From Point A to Point B: Coverage of the Sixth Los Angeles to Phoenix “Desert Race” in “The Horseless Age,” 12 November 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the earliest days of the automobile, competitive races were very popular for enthusiasts and excellent opportunities for manufacturers to tout the durability of their products. From 1908 one of the more challenging races in the American Southwest was the Los Angeles to Phoenix competition and tonight’s featured historical object from the museum’s collection is the 12 November 1913 edition of The Horseless Age and its coverage of the contest.

The magazine, which promoted itself as the “first automobile journal in the English language,” made its debut in 1895 when autos were still frequently called “horseless carriages.” This was two years before J. Philip Erie drove the first car in Los Angeles, with fellow Boyle Heights resident, former mayor and nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, William H. Workman, as the honorary passenger.

Los Angeles Express, 1 November 1913.

It didn’t take long for the Angel City to be car-centric and the ideal weather, expansive geography, and a focus on providing good roads (usually unencumbered by large amounts of rain and other adverse weather conditions), along with other factors, made the city a prime place for long-distance road contests.

Yet, the jaunt to Phoenix, originally developed by the Automobile Club of Southern California, was particularly challenging because, whether the route went through the San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire, and Palm Springs or along the coast to San Diego, that portion connecting to Yuma, Arizona along the Colorado River was particularly troublesome because of the immense expanses of desert with its shifting sand and other hazardous conditions. In these races, it was not surprising that the large majority of entrants simply did not finish the race, whether because of mechanical problems, accidents, getting trapped in sand and other causes.

Los Angeles Times, 4 November 1913.

This was certainly the case in 1913 as only 8 of the 25 vehicles, each with a driver and a mechanic, that started were able to complete the 575-mile course and even hardened veterans of the auto racing scene were sidelined, while the youthful amateur, Olin Davis of San Diego, claimed first place reaching the capital of the newly admitted state of Arizona in 18 hours and 50 minutes, just shy of three hours ahead of second place finisher Guy Ball. The last of the eight to finish the race was Earl P. Schnack, who was nearly six hours behind Davis.

The magazine’s article was headlined “Novice Wins Los Angeles-Phoenix ‘Desert Race'” and the piece began with:

What will go down in motoring history as the most gruelling and sensational automobile race of the year was the sixth annual Los Angeles to Phoenix “Desert Race,” held over the treacherous and torturous roads between those cities, on November 3 and 4. Additional interest was given to the event by the fact that a novice, a comparative newcomer in the ranks of automobile driving, was returned the victor in this strenuous contest of mechanical and physical endurance.

Easily the most famous of the drivers was Barney Oldfield (1878-1946), who was a household name for the roughly two decades, starting in 1902, in which he was a racer, while there were others who were veterans of the Los Angeles to Phoenix race, including the brothers Louis and Fred Nickrent, who won in 1909, Charles Soules, the runner-up in 1912, and Frank Verbeck, widely known for his driving in California, all of whom were favored to have a shot at winning the contest.

Los Angeles Record, 4 November 1913.

Davis, the article continued, had “learned to drive a machine but a few years ago, and whose name was absolutely unknown in the automobile world last month” but his stunning victory meant that he “may now rightfully claim a prominent place among the great rad drivers of the world.” He was at the wheel of a big six-cylinder Locomobile, the make that Walter P. Temple later owned and favored over his Cadillac and Packard.

The piece went on that “to keep running was the winning tactic,” as the young novice “kept his big Locomobile running, even after burning off innumberable tires, smashing his radiator, and breaking a spring” and broke two records “unattained by most seasoned drivers and sturdy machines in repeated trials of former years.”

The ride down the coast from Los Angeles through Santa Ana and past Oceanside to San Diego appears to have been relatively uneventful, although one car was wrecked before the race, and Oldfield established a new record of 2 hours and 41 minutes from the Angel City to San Diego. The contest, though, was a matter of “mishaps galore” once drivers headed east of San Dirgo where “the exceptions to these waste sandy stretches are few and far between.” The problem became one of “hanging up,” in which “the machine hangs on the transmission, and each revolution of drive wheels usually serves merely to facilitate the hanging, as the wheels bury themselves in the almost tractionless sand.”

For the casual driver and tourist, a plank road across the desert was completed earlier in the year, but this was subjected to the shifting sands and replaced in 1915, though after a short time that second version proved unable to withstand the elements. It took a carefully planned and expensive program of building a more durable asphalt and concrete road, completed in 1926, to finally tame the daunting conditions.

For this race, however, drivers lost large amounts of time getting stuck or rolling over because of the sand and the piece discussed a few examples of drivers knocked out of the contest. It added that “there were few cars in the race that did not in some way share in the mishaps.” Still, it was accounted very fortunate that, despite “the fact that though many cars were wrecked, in almost as many different ways, no serious injuries to drivers or mechanics were reported.” Rather, it was noted that “instances of suffering on the desert, heroism, and sacrifice of place in succoring rival drivers were numerous.”

