Back around the year 1900, within a span of about 10-15 years on either side of the turn of the century, automobiles roared into existence and rapidly evolved from a twee plaything of the wealthy to an essential part of daily life throughout the industrialized world. Prior to 1895 most Americans had never seen an automobile in action. After 1905 nearly everyone knew about these amazing machines. The span of time between “get a horse!” and “prices as low as $300!” was surprisingly short.
We all know that Henry Ford’s Model T changed the auto industry in 1908 and made car ownership feasible for the middle class. We don’t often hear about the cultural elements that laid the groundwork for the Model T’s market dominance. In our mind’s eye we see prim, old-timey men with excellent posture, wearing derbies and suits, puttering around in little open-top carriages. We picture flickering black-and-white film reels of sped-up characters cranking engines and stumbling as their machines roll off without them. We think of the punchlines of slapstick comedy that Buster Keaton perfected, making every subsequent car joke until present day derivative of his mastery.
The Model T raises vague memories of elementary school lessons in the concepts of mass production and assembly line efficiency, and high school economics chapters on the economy of scale. We don’t think of the speed of the Model T’s predecessors. We don’t think of horsepower. We don’t think of feats of engineering and record-setting and beasts of unparalleled power. But that was exactly the environment that gave rise to the Model T.
At the turn of the century automobiles were bespoke machines, assembled by hand and extremely expensive. It was the Brass Era, when luxurious horseless carriages had all-brass trimmings, tufted-leather seats, horsehair-stuffed benches, and lacquered wooden frames. The top models were crafted to be the best, sold to the wealthiest members of society, and often over-engineered for speed and performance. This limited the acceptance of the car in the broader culture, as manufacturers didn’t bother targeting anyone but the devastatingly wealthy. Growth of the American auto market was initially slow as a result.
Europe took to the introduction of cars before America caught on. It was the establishment of road racing as a sport in Europe that lit the fire beneath America’s boiler (steamer puns, ha!). Europeans set speed records again and again, establishing names and fame and accruing bragging rights that American auto manufacturers couldn’t compete with. This didn’t sit well with some of the offspring of the wealthy families of the Gilded Age. Men like William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. looked across the ocean and wondered why the US couldn’t compete. These men brought racing to our shores and established the first road races in the early days of the 1900s.
Enter Henry Ford and the Ford 999.
Henry Ford acquired the capital to establish his automobile manufacturing business by winning a race against fellow car manufacturer Alexander Winton in a 26hp model of Ford’s own design in 1901. His first business broke up due to disagreement with his partner, and in the aftermath of that breakup he invested $5k (over $100k in 2017 dollars) in the development of a pair of speed machines known interchangeably as the 999. Cited inconsistently as anywhere between 70 and 100hp, this stripped-down speed demon was steerable by a handlebar-style tiller, something like a mountain bike.
When the car failed to start at its debut race in 1902 Ford sold the 999 to a young man named Barney Oldfield for $800. Oldfield was a bicycle racer and had previously only tried a gasoline-powered bike before tackling the 999. He learned to drive on Ford’s machine and won his first race the very same day. Oldfield went on to become one of the the most famous early race car drivers, a record setter and the first man to ever drive a car over 60mph. His most famous car was the “Blitzen Benz.”
But hang on, I’m not actually here to tell you about Henry Ford and the Ford 999. I want to share a lesser known story about a Pope-Toledo known as “The Merry Widow,” whose ignoble history I’ve pieced together through a number of original sources dating back to 1909.
As I mentioned, Willie K. Vanderbilt was one of the wealthy young men whose taste for luxury and love of automobiles combined with a natural jingoism to establish American auto racing. In his first effort to legitimize the sport he created the Vanderbilt Cup road race in 1904. This nearly-annual race that took place over unpaved roadways on Long Island quickly cemented the automobile’s place in American culture. It was here that auto manufacturers vied for placement, to establish their names among the best for speed and reliability. The 1904 race was won by a French Panhard, followed by a French Clement-Bayard, and an American Pope-Toledo. And oh yes, there’s film footage.
The 1905 Vanderbilt Cup race was attended by more than 100,000 people, which made it the largest sporting event in U.S. history to date. A French car took the win again. The closest American placement went to a Locomobile, which came in third. American brands were desperate for a win.
Here’s some more footage because it’s absolutely amazing to watch.
