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A Race to the Heavens

It's Massachusetts's little-known contribution to automobile history, a bizarre race that began 100 years ago, in which drivers barrel up the treacherous Mount Washington Auto Road.

Three-fourths of the way up the Mount Washington Auto Road, we're doing 12 miles per hour. It's terrifying. We're at 5,000 feet, inside the fist of a cloud that perpetually grips the peak. We can't see more than 10 feet in front of us, and a steady downpour has turned the blacktop as dicey as an oil slick. Every few minutes, the wind gusts, the wheels slip, and the van slides sideways. It slides only a few inches, but I don't care -- this road is as narrow as a Beacon Hill side street, and there are no guardrails, just a craggy wall on one side and a steep drop on the other. With each wheel slip, my stomach clenches in the same way it does when a jet plane hits an air pocket during takeoff.

At the wheel is Jesse Mosston, who doesn't seem to notice any of this. He knows these switchbacks like his own driveway. He's in charge of public relations for the road, a laid-back type with shaggy blond hair and a gift for easy chatter. Maneuvering the green-and-white Auto Road tour van, he looks more like a traveling salesman on a familiar back road. The rain, the clouds, the wind, the slick tarmac, the 12 miles per hour -- it's just another day of driving to him.

For the drivers who have actually raced this road, 12 miles per hour is a blink on the way to 60, 70, 80, 100 miles per hour. Fear takes a back seat to speed. It was 100 years ago this month that some car enthusiasts and nascent car manufacturers organized the first race on New Hampshire's Mount Washington, a timed uphill sprint dubbed "The Climb to the Clouds." The winner of the inaugural event, New York financier Harry Harkness, drove his 60-horsepower Mercedes to the summit in 24 minutes, 37.6 seconds, and on that drizzly day in July 1904, he averaged about 20 miles per hour.

In the years to follow, the Climb to the Clouds attracted some of the world's best drivers, including Indy veteran Ralph Mulford, endurance king Erwin "Cannon-ball" Baker, and living legend Carroll Shelby, and grew to become one of the nation's premier auto races. Next month, a four-day centennial celebration at Mount Washington will pay tribute to the cars, the men (and several women), and the race that essentially put the mountain on the road map.

IF HISTORY IS WRITTEN by the victors, then for all practical purposes, New England's place in automotive history has been run over and left for roadkill by the historians in my hometown of Detroit. But it could be argued that a handful of adventurous men in New England, Massachusetts, in particular, actually fueled the American auto industry.

In the 1860s, an ingenious Roxbury man named Sylvester Roper began experimenting with steam-driven vehicles. He mounted steam engines on bicycles, tricycles, even "quadricycles," anything that could carry people and had wheels. One of his first creations was a two-passenger motorized carriage comprising basically a bench attached to four massive spoked wheels, with a 2-horsepower engine hanging underneath like a steel belly. According to an 1863 report in Scientific American, the car topped out at 25 miles per hour. During the next 30 years, Roper built 10 steam-driven vehicles.

A few decades later, the internal-combustion engine changed the rules, mostly because of advancements made by the German engineers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. Springfield-based brothers Frank and Charles Duryea were two of the first Americans to take notice. In 1893, they premiered their "motor wagon," often regarded as the first viable internal-combustion car built in the United States. Three years later, the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. sold 13 nearly identical vehicles, ostensibly making it the nation's first car manufacturing company. In 1904, Frank Duryea cofounded the Stevens-Duryea Co., which manufactured upward of 14,000 cars in Chicopee and East Springfield before closing its doors in 1915.

Other New England entrepreneurs threw their wrenches into the ring, too. Hartford's Pope Manufacturing Co. produced the world-famous Columbia bicycle, which was developed by Colonel Albert Pope in his High Street shop in Boston. The company began to sell the Columbia Electric car in 1897 and later manufactured the Pope-Robinson car in Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood. Albert Pope was also active in the turn-of-the-century Good Roads Movement, which paved the way for the American highway system.

But it was the steam car, again, that took the lead in late 1890s. And the events of a summer afternoon in 1899, high on the slippery slopes of Mount Washington, helped steer the auto industry into the 20th century.

