by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the highly competitive automobile world, manufacturers, especially those building luxury cars, continually seek ways to distinguish themselves from their rivals, whether it is in terms of horsepower, styling, amenities or others and this has not changed throughout the history of the motor car.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection, a press photo of a Cadillac Eight that had just completed a record-breaking transcontinental run from Los Angeles to New York City, is a notable example of this from over a century ago as Cadillac sought, in May 1916, to prove the supremacy of its powerful eight-cylinder touring car through the grueling journey.
It bears reminding that at that time not only were there no national standards for road construction and maintenance, but more local jurisdictions lacked these, as well. In greater Los Angeles, which quickly became the automobile capital of the nation, much less the world, the situation was far more advanced, thanks to the work of such agencies as the Automobile Club of Southern California, which advocated for and led the drive (!) to improve roads, provide signage and, in myriad other ways, improve conditions for drivers of all kinds of motor vehicles.
For the Cadillac Eight transcontinental trip, the driver was Erwin G. Baker (1882-1960), who was already widely known in the motorcycle world for his numerous exploits. A native of southeastern Indiana, not far west from Cincinnati, and raised in Indianapolis, Baker used his athletic prowess with punching bags to embark on a vaudeville career. He then turned to “punching” the throttle on motorcycles and, in 1909, was one of the entrants in the first Federation of American Motorcyclists race at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway, later home to the famous Indy 500 stock car race.
Baker captured first place in a ten-mile amateur event and quickly added to his accomplishments in events held throughout the United States, including a bevy of track records for speed. He also undertook long-distance rides in this country and on Caribbean islands and developed a reputation for unheard-of endurance.
This culminated in 1914 with his desire to break the record for time traversing the continent and, whereas the current holder departed from San Francisco and then had to navigate the extremes of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains for his twenty day, nine hour trip, Baker wisely chose to leave from San Diego and take a largely southern route, which, while posing challenges, was not as difficult.
He was a very careful planner, in terms of studying maps and understanding the terrain and road conditions, consulting with weather experts, traveling light, and, of course, understanding his machine. Perhaps more importantly, Baker steeled himself to need as little sleep as possible on these long-distance runs, even as he did not stint when it came to food. Despite searing desert heat, cold mountain conditions, often terrible dirt roads filled with ruts, and a serious accident in Kansas, he shattered the record by completing the nearly 3,500 mile run in eleven days.
It was during this event that a journalist bestowed the nickname of “Cannonball” to Baker and one he readily adopted. In 1915, he established a new record for a “Three Flags” run down the Pacific Coast (and, obviously, through greater Los Angeles) from the Canadian border to the Mexican boundary, completing the trip in three days and a little over nine hours. It was hardly surprising, given his extraordinary prowess in long-distance motorcycle trips, that Baker was recruited to take on the Cadillac Eight transcontinental trip.
Baker drove the entirety of the run, though he was accompanied by William F. Sturm, the auto racing director of the Indianapolis News, as an official timer and observer. The duo left the Los Angeles County Courthouse at Temple Street and Broadway just after the last stroke of midnight rung from the structure’s tower on 8 May. It was stated that there were a quintet of journalists present to witness the depature, which a photographer documented in front of some fifty witnesses.
There were stops to have the car checked in such places as Needles, on the California-Arizona border; Flagstaff in the latter state; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Dodge City, Kansas; Kansas City; St. Louis; Indianapolis; Wheeling, West Virginia; and Newark, New Jersey; among others. The Pomona Progress of 16 May reported that “over desert and mountain, through rivers and along rocky roads, over highways hubideep in mud and then along the smooth boulevards of New Jersey,the Cadillac had came [sic] in 7 days, 11 hours, 52 minutes . . . This beat the best former record by 3 days, 19 hours, 23 minutes.”
The paper also recorded that “previous to the run, Baker had driven a Cadillac less than 500 miles and knew practically nothing about the mechanical features of the machine. It proved a combination of sturdy car and driver.” As to the conditions, it was noted,
there was very little good road on this run. Baker stated after his arrival [in New York] that after he left the roads of Southern California, within seventy miles of Los Angeles [in the High Desert region], every kind of road that could be imagined was encountered. The weather ranged from desert heat to freezing cold, but through it all the car responded every second, the only trouble being a delay within 200 miles of Los Angeles caused by a loose oil connection. From that time on, across State after State, the car was always ready for the hardest of abuse.
