The first two Vanderbilt Cup races (1904 and 1905) were won by French cars, although an American Locomobile did finish in third place in 1905. For 1906, the Locomobile Company built two new cars, costing $20,000 each ($425,000 in today’s money). The name Locomobile rings strangely in our modern ears, but the company started out in 1899 making steam cars. When it switched over to gasoline powered cars in 1904, the company kept its steamer-inspired name.
The Locomobiles were typical race cars of their time, featuring huge engines (990 cubic inches) and minimal bodywork. Unlike today’s racing cars, they carried two people — a driver and a mechanic, or mechanician, as he was known at the time. During the race the mechanician’s primary tasks were to keep the fuel flowing by working the air pump that pressurized the rear-mounted gas tank; and to work four plungers on the dash that pumped oil to the engine. He also helped the driver change tires and had the unenviable task of hand cranking the massive engine if it stalled.
Only one of the new Locomobile racers ran in 1906. Driven by Joe Tracy, it qualified for the Vanderbilt Cup by winning a 297 mile preliminary race for American cars. Tracy and his mechanician, Al Poole, were less fortunate in the main event. Eleven tire failures kept them from winning, but they did turn the fastest lap of the race on the one circuit when their tires didn’t fail. The winner of the Vanderbilt Cup race that year was a French Darracq.
There was no race in 1907, but the run for the Cup was back in 1908. There was no qualifying race, and both Locomobiles were entered in the Vanderbilt. Joe Tracy had retired from driving, so his car was in the hands of George Robertson, while Jim Florida drove the second car. Robertson’s car carried race number “16.” Florida’s race number was “1.” Both cars had improved tires and demountable rims that made changing easier. Robertson and mechanician Glenn Ethridge repeatedly broke the lap record. Yet on the final lap, leading by 2 minutes and 22 seconds, Robertson’s car suffered a tire failure. He and Etheridge frantically installed their last spare--then roared off to win the race by only one minute, 48 seconds. Florida’s Locomobile finished third.
George Robertson’s winning Locomobile came to be called “Old 16” after its race number. It never competed again.A few years after its retirement, Joe Sessions, a foundry owner who had made some castings for the car, persuaded the Locomobile Company to part with its famous winner. When Sessions died in 1941, Joe Tracy helped artist Peter Helck, who had seen the car race in 1906 and 1908, buy it from Sessions’s widow. After Peter’s death in 1988, Old 16 passed to his son Jerry, from whom The Henry Ford acquired it in 1997.
Old 16's victory was part of a larger chain of events that made 1908 a significant year in the history of the American auto industry. That same year a Thomas Flyer, built in Buffalo, New York, won the New York to Paris race, beating several European rivals. Cadillac was awarded the Dewar Trophy by Britain’s Royal Automobile Club for a demonstration of interchangeable parts. Henry Ford introduced his Model T, and William Durant incorporated General Motors.
The United States had served notice that it would be a major player in the new transportation technology.
-- Bob Casey, Curator of Transportation
Old 16 Specifications
Designer: Andrew Riker
Manufacturer: Locomobile, Bridgeport, CT
Engine: 4-cylinder, F-head (intake valves in head, exhaust valves in block),
Bore 7.25 in., Stroke 6 in., Displacement 990 cu. in.
Horsepower: 120 @ approx. 1000 rpm
Drive: Rear wheels via jackshaft and dual chains
Transmission: Three speeds forward plus reverse
Brakes: Foot brake is external contracting, acting on jackshaft
Hand brake is internal expanding, acting on rear wheels
Both are mechanical via cables and levers
Weight: 2204 pounds
Top Speed: 100-plus mph