Feb 27 2010

The Amazing and Continuing Saga of the 1906 Locomobile Twins- Part I

Dean, thanks for forwarding your neighbor's recollection and for asking the question. I have heard the story of the discarded Locomobiles....from articles by Peter Helck (1893-1988), the great American artist and former owner of the "Old 16" Locomobile. But, let's start at the beginning.


Following a surprising third place finish in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race, Locomobile Company built two identical racers for the 1906 American Elimination Trial and the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race for a reported cost of $40,000 ($800,000 today). This rare photo showed the two cars together at their Lake Success headquarters (click on the image to enlarge it). Note that both cars have the #12 on their radiators, the entry number for the American Elimination Trial. Driver Joe Tracy commented; "Two cars were built to compete in the 1906 race, one being held in reserve. If necessary, there were also enough parts to assemble two more and even more of parts that were expected to break or wear out."


On the morning of the race, Tracy selected one of the twin #12 racers for the American Elimination Trial. Here is Tracy at the starting line on Jericho Turnpike in Westbury.


The #12 Locomobile won the American Elimination Race, averaging 52.3 miles per hour. This ad proclaimed Locomobile as "The Greatest American Car". Although the race was a time trial where starting position did not matter, the ad noted the "Locomobile started 12th, finished 1st". You have to watch out for those advertsing copywriters!!


There were high hopes for the Joe Tracy and the Locomobile in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race. However, the car was never a factor in the race as a series of tire failures put Tracy hopelessly behind and finished a disappointing 10th. In the only known film of the car, the Locomobile can be seen running as the #9 car at the Hairpin Turn in Old Westbury and at the Westbury grandstand.


Soon after the 1906 race, Locomobile began improvements to both race cars in preparation for the next Vanderbilt Cup Race. Among the engine changes were the conversion from a "make and break" ignition to dual "high tension" or "jump spark" with one set of spark plugs in the old igniter ports and another set in the brass caps over the exhaust valves. In addition, the timing gears were enclosed in cast aluminum covers fitted at the rear of the engine. Responding to the tire problems of the 1906 race, demountable rims were adopted which were expected to greatly improve performance.



With the cancellation of the 1907 Vanderbilt Cup Race, it would be two years until Locomobile would see the results of their improvements. Both identical cars were entered in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race, #1 driven by Jim (Joe) Florida and #16 driven by George Robertson.


Robertson drove the #16 Locomobile to victory, averaging 64.3 miles per hour and became the first American car to win a Vanderbilt Cup Race. Twenty-three year old Robertson took the checkered flag in front a huge crowd surrounding the Hempstead Plains (now Levittown) grandstand.


Running in third place behind Robertson and Lytle when the race was called, Florida, did not get word to stop and plunged the #1 Locomobile into the throng at the start-finish line. Note the smoke or steam vapor at the scene of the accident. Florida struck and injured an 18-year-old boy and then hit a touring car. Fortunately, none of the occupants of the touring car were injured and the boy recovered.

Despite the great performances by both cars in the 1908 race, the Locomobile Company decided to quit racing. "We soon found that the expense and time incidental to such competitions was out of all proportion to the benefits received".

So what happened to the Locomobile twins?


George Robertson's winning car soon became an American icon known as "Old 16" and was sent on a tour of Locomobile dealerships throughout the country and later stored in the barn of Locomobile designer A.L. Riker. In 1913, Old 16 was sold to Joseph Sessions, a Locomobile foundry supplier. Following Sessions' death in 1941, the car was sold to Peter Helck with the assistance of Joe Tracy. Here Peter Helck and his teenage son Jerry can be seen with Old 16 at one of their many tours taken with the car.