The Los Angeles Express of 16 May noted that “heralded by a wild chorus of automobile horns, the car sped through the streets of Gotham, and came to a stop at Broadway and Forty-second street at 2:53 p.m.” The paper added that “for this trip Baker is said to have earned a small fortune” as he was paid $5,000 if the record was broken, but also was given a bonus of $100 for each hour shaved off the prior mark. At some 91 hours fewer than the earlier record, it appears Baker earned a hefty $14,100 for his feat, equivalent to just under $350,000 in today’s dollars.
It was otherwise reported, such as in the Pomona Bulletin and the Monrovia News of the same date, that Baker stated “his actual running time was only five and a half days, with remaining roughly two days spent on sleep, meals and acquiring supplies.” This meant that, for the 3,471 miles covered, the average speed was 48 miles per hour.
Also trumpeting the transcontinental trip’s topping of the record was Los Angeles’ Cadillac dealer Don Lee, who also had showrooms in Fresno, Oakland, Pasadena, Sacramento and San Francisco and whose major competitor among the elite of Los Angeles dealers was Earle C. Anthony, who was the Packard distributor. Lee moved into the building of automobile and truck bodies with Jacob W. Earl.
Like Anthony, Lee established an early presence in local radio, but went a step further with experimental television by the late 1920s. Mount Lee, where the famous Hollywood sign (built for the Hollywoodland housing tract from that decade), was named for the dealer, who died in 1934, though his son continued running the businesses until his death fifteen years later and they were then sold.
Lee’s advertisements, along with others done by Cadillac and then placed in papers under the local dealer’s name, boasted of Baker’s achievement and one ad proclaimed “by its wonderful endurance, power, and all around reliability the Cadillac Eight once more startles the world.” Lee also had a hand, though, in another record-smashing feat involving the model as race driver Theodore J. Beaudet, followed a few days later with a dash from North Broadway and Avenue 20 (which becomes San Fernando Road heading north) Los Angeles to San Francisco in nine hours and thirty-seven minutes, breaking the record established by a Buick just two weeks prior by an hour and ten minutes.
The Cadillac was a seven-passenger vehicle and there were four persons in Beaudet’s ride, which got to Fresno in just five hours, including the difficult route through the Grapevine north of Los Angeles, though heavy rain and abundant mud ensued from Modesto for the rest of the journey to the City by the Bay, with the average speed an impressive 48 miles per hour—the same as Baker’s.
With these pair of exploits to the Cadillac name, Lee took out a dramatic ad in papers like the Express which blared that “America’s Greatest Motor Records Made By The Cadillac Eight.” it added that “within a week the Cadillac Eight has startled the motor world with the two most remarkable road runs ever made.” Given this, it was clear that “such remarkable performances prove the everlasting reliability and stamina of the eight-cylinder Cadillac,” which duly took its place as not only the finest automobile in the United States, but “as the greatest motor car the world has ever known.”
Less than impressed, however, with the road run records which raised red (not checkered!) flags was the California Highway Commission, which “requested that racing against time between the two cities [Los Angeles and San Francisco] cease” for the obvious concerns about safety. In promotional articles, it was stated benignly that “the Cadillac people have announced their retirement from the chase after road records,” while Lee was quoted as intoning, “in view of the attitude of the California Highway Commission I desire that this be the last record run the Cadillac makes.” Another Lee ad mentioned the retirement and “farewell appearance” of the brand from these events.
The Los Angeles Times of 21 May summarized the recent rash of record-setting rides, including those by Cadillac from the Angel City to Bakersfield and Big Bear Lake, in addition to San Francisco, and one by a Chevrolet from Los Angeles to San Diego. All of this racing up and down the Golden State’s highways meant “there is growing hostility to road record runs and it is quite possible,” stated the paper, “that the game will die or rather be killed by the officers of the law” at the behest of the highway commission and other concerned parties.
Naturally, there were those who claimed that such events were not as dangerous as broadcast, while opponents decried “the most murderous sport of all.” Even if experienced drivers like Beaudet or Baker were unlikely to cause accidents leading to injury or death, it
is claimed by the speed officers of the city and county that the day or two or three days following a road record victory, the arrests for speeding show an increase of from 20 to 50 per cent. It seems to get into the blood of the ordinary sane motorist and instead of touring within the law, he forgets and steps out as fast as the car will go or as fast as he dares to let it travel.”
There were, the article concluded, several planned road record runs, “but with the officers on the job and the public sentiment against the sport, it is posssible that they will not be attempted, at least for a time.” If opposition was to wane, however, “then the road record craze will hit Southern California again and there will be another string of road records hung up.”