YOU CAN GET TO THE TOP of Mount Washington any number of ways: feet, bicycle, train, horseback, unicycle, snowshoe, cross-country skis, dog sled, or even pushing a wheelbarrow laden with 100 pounds of sugar (as one particularly wacky guy named Alton Weagle did in the 1950s).

But only going up in a car earns one of those catchy, if kitschy, bumper stickers.

That's only partly because of the fact that bumper stickers won't adhere to a horse's rump. More so, it's because Mount Washington has spent the past century as one of the ultimate proving grounds for man and car alike. It was there, on August 31, 1899, that an inventor from Newton named F. O. Stanley made automotive history when he drove his wife, Flora, to the summit in a $650 steam-powered Locomobile, which had been manufactured in Watertown and driven up to New Hampshire from the Stanleys' home in Newton. Their ascent took 2 hours, 10 minutes, or about half the time required for a horse-drawn wagon.

Almost at the moment F.O. and Flora chugged over the ridge to the applause of a small gathering, the Horseless Age jumped off the line. Seemingly from that day forward, the most innovative people of the day popped the hood, rolled up their sleeves, and went off in noisy and furious pursuit of that most enthralling intangible: speed.

It is thought that the Climb to the Clouds race was organized by turn-of-the-century industrialists who wanted to show the press and the public what the automobile could do and, in turn, show the need to improve America's roads. According to an 1892 report by a Massachusetts committee of inquiry, more than 90 percent of the Commonwealth's roads were in poor condition.

On a chilly, misty day in July 1904, a collection of drivers handling the day's finest automobiles -- Mercedes, Rambler, Peerless, Stanley, among others -- gathered at the mountain base. Two daring young men tried their luck on 2-horsepower Metz motorcycles. The time-trial-style race was a grueling struggle, pitting the drivers against their unwieldy cars and the cars against the steep, muddy mountain. An early car magazine described winner Harry Harkness's 24-minute, 37.6-second run as "remarkable. To guide 2,200 pounds of mechanism up an 8-mile narrow mountain road and to pull up 4,600 feet above the starting point after averaging 20 miles per hour without a stop is a sure enough test of man and machine."

The Mount Washington Auto Road -- "America's oldest manmade tourist attraction!" -- has seen few changes since it opened in 1861: some layers of asphalt, an updated name (the original moniker was the Mount Washington Carriage Road), and a toll hike from 15 cents to $18 (for a car and driver, $7 for each additional adult, and $4 for each child). "Essentially, this is the way it's been for 143 years," says Jesse Mosston. "That's the beauty of it."

The Auto Road follows the same basic path it always has: 8 miles, zigzagging up 4,721 feet at an average grade of 12 percent. Along the way, it traverses dense woods, whips around colorfully nicknamed curves like Cragway Turn and Signal Corp, and finishes above the tree line, where the mountain's infamous weather often makes the drive a hairy adventure. (On average, hurricane-force winds blow 104 days per year, and the summit lays claim to the world's highest-ever recorded wind speed: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.)

Given all this, you'd be forgiven for thinking that anybody racing up this road was a few gallons short of a full tank.

"It was a lot of fun, a unique experience," recalls 81-year-old Carroll Shelby, who raced in the Climb to the Clouds in 1956, finishing in a record time of 10 minutes, 21.8 seconds. "I guess it could be kind of dangerous; you could go right over one of those precipices. But, no, you never really went over 90."

Early on, the Climb to the Clouds attracted some of racing's biggest names, such as Shelby, the legendary designer of the hottest-ever American sports car: the Cobra. Ralph Mulford -- who, some historians argue, actually finished the inaugural Indianapolis 500 first but lost because of a lap-counting mix-up -- finished Mount Washington in 1923 in a record time: 17 minutes flat. Erwin "Cannonball" Baker, renowned for his record-setting long-distance motorcycle rides, drove a car up in 1928 and 1932, setting records both years. In 1961, "Wild Bill" Rutan broke the 10-minute mark, coming in at 9 minutes, 13 seconds.

