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A Nevadan in Paris, and vice versa: How the Silver State had a role in popularizing the automobile

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy John Peterson, National Automobile Museum.

John W. Mackay, unlike many of his ultra-rich contemporaries, wasn’t enamored with the automobile. Then again, not a lot of people were in the mid-1890s, before the invention had yet to prove itself as reliable transportation. Nevertheless, he invested a few thousand dollars in a highly touted automobile contest in the summer of 1895 and in the process sealed Nevada’s place in automobile – particularly French automobile – history, as one historian will argue this month at the National Automobile Museum.

“He just saw it as a way to further mankind,” said John Peterson, president of Les Amis de Panhard & Deutsch-Bonnet USA, referring to Mackay.

And, of course, Mackay had the dough. An Irish immigrant, Mackay worked as a shipwright in New York for a while before sailing for California to take part in the Gold Rush. When that didn’t really pan out for him (pun intended), he began to mine for silver in Nevada and eventually made a fortune as one of the four “bonanza kings.”

Along with James Gordon Bennett Jr., Mackay is perhaps best known for competing against robber baron Jay Gould in the race to lay telegraph cables across the Atlantic. As Peterson noted, however, Mackay and Bennett co-invested in a host of ventures, among them the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris contest.

Technically a concours and not a race, Paris-Bordeaux-Paris covered about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) over public roads and attracted 30 entrants, almost all of them French and driving French steam or gasoline engine-powered cars (with a couple electrics for good measure). It grew out of the Paris-Rouen race of the previous July, a contest organized in part to popularize the automobile and in turn to stimulate the French motor industry.

Of the race’s entries, Panhard needed little stimulus by 1895. After obtaining a license to manufacture and market Daimler engines in France, Panhard’s Emile Levassor built his first experimental automobile in 1890 and put it on the road by January of 1891. The next year, the company went into production, and by 1895 about 100 Panhard-Levassor automobiles were on French roads.

Little surprise, then, that Emile Levassor, at the tiller of Panhard No. 5, dominated the contest and finished first with a time of 48 hours and 48 minutes. His Panhard used a front-mounted engine, which allowed a lower center of gravity (the predominant drivetrain configuration of the day placed the driver above a mid-mounted engine), a front-mounted radiator for the water-cooled engine, and a driveshaft rather than a drive chain. By a quirk of the rules, he didn’t win – the concours was reserved for four-seat vehicles while he ran it in a two-seater – but his performance showed the world that automobiles could traverse such distances without serious trouble or effort and could replace horses as primary means of transportation.

The influence of that race would be felt for years to come, but not soon enough for Mackay: His son, John Mackay Jr., died in a horse-riding accident in France that October and Mackay reportedly never overcame his grief before dying seven years later.

While Mackay’s Nevada-mined fortunes traveled with him to New York City and Paris, it took the fortune of another millionaire – Bill Harrah – to return a sort of memento of the race to Nevada. The Panhard et Levassor voiturette that Harrah bought, serial number 88, dated to 1892 and, though not the exact car that Levassor drove in the race, is “virtually identical,” according to Peterson.

After Harrah’s death in 1978, that car subsequently became part of the National Automobile Museum, where it resides today and will serve as centerpiece for Peterson’s talk on Nevada’s connections to the French automobile.

The Panhard talk will take place Thursday, August 9, at the museum in Reno, Nevada. Other talks in the museum’s series include discussions on the “when, what, why and how” of license plates; the untold story of General MacArthur’s wife’s car; how the Model A became a coveted car among Hollywood’s elite; and the history of gasoline dispensing systems. For more information, visit NationalAutomobileMuseum.org.