Davis was just three minutes behind Oldfield, whose car caught fire three times on the way, when San Diego was reached and only a baker’s dozen of minutes separated the top six drivers. The rough crossing to Yuma, however, definitely separated those who made it that far, with Davis arriving in the riverside border town in just over 10 hours and 30 minutes, with the the next contestant behind by about 12 minutes. Oldfield was third at not far above 11 hours despite ending up in a ditch near Brawley.

The piece then noted that:

the real battle began on the second morning of the race as the cars were sent out of Yuma [at] 5:30 a.m. at 5-minute intervals. As there was here a change from Pacific to Mountain time many drivers had little sleep, [and] slight opportunity to tune up cars for [the] long desert grind, and some no breakfast.

The piece reported that a special “Howdy” train left Los Angeles on the Southern Pacific route, so that riders in the comfort of the railcars could occasionally see the racers navigating the desert. It was added that this train included a band that was “a regular institution of the annual desert race” and “the function of which is to greet racers as they enter Phoenix” even as “no instrument is eligible . . . unless it is audible above [the] open exhaust of [a] motor car with [an] open throttle.”

Odfield was just 17 miles east of Yuma when a shaft broke and he had to withdraw, though he did become a mechanic for another racer whose sidekick was injured when their vehicle hit a tree stump and even provided the steering wheel from his car to replace the damaged one in the other machine.. Charles Soules spun into a washout during a cloudburst and his car’s frame was broken, but when another racer, Guy Ball, pulled up after Soules and his mechanic suffered from thirst in the intense sun, they exchanged water for extra tires, allowing Ball to finish the contest in second place.

As for the Nickrent brothers, there were frequently “hung up” on sand dunes and could only use their bare hands to dig out, but they were able to finish in third. Verbeck, thought by many to be the favorite, barely made it into Yuma with a battered machine and had to drop out. The sad list of drivers who crashed or broke down and were unable to continue at various points along the route is lengthy. James H. Smith, in his Buick, was just 60 miles from the finish when his car crashed and he “was pried out from beneath [the] wheel, only slightly bruised.”

For those right who completed the race they were greeted by Governor George Hunt, the first in the new state of Arizona and who served sixteen years in three stints through 1933, and Attorney General G. Purdy Bullard, who was an early promoter of the contest and represented the state’s Auto Club. The coverage ended with the report that Davis’ Locomobile was the only six cylinder entrant.

As for the remainder of the magazine, there was plenty of news about industry-related firms and their financial positions, including some balance sheet reports, while there were short summaries of other races, including one from El Paso to Phoenix and those held on speedways in Sioux City, South Dakota and San Antonio, while a hill climb in Pennsylvania was also mentioned. A lengthy feature was the final installment of a series about the deisgn of motors, carburetors, and body types, including for commercial vehicles like a dump truck and a flatbed truck.

One notable news items concerned an Indianapolis streetcar employees’ strike, which left commuters reliant on autos, including many proivate cars operating as taxis chargeing from ten to twenty-five cents one way for fares. Also of interest was a general celebration at the end of October for the Lincoln Highway, championed by Carl G. Fisher, whose company made headlamps and who was the builder of the Indianapolis Speedway. The name for the route from New York to San Francisco as selected in June and the route determined in September, with the dedication taking place in hundreds of towns and cities in 13 states.

Other sections of the issue dealt with Maintenance and Repairs; Items of the Industry and Trade; Garage and Salesroom; New Vehicles and Parts, including the Hudson Six-40 touring car, the Stearns-Knight Six-Cylinder Six-Passenger touring car and the four-cylinder model, the Mercury Cyclecar, which sat two passengers in tandem, and others; Electric Vehicles, including the Borland Seven-Passenger Limousine, with a 100-mile range and speeds of up to 25 mph; and other articles of technical interest.

Wait . . . electric cars almost 110 years ago?

There is also a very interesting piece on the European automobile trade, including the status of car manufacturing in Germany (some 17,000 cars built in 1911), Italy (where nearly 5,000 cars, about half by Fiat, were made in 1912), Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Russia (only 100 cars were built in the country in 1912, while almost 3,500 were imported) , France, Spain and Norway.

There are a wealth of advertisements for all kinds of auto manufacturers, makes of parts, and much more. These are interesting to peruse to see how far the reach of the “horseless carriage” had attained by 1913 when cars were becoming more commonplace, though not to the level they would by the 1920s when the Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, was so affordable that more than half of the cars on the planet were made by the company and 15 million of that model were sold before production ended in 1927.

As for the Los Angeles to Phoenix road race, it, known also as the “Cactus Derby” was held one more time in 1914. Oldfield prevailed, though fifth-place finisher Bill Bramlett deserved a special award for resourcefulness, having survived a barrel roll, a stint in quicksand, and the breaking of the steering system when he crashed into a fence, upon which he used a pair of posts from the enclosure to steer the front wheels as he limped to the finish line to wild acclaim from spectators.

Finally, The Horseless Age still exists and, while it appears to have changed its name in 1909 to The Automobile and then reverted to its original moniker, it took on the current title of Automotive Industries in 1917 (with a short-lived World War II-era addition of aviation because automakers were enlisted to switch to airplane production for the war effort).

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