IT was pouring rain that gloomy June morning as a crowd gathered under umbrellas at curbside on a New York City street. The Maxwell, a forest green touring car with a leather-like pantasote top, was parked by the curb exactly at the place where the Lincoln Center now stands. The year was 1909, the same year that Robert E. Peary set foot on the North Pole. Next to the car stood a dimpled and impatient Alice Huyler Ramsey. She wore a bulky, ankle-length black poncho and rubber helmet with detachable goggles. Someone had given her a bouquet of carnations. Undaunted by rain or tradition she smiled for the photographers, as did the three women next to her.
But the dimples and smile were mere camouflage. This 21-year-old Alice H. Ramsey was half steel, half lightning rod in an era when nearly all women washed, ironed, changed diapers, and cleaned their houses instead of even thinking of driving a 2,100-pound car 4,000 miles from New York to San Francisco. Ramsey didn't toy with the idea; she was doing it.
``If we're going to go,'' she murmured, ``let's go.'' Ramsey knew - come rain or mud or broken axles - she was about to become the first woman ever to drive a car across the United States. Before her journey no more than two dozen automobiles had finished coast to coast runs, and not a single woman had dared attempt such an endurance feat.
Ramsey's passengers, Mrs. Margaret Atwood, Mrs. Nettie Powell (both sisters of Ramsey's husband, John), and Miss Hermine Jahns, were simply passengers. None of the three could drive. The journey would fail or succeed in the strong hands of the mechanically inclined young woman from Hackensack, N.J., driving a four-cylinder, 30-horsepower Maxwell. The car had no gas gauge except for a wooden dipstick, and no windshield.
``Where are your guns?'' asked a photographer.
``We aren't carrying any,'' said Ramsey getting ready to start the Maxwell with a hand crank on the front end.
``What about protecting yourselves?'' the photographer persisted, perhaps thinking of the far West where Indians and bandits still attacked travelers.
Ramsey's dimple disappeared. ``We're not afraid,'' she said in a calm voice and a gaze that could melt a lens cap. She yanked the crank; the Maxwell roared into life and Ramsey jumped into the driver's seat on the right side to retard the throttle. Then with a last kiss to her husband, she steered the puttering Maxwell up rain-soaked Broadway, destination San Francisco.
In 1909, there were virtually no paved roads and few signposts in the United States once a car left the urban areas. There were only a handful of gas stations anywhere in the country. Standard Oil of New Jersey was the major purveyor of kerosene in those days, and gasoline from Standard was still a fledgling market piggybacked on existing kerosene outlets such as hardware stores, grocery stores, and drug stores across America.
A gallon of gas in Ramsey's time was around 14 cents. Despite the fact that only 120,000 automobiles were manufactured in 1909, the automobile industry was on the verge of an explosive decade. By the end of 1909, there would be 290 automobile manufacturers in the US. The internal combustion engine was the engine of choice over steam and electric.
The Maxwell-Briscoe Company, sponsors of Ramsey's trip, had hired John D. Murphy, automobile editor of the Boston Herald, as the advance man. In Ramsey's 1961 book, ``Veil, Duster and Tire Iron,'' she remembers Murphy as ``a highly galvanized gentleman, a good-looking, neatly-groomed Irishman with curly hair.''
Murphy usually rode the train ahead of Ramsey and smoothed out a hundred details at prearranged stops. He talked with the press, had Maxwell dealers and mechanics on hand and did his best to ar- range for hotel rooms, gasoline, and food.
The novelty, of course, was a woman at the wheel of a Maxwell, which added up to splendid publicity. Carl Kelsey, sales manager of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company in Tarrytown, New York, had been impressed with Ramsey's driving ability when she drove a red Maxwell runabout during short endurance runs around New Jersey and New York. Publicity-conscious down to his spats, Kelsey had personally driven Maxwells up and down stairways to promote the car's rugged dependability. He said Ramsey was ``the greatest natural woman driver I've seen yet.''
Asking Ramsey to drive one of his cars across the country (with three women passengers) was not necessarily a calculated risk. By no means were automobiles beloved machines in the public eye in 1909, nor were women generally regarded as capable of even driving around the block. A doctor at the time said, ``... a speed of 15 or 20 miles an hour in a motor causes [women] acute mental suffering, nervous excitement, and circulatory disturbances ... extending into the night and causing insomnia.''
Another doctor suggested that women were highly susceptible to ``automobile face,'' a condition of a perpetually open mouth caused by wind currents.
But Kelsey fostered no such myths; the Maxwell, with its short piston stroke of four inches and all-steel frame, was a rugged car. And by trusting Ramsey's ability, he was announcing that the Maxwell company encouraged women to drive. Kelsey knew that a byproduct might be an enlightened husband's decision to buy a Maxwell as the family auto so his wife could drive too. Kelsey was gambling with all the odds in his favor.
THE condescending word of the time used to describe Alice H. Ramsey was ``plucky.'' But as Ramsey drove her Maxwell up Broadway in the rain, whatever pluck she had was grounded in a thorough knowledge of engines, mechanics, and driving skill. Her father, captain of a steam launch, had always encouraged his daughter's interest in machines. Said Ramsey, ``My father, who had magic in his fingers, understood my interests and encouraged me.''
On the first day of the historic journey, Ramsey drove 76 slippery miles to Poughkeepsie and stayed in a hotel. In addition to the three passengers, on board was a box of spare parts, tire chains, heavy steel spring leaves, a jack, hand pump, tire irons, spare inner tubes, patch kits, and two spare tires. Later a shovel, tow rope, and block and tackle were added. Each woman was allowed one suitcase which contained ``city'' clothes and a change of driving clothes.
Add to the above a gallon water jug, a canvas water bag, a camera, a small Sterno stove, and a hamper basket of food. The well-known Blue Books, published as driver guides, covered only the eastern US then. When Ramsey reached western New York, she was traveling into the unknown.
To be continued tomorrow.