This next one shows how absurd and disastrous the steering was during those days. Check out 17:53 for an impressive accident and 22:55 for a frightening one. At 24:00 the footage shows a dead driver being carried away from an accident.
In 1906 the French won the Vanderbilt Cup again, and in the race’s aftermath Willie K. and his rich friends established the American Highway Association and built the Long Island Motor Parkway, the first road built explicitly for automobile use.
In 1908 Americans got their win. A Locomobile known as “Old 16” piloted by big-name driver George Robertson took the cup for the very first time. Americans had established that they could compete with French and Italian brands and the race world exploded with entrants who fought to take titles and set as many records as possible.
By 1909 racing had embraced the concept of the “stock-car,” which usually stipulated that the entrants had to be models which were up for sale to the general public with a minimum number of models already manufactured. The stipulation could vary from race to race, and many races included events for both stock cars and specialized racers. While some drivers owned their vehicles, oftentimes manufacturers would enter races themselves and hire established drivers prior to race day to pilot their machines to victory.
The list of names one encounters when reading about this period in American history contains familiar ones, like Louis Chevrolet, who drove a Buick in what seems like the punchline of an ironic joke in hindsight. Names like Fiat and Renault still exist, but others like Christie, Isotta, Stearns, Simplex, Apperson, Matheson, Marmon, and Pope-Toledo, just to name a few, have faded from common memory. But during their day they were hot contenders for racing titles and highly sought-after by wealthy car enthusiasts.
Pope-Toledo started out as the Pope Motor Car Company. Pope struggled to compete in a hot automobile market and attempted to diversify into a number of lines by acquiring other brands. They offered the Pope-Hartford, Pope-Robinson, Pope-Tribune, Pope-Waverly, and Pope-Toledo. The Pope-Toledo was the most expensive of its lines, and was marketed exclusively to the very wealthy, especially those who had a need for speed.
The Pope-Toledo brand was well-respected and the quality of fabrication was undeniable, but there just weren’t enough rich playboys to go around. Unable to keep up with the exponentially expanding field of competitors, Albert Pope filed for bankruptcy in 1907 and passed away in 1909. His company limped along for a few more years after his death before closing its doors. It just wasn’t cost effective to produce the way they produced when Ford was cranking out mass-marketed affordable models. But they tried their hardest to make their name, and in 1909 they built a beast of a car that became known as “The Merry Widow.”
Profiled in an article in the Atlanta Constitution on July 2, 1909, this vehicle was built especially for the Vanderbilt Cup race but for some reason never appeared in a Vanderbilt Cup line-up. Instead the Pope Motor Car Company gave the car to Asa Candler, Jr., a wealthy and well-known amateur driver from Atlanta, Georgia. That same month Candler kicked off an ambitious project to build the Atlanta Speedway and hold record-breaking races by November of that year. This Pope-Toledo, valued between $10-35k, was gifted to him as a thank-you for his efforts to support auto racing. Now, let’s split the difference on that valuation and call it $25k. In 2017 dollars that works out to more than $600k. That’s an expensive racer. Pope wasn’t kidding around, they wanted a win and they wanted it now.
At 136hp, this four-cylinder powerhouse was called a “two-mile-a-minute car” by the press. Its tank held 36 gallons of gasoline and could go 500 miles without fueling up (for the curious, that’s a gas efficiency of about 13.8 mpg). Described as “nearly all engine” the chassis was stripped down to the essentials. It weighed 2,202 lbs, of which the engine accounted for 1800 lbs. Painted a color known as “French gray,” one fanciful writer described it as a “graveyard rabbit,” just one of the many grim phrases used to describe this vehicle during its short life. The exhaust pipes that emerged from the side of the hood were described as sounding like a Gatling gun when driven at high speeds. Guaranteed to reach 125mph, Pope’s test driver clocked in at 127mph during its maiden drive and claimed it hadn’t topped out yet.
Allow me to put this car into context. Some of the biggest names in racing were lined up for the first Atlanta Speedway event in November of 1909. They brought their biggest and baddest cars. In reviewing the list of entrants, only three of the competing cars approached the 136hp Pope-Toledo. None exceed it.
Notice you don’t see The Merry Widow in that line-up. This is where her story gets fun.
