today it wears a pleasing patina that confirms the car has been used and enjoyed to its fullest capabilities.
In addition for a heavy touring schedule, which has included use on the arduous Scottish tour, full weather equipment was re-made, with additional full length side curtains and a front windshield. For lighter days, a 'monocle' windshield can be used.
Few cars of this era have such impeccable documented history from new. Even fewer great cars were kept by their original owners for so long. Fewer still made the transition from new car to the birth of the antique car hobby while still in their original owners' care. This car has been cherished since new because its significance has been recognized the whole time. Not only is this fantastic car as good as anything made in the world at the time, but it is also a tangible historical marker of a major turning point in the history of the American car. E.R. Thomas and this model in particular turned the tide of the industry away from Europe and laid the ground work for the American auto industry's supremacy to come. Mr. Carpenter clearly felt this way about his Thomas. Decades after his Mercedes were scrapped and forgotten, his Thomas Flyer, with the pride and significance it held, was still in his care.