Rutan's mark stood for 29 years, but only because after the 1961 event, the race went on a 29-year hiatus. Over its 100-year history, the Climb has been an on-again, off-again event, interrupted by economic recessions, war, and most often a complete lack of public interest. The longest consecutive streak the race was run was from 1990 to 2001.

"Mount Washington has had a disappointing history, lots of gaps," says Essex's Tom Ellsworth, of the Vintage Sports Car Club of America. "It runs awhile and then stops and then starts again. Maybe that's just meant to be its history. But when you think of what the guys were doing there, the speeds they achieved, it's amazing no one cared."

By the 1990s, the Climb was not about the names in the race but the speed of the racers. In 1998, Canadian rally-racing champ Frank Sprongl set the Climb's record at 6 minutes, 41.99 seconds. And in 1999, Vermont's Jerry Driscoll set the Auto Road's speed record at 113 miles per hour on what is jokingly referred to as the "straightaway," a quarter-mile length that ends in a wicked chicane. (During my drive with Mosston, we reached a comfortable 30 miles per hour.)

"Racing there was all a blur," says the 36-year-old Sprongl, who won the Climb five times. "You have no time to think. Seventy-six corners, and I know every one. I know every transition, what gear to be in, when to accelerate. But you've got to respect the mountain. Any mistake could be your last mistake."

And yet no one has ever been killed racing on the course. In fact, only two deaths on the Auto Road have been reported -- a wagon accident in 1880 and a case of lost brakes in 1984 -- and the running joke is that the most dangerous part of driving the Auto Road is crossing Route 16 from the parking lot to the starting line.

The Climb had its last run in 2001. Citing the cost of organizing the event, the Auto Road shut the race down, probably forever. "It never generated the attention we all hoped," Mosston says. "We ran the numbers, and it just didn't make sense. But I get e-mails weekly from guys who plead with me to have the race restarted. Guys loved driving this road."

"It's too bad," says Sprongl. "If they started it up again, I'd be the first one back."

A 2 1/2-HOUR DRIVE from Mount Washington, Kingfield, Maine, is a sleepy town hooked in an elbow of the Carrabassett River: a short strip of retail shops, a church, a library, a grand hotel. From the looks of things, not much has changed since the Stanley twins, Freelan Oscar (F.O.) and Francis Edgar (F.E.), were young boys there in the mid-19th century.

"We're at the end of the world here, haven't you noticed?" says Susan Davis, the president and chief executive officer of the Stanley Museum, which is situated on a leafy side street in Kingfield. "But people need space. It leaves so much more room for imagination."

Davis is a native Mainer with graying hair, sharp eyes, and a maternal bearing. She wears turtlenecks and reads books like Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit. We're sitting at the Orange Cat Cafe, a friendly coffeehouse just beyond downtown Kingfield and a few blocks from her museum. And it is her museum. In 1981, Davis fought the town elders and saved the buttercup-yellow Georgian-style building with four white columns across the facade.

However, she suddenly found herself heading up a museum, something she had never done. Things were further complicated by the fact that she had no cars to put in her museum. The Boston Globe even ran an article titled "Museum in Search of a Relic." So she began making calls, attending curator conferences, and becoming the world's foremost authority on everything Stanley.

"The twins were creative in all sides of life," Davis tells me proudly. "I introduce them more as artists, not engineers."

The machine that would make the Stanley twins most famous, the Stanley Steamer, was actually a side project for them. Their main endeavor was in the graphic arts. In 1876, F. E. Stanley patented what, in essence, was the airbrush and began doing portraits of Maine's leading families. Later, he and F.O. established the Stanley Dry Plate Co., first in Lewiston and later relocated to Watertown, Massachusetts. Their patented dryplate manufacturing process revolutionized the photography industry and made the twins wealthy men. They sold the business to Eastman Kodak Co. in 1904.