The 1909 Atlanta race was open to professional drivers only, with the exception of one amateur event. This meant Candler couldn’t drive his own car in the big races. And although he wasn’t averse to driving fast (in my research I’ve seen him described as “reckless,” “fearless,” and “one of the worst” to ride with) I’m not sure he would have wanted to drive in this race. Wealthy men who owned showy race cars liked to hire big names to drive on their behalf. It was what one did, when one had the means. This meant the President of the Atlanta Speedway had to find someone to drive his car or he wouldn’t be represented at the event. God forbid.
During an exhibition race on October 23, 1909, which was intended to drum up press for the November event, Candler hired a young man named Louis Cliquot to drive The Merry Widow in a speed trial. Cliquot was a rookie, totally unknown to the racing world. If you go searching for his racing record you will come up nearly empty-handed. As it turns out Louis Cliquot was actually a local Atlanta kid named Florence Michael who had chosen Louis Cliquot as his alias. I have only found a single record of Louis Cliquot competing outside of the 1909 Atlanta event. In 1910 he drove a Knox, led for zero laps, and dropped out due to a broken crankshaft. And then his racing career was over.
Candler hired this young man, a novice in the racing world, to drive his most powerful car at the exhibition race. I’m making a point of this because The Merry Widow enjoyed a fairly unpleasant reputation among sports journalists who covered the auto racing beat. Driven to purple prose, writers described the car as ornery, temperamental, spiteful, and my favorite description, “a car of ill-repute and worse manners.” Many drivers had passed on the opportunity to drive it, preferring not to run afoul of its fury. But young Cliquot was keen to establish his name in the racing world, and the invincibility of youth probably played a part in his willingness to take on the beast. Fortunately the exhibition went off without a hitch and Cliquot drove the Pope-Toledo without incident, although he kept it well below the two-mile-a-minute mark.
Then the November “Auto Week” arrived. On the first day of the five-day event Louis Cliquot went into the Pope-Toledo’s garage at the track and hand-cranked the engine. These were the days of turning a rod beneath the radiator on the front of the car, that classic mechanism we’ve all seen in old cartoons. Cliquot went to crank the engine, when suddenly it backfired and kicked back, wrenching the crank into a reverse rotation and fracturing his arm in three places. Cliquot was out, not to race again until May of 1910, and then never again.
Candler was back to having no driver, and this would not stand. He approached Charles L. Basle, one of the two Renault drivers, and asked if he would take on the Merry Widow. Mind you, these were professional drivers, so this request came with a paycheck. Given the last-minute urgency and Candler’s reputation for playing fast and loose with his money, it was likely a hefty offer. Basle worked on the engine for a day, trying to tune it up to racing condition. In those days race cars went down in the blink of an eye, setting records one second, rattling to broken bits the next. Frequent tune-ups were part of the game. Basle put some time in but ultimately decided to politely decline.
He passed the opportunity over to Hugh Judson “Juddy” Kilpatrick, who had arrived with the Hotchkiss that he’d driven in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup race. Unfortunately for Kilpatrick the Hotchkiss was dead on arrival and refused to be resurrected. This left Kilpatrick without a car, and without a chance at any of the prize money, much less the cup. He was a racer of great renown, having set the straight-away record at Long Island at 37 seconds for a mile, but now he was out of the running. Candler agreed to let him drive the Pope-Toledo if Kilpatrick was willing to take it on.
Kilpatrick took a look under the hood and tinkered around to see what he could do. Walter Christie approached Kilpatrick and advised him not to drive it. He said it was too dangerous, that its speed was greater than the cylinders could stand. Christie was an auto manufacturer as well as a racer, so he knew machines. And he knew 100+hp machines, having brought one himself to the races. His own racer had been speed tested by Barney Oldfield, who later played up its dangerous performance, dubbing it the “Killer Christie.” It’s telling that Walter Christie was willing to get behind the wheel of the Killer Christie but advised Kilpatrick to give The Merry Widow a pass. Kilpatrick disregarded his warning and agreed to pilot the Pope-Toledo for Thursday’s events.
On day four of the five-day event Kilpatrick got the Pope-Toledo up and running. Before the long day of races began he requested a chance to take it around the track and get a feel for it before vying for a win in the 50-mile free-for-all. At 2 miles per lap, his chosen race would require 25 laps without major incident. A test drive was a fair ask. He and his mechanician, Roland B. Church, climbed in and set off on their first circuit.
