Ladies, Start Your Engine

Source:  The National Automotive History Collection

Source:  The National Automotive History Collection

This week, all the way back in 1909, Alice Huyler Ramsey, a 22-year-old mother from Hackensack, New Jersey, embarked on an improbable journey.  If successful, she would be the first woman in history to complete it.  Take a look at the photo to the right.  That’s Alice at the helm of a 4-cylinder, 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell DA touring car.  In the back is a 16-year-old female friend and Alice’s 40-something sister-in-laws.  Out of this four pack, Alice was the only one with the ability to drive the car.  The challenge was to drive across America. 

Alice was already an accomplished driver with thousands of miles behind the wheel and a 200-mile endurance race to her credit.  Fate would have it that there was a representative of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company on hand during that race to witness Alice’s driving skill.  In an era where women weren’t encouraged to drive, the rep saw a marketing opportunity.  He proposed that the company would cover her expenses if she could pilot a Maxwell from coast to coast.

Today, even with our paved roads, hotels and more reliable vehicles, traveling cross-country can be mentally and physically challenging…and that’s figuring that the vehicle survives the trip without complications.  [Refer to Clark Griswold’s famous family drive in 'National Lampoon’s Vacation'.]

On June 9, 1909, the ladies set off from Hell’s Gate in Manhattan, New York with their sights set for San Francisco.  Navigation for most of the trip meant asking the locals for directions.  Traveling roads that were well-worn and were alongside telegraph poles with “the greatest number of wires” provided hope that there was a large town at the end.  There was also AAA’s Automobile Blue Book series that provided regional guidance based primarily on landmarks.  Imagine if the red barn burned down last month and it’s no longer there to mark the left turn to Topeka. 

 According to records, there were only 152 miles of paved roads along her route.  Nearly 3800 miles on dirt roads led to 11 tire changes.  Spark plugs had to be cleaned, a brake pedal was replaced and disaster was averted when Alice’s car nearly slid off a bridge in Amsterdam, New York.  Imagine how many times they backtracked on roads after misguided advice and intuition. 

 59 days later, on August 7, Alice and her driving mates arrived in San FranciscoBefore her passing in 1983, Alice eventually completed cross-country treks on over 30 occasions.  AAA recognized Alice as the ‘Woman Motorist of the Century’ in 1960. 

 So how did the ladies get back to Hackensack?  They took the train.  [The Griswolds didn’t drive home either.  They took a plane.]