In an article "Sixty Years with Pallet, Paintbrush and Wheels" published in the July-August 1966 issue of Bulb Horn, Helck described his first meeting with Sessions, Tracy and Old 16:

"The car was in excellent condition and its presence prompted enquiries about the fate of its sister car, Tracy's reserve in the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race and No.1 in the 1908 running when driven by Joe Florida. Sessions believed its 16-litre engine had been installed in a boat and the chassis scrapped. Thus No. 16 was the sole survivor of the three racing specials designed by A.L. Riker for big time racing. The first, with a 7x7 power plant and built for the Gordon Bennett and Vanderbilt of 1905, had long passed into oblivion. The fate, alas, of many automobiles of historic worth.


After Peter Helck's passing at the age of 94 in 1988, the car was owned and maintained by his son Jerry. Based on his father's wishes to have the car available to the public, Old 16 eventually became part of the collection at the Henry Ford Museum in 1995. As seen in this photo, an early Henry Ford exhibit featured Old 16 and the Vanderbilt Cup on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. Until 2008, at least once a year, Old 16 was still running on the roads of Dearborn.

Dean, the story does not end here. Link here for Part II of this amazing saga featuring action around the Long Island Sound and a memorable visit to the archives of Peter Helck.

Links to related posts on VanderbiltCupRaces.com

Index: Old 16 Locomobile

Index: 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race


Feb 28 2010 H. Binney Beale 9:57 PM

Hello Howard, To add to the mystery, I have a letter dated Oct 11,
1906 addressed to my grandfather and signed by S T Davis jr, Pres
  of Locomobile indicating that they had a firm offer to sell one of
  the race cars for $15,000 and had not made a decision to sell it
  at that time. Further, the ALAM catalogue of 1907 pictures a
  Cup Racer for sale by the Locomobile Co for $15,000. Why would
  they be willing to sell one of the cars for a $25,000 loss if in
  fact they cost $40,000 to build?  I hope the readership can come
  up with a plausible answer. Regards, Binney Beale

Mar 01 2010 Ronald J Kellogg 1:07 AM

Dear Howard Kroplick, as you can see I’ve had the pleasure of looking over your fabulous web-site, sorry I can not furnish photo or film from the Vanderbilt Cup Races, but I do have the program from the 1936 event, I purchased the estate of Bunny Phillips of his racing career many years ago, Bunny race in the 1936 Race, I have a badge with all the flags & date of the race, Bunny was so broke at the time a good sportsman paid his enter fee of $125.00, Bunny did not finish the race, I have the receipt and all of Bunny’s racing drivers license from 1930 to 1946, he raced at Indy and finished 13th in 1941, even have the envelope saying $600.00 for 13th,several passes in the 30’s to 1954 Indy,season track pass to George Vanderbilt Cup 400 mile of 1936, and a practice day of 1936, a letter from from Roosevelt raceway, dated Jan22,1937, telling Overton Phillips what changes for the 1937 Race and a map of the changes signed by George Robertson-Vice President, many other race events around the U.S.the map shows the 1936 layout & the changes for 1937.  Overton Phillips AAA license says he drive’s a Bugatti Special.
At the present time I have someone very interested in all of Bunny Phillips items, but if you have an interest I’d be pleased to consider offers, as this Historical Treasure should be saved.  By the way Howard, I also have the New York Evening Journal Sept 1,1936 talking about the New Track, and a photo of layout.  I thank you for your enquire, it was a pleasure looking at these items that I have cherished for many years, sorry I do not have photos of the race, I do have a photo of the car he raced in 1941, and the I.D. plate for use on the car in 1946, never put on the dash. If ever in L.A. your welcome to stop come see my Archives.
Best Regards
Ronald J. Kellogg

Jan 16 2011 Cassandra 8:55 PM



Aug 13 2015 Elizabeth Wesstrom 11:12 PM

Please note Maple Cottage was a private home and never an inn as referred to
in the above article.

Oct 21 2019 Dick Gorman 3:24 PM

Mystery Foto #42…. The team shown in Old 16 was Joe Tracy and George Robertson.
I believe that the date that they drove together is 1908. Couldn’t find and answer to the last question.

Leave a Comment