In the late 1890s, they had caught the car bug. Legend has it that the Stanleys got involved because F.E.'s wife, Augusta, could never get the hang of riding a bicycle. "Don't worry, Gusti," F.E. said, "I'll make us something we can ride in side-by-side." The work on a steam-powered automobile began in April 1897 and was completed by September. The following year, they presented their "horseless carriage" at the Charles River Park velodrome in Cambridge, wowing the public with a 27-miles-per-hour performance. Then, in 1899, came F.O.'s historic Mount Washington climb, which brought the Stanley brothers to the attention of the world. The name was indelibly carved into the automobile annals in 1906, when a sleek bullet-shaped Stanley set a land-speed record of 127.6 miles per hour at Ormond Beach in Florida.

Steam motors would, of course, prove to be less efficient than internal-combustion engines, which Henry Ford dropped into his world-changing Model T. In 1923, the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. of Watertown closed up shop forever.

Today, roughly 300 original Stanley Steamers still exist. Kingfield is their Mecca, and the Stanley Museum their shrine. The museum boasts two original Steamers and a replica, an oil-pungent roomful of spare parts up for auction, and Susan Davis. She is a walking steampower encyclopedia. Each summer, she offers a steam-car drivers' education course.

"We don't say we saved the car," Davis explains. "We say we saved the technology. Our three Stanleys are not the best cars in the world, but we know how to fix them. We are a one-stop shopping source for steam-car maintenance."

As if to prove her point, on the day of my visit, a young man from Germany is also visiting. He tells me he has come to Kingfield -- a wide detour from his Florida vacation plans -- to get parts for a steam-powered car, a car that he was building from scratch. Then he pauses, thinks of the English word, and says, "and ideas."

Next month's centennial celebration, scheduled for July 9-12, will include a pre-1961 antique car show at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road, a visit from as many as 60 Stanley Steamers, and a Hillclimb to Halfway time-trial race for vintage cars. For more information, visit www.climbtotheclouds.com.

Speed Demons

The first trip up the Mount Washington Carriage Road in a horse-drawn buggy was made in 1861. In 1899, F.O. Stanley was the first to drive a car up the roughly 8 miles of dirt road in his new Locomobile, manufactured in Watertown, accomplishing the auto trip in two hours and 10 minutes. His average speed was less than 5 miles per hour. Today, the record for average speed up the road is 67 miles per hour, set in 1998 by Frank Sprongl. As for the highest speed attained on the course, that came in 1999, when Jerry Driscoll topped out at 113 miles per hour on the quarter-mile "straightaway."

DATE DRIVER VEHICLE TIME
1899 F. O. Stanley Stanley Locomobile 2 hours and 10 minutes
1903 L. J. Phelps Phelps 1 hour and 45 minutes
1904 Harry Harkness Mercedes 24 minutes and 37.6 seconds
1905 W. H. Hilliard Napier 20 minutes and 58.4 seconds
1923 Ralph Mulford Chandler 17 minutes
1928 Erwin "Cannonball" Baker Franklin 14 minutes and 49.6 seconds
1930 Ab Jenkins Studebaker 14 minutes and 23 seconds
1932 Erwin "Cannonball" Baker Graham 13 minutes and 26 seconds
1934 Al Miller Hudson 13 minutes and 20.6 seconds
1935 John C. Rueter Ford Special 12 minutes and 46.4 seconds
1938 Lemuel R. Ladd Ford Special 12 minutes and 17.6 seconds
1953 Sherwood Johnston Jaguar 10 minutes and 47.6 seconds
1954 Sherwood Johnston Jaguar C Type 10 minutes and 44.8 seconds
1956 Carroll Shelby Ferrari 10 minutes and 21.8 seconds
1961 Bill Rutan Porsche-VW 9 minutes and 13 seconds
1990 Tim O'Neil VW Rally Golf 7 minutes and 45 seconds
1991 Paul Choiniere Audi Quattro 7 minutes and 9.61 seconds
1992 Frank Sprongl Audi Quattro 7 minutes and 8.61 seconds
1993 Paul Choiniere Audi Quattro 6 minutes and 46.62 seconds
1995 Paul Choiniere Hyundai Elantra 6 minutes and 45.22 seconds
1998 Frank Sprongl Audi Quattro 6 minutes and 41.99 seconds

Source: Jesse Mosston, Mount Washington Auto Road

Greg Lalas is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He only drives downhill.


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