He quickly got The Merry Widow up over a mile a minute. Walter Christie manned the stopwatch and clocked her at 85mph as she went into the turn at the south end of the track and accelerated into the back stretch. That was when something went wrong.
As Kilpatrick and Church flew into the back stretch the engine blew a piston and two cylinders ejected through the hood of the car, shooting high into the air and blowing the hood off. Kilpatrick reached for the clutch but found it frozen. The engine ignited in a 20-foot sheet of flame as the car veered uncontrollably to the outer fence, where the banked track dropped off sharply on the other side. The fence took the blow and redirected the car back onto the track but the impact bucked Kilpatrick and Church free. Without so much as a safety belt there was nothing to hold them secure, so they flew an estimated 150 feet, over the fence, and down into the ditch on the other side where a pile of brush took the brunt of their fall.
The car “turned turtle” by hurling itself onto its side before tumbling over and over until it came to rest in the middle of the track. Then, as one writer of the day described it, “it burst into flame out of spite.”
The Atlanta Speedway featured a state-of-the-art track surface, developed in response to an accident at the Indianapolis Speedway’s first race where chunks of asphalt broke apart, resulting in the death of a driver (this was just one of five deaths that occurred at that event). Atlanta’s track was built on a substrate of red clay, topped with Augusta chirt and coated in a special oil to bind the road surface together. Unfortunately for The Merry Widow, Asa Candler, Jr., and the 40,000 race attendees, this special asphaltum was flammable. The Merry Widow burned furiously for over an hour before crews could extinguish the flame and safely remove her from the track. They hurled the charred hulk of iron and steel over the fence and then moved on with the day’s events.
Kilpatrick and Church were fine, incidentally. Although they were tossed more than 150 feet over the bank and into a ditch, they both walked away from the accident. On-scene emergency crews found Church climbing back up the bank to the track, laughing and without a scratch on him. Kilpatrick had a few minor cuts and bruises as well as burns on the right side of his face where the flame had blown back from the engine. His right eyelid was burned, and due to concern over the possibility of losing his sight, he was rushed to the hospital. Christie visited him in the hospital later, and Kilpatrick reportedly said to him, “You were right, Walter, I sure was lucky.” Christie responded, “You bet you were.” Kilpatrick fully recovered from his injuries. The carcass of The Merry Widow was unceremoniously disposed of and never rebuilt. Out, out, brief candle.
As a post-script to The Merry Widow’s story I should mention day five of the races. Now that The Merry Widow was dead, Atlanta Speedway President Asa Candler, Jr. was left without a car to compete. So he did what any wealthy car enthusiast with more pride and money than sense would do. He approached the driver with the best performance over the past four days and offered to buy his car. That driver happened to be George Robertson, the very same driver who bagged the first American win in Old 16 at the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup.
Robertson had showed up to the Atlanta races with a red 90hp Fiat (sometimes reported as 60hp, but less consistently so) and set impressive times in event after event. He had the most solidly winning machine on the track at that point. On Friday morning, the last day of the event, Candler approached Robertson and offered to buy his Fiat right then and there. That would make Robertson his driver, and give him the best chance for a win in the hotly anticipated 200-mile race. Robertson accepted and the line-up was set.
Robertson was the favorite to win, and for 163 miles he held the lead. Then the Fiat’s chain gave way and the car ground to a halt. He did his best to perform a fast repair and get back into the race but he was unable regain the lead. Impressively, he came in second in spite of the breakdown, but the win went to L. A. Disbrow in his Rainier. In third and fourth place both Renaults put in solid times, emerging from the five-day event with the best demonstration of reliability. Ray Harroun in a Marmon was a distant 5th, and only did that well because every other car dropped out.
Louis Strang’s oil pump broke. Louis Chevrolet’s Buick had a total breakdown of its transmission. Both of the Chalmers-Detroit cars were out at the start. The Apperton threw a spring. In the end only 5 finished the race out of the 11 that started.
And where was Barney Oldfield in all of this? It turns out his Benz was outclassed from day 1. Unable to beat the big Fiat, he sat most of the races out. Resigned to his fate, Oldfield told reporters, “Louis Strang has the fastest car in the world at present.”
What Oldfield did with his free time at the track during those five days and the drama that erupted in the months that followed is a story for another day.