Photographs appear courtesy of Robert Elwell, Sr. and the Cape May County Historical & Genealogical Society.
In 1905 Cape May was a thriving national seashore resort. Many of the people coming to Cape May were fans of the new automobile or horseless carriages. They would take their cars on the stretch of sand from Madison Avenue to Poverty Beach for a ride.
In the spring of that year invitations went out to automobile owners in the City of Cape May inviting them to attend a meeting for the purpose of forming an automobile organization with the goal of transforming Cape May City beach into a national automobile speedway. As a result, there was an enthusiastic meeting of a large number of auto owners. A. H. Chadbourne was made temporary president. A. G. Batchelder, secretary of the Racing Board of the Automobile Club of America, who traveled all the way from New York to attend the meeting, was the guest speaker. Thus, the Cape May Automobile Club formed with Edward B. Smith of Philadelphia as its president. Jack Hiscock served as secretary. Fred Betz, III, J. N. Wilkins, and A. L. Depew formed a committee to select the vice presidents and to arrange for the details of final organization.
The Cape May Hotel (later called the Christian Admiral)
The beach they wanted to make a speedway was a stretch between the Life Saving Station (just east of Madison Avenue) and Sewell’s Point, where the beginning of the Cold Spring Inlet is located at the Coast Guard base today. Cape May’s beach was described as the best beach in the nation. Only the famous Ormond, Florida beach was considered better for racing new machines. As a result, race dates were set for July 29, August 25, and 26. The races would be run against time.
The organization felt extremely happy with the progress they had made in the first few meetings. Their chance of landing some of the country’s top automobile racers to race on the Cape May beaches would put Cape May on the national map. The race would attract some of the best race car drivers and their automobiles in the country.
Mr. Walter Christie was invited to the Cape May Speedway by the Cape May Automobile Club to see if he could break the world’s record for both the mile and kilometer in his famous 180-horsepower (hp) car. This would be the big event that for the first time would bring thousands to Cape May to witness the attempt. Christie felt confident that he could do this by speeding over the Cape May sand. Using his famous car in the Ormond/Daytona course, he drove a mile in 40 seconds (about 90 mph). This was the fastest mile time ever in an American-built gasoline car. It was reported that since that time, he had increased the power in his car and it would be the Cape May beach where the results would be recorded.
In the early racing days there was a famous Dewar challenge cup. At first, many thought Henry Ford would receive the Dewar cup by default since Walter Ross (who won the cup at Ormond) sold his racing car. Walter Christie sent a challenge to Henry Ford to race him on the Cape May beach where the winner would take possession of this prestigious challenge trophy.
In exchange for lending Henry Ford $400 to pay his hotel bill while staying in Cape May, Ford promised to make Daniel Focer (sitting at the wheel of the car) “the first Ford dealer in America,” and he did. Standing next to him, his partner Jay Mecray. Circa 1915.
The New York Journal reported that Louis Chevrolet would be coming to Cape May for the races in August to try to break the mile and kilometer records established on the Cape May beach in July by Christie. The Journal went on to report that, “Chevrolet will drive the 120 hp Fiat car which finished second in the recent Gordon-Bennett race in France. The car has been shipped from Italy for the Vanderbilt cup race, but is expected to be here in ample time for the Cape May race.”
Several American records were broken on Cape May sands. They were broken by America’s greatest driving experts of that time. But the race that all eyes were upon was the race on August 25, 1905 between Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, A. L. Campbell, and Walter Christie. Much was at stake on that summer day, namely prestige for the race car drivers. As for the spectators, jokes flew back and forth along the boardwalk and knickered kids hollered, “Get a horse!” No one that day realized how historically important that August 25, 1905 would be in automotive history.
Prior to the Cape May Automobile Club organizing, Mr. Winton, of Winton Automobile Works of Ohio, traveled to Cape May to test the beach for a race scheduled for August. Mr. Winton’s car was claimed to hold the world’s record for speed and he brought it with him. After he inspected the beach, he claimed Cape May beach to be the finest racing beach that he had ever found. Mr. Chadbourne of Philadelphia, who owned “a very handsome car,” was also in Cape May and made daily runs on the beach. Deeply involved in the automobile era, Chadbourne and Winton were looking to enter one of their cars in the Cape May beach races.
Mr. John Hiscock, a Philadelphia newspaperman, followed the race promoters while in Cape May and felt sure that the race would take place on the Cape May beach. D. Leroy Reeves, of the Philadelphia Ledger, also tagged along with the promoters. He claimed that Cape May beach would be the best place for the race. As word got around, eventually 25 machines (cars) came to Cape May with owners interested in the outcome of the test on Cape May beach.
Members of the Cape May Automobile Club pulled out all stops and did everything within their power to make these events a success. The leading automobiles of the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New York areas were being readied for action on the Cape May beach speedway when the racing began.
Cape May City and the committees in charge of the racing details worked feverishly with the anticipation of many prominent automobilists who would come to witness Christie’s record trial on the City’s beaches. The club decided that Mr. S. M. Butler, secretary of the Automobile Club of America, would take charge of the timing apparatus which was his usual assignment in big racing events. Mr. M. A. G. Batchelder, from the American Automobile Association (AAA), agreed to act as referee for the races. Mr. G. F. Wagner would act in the capacity as clerk of the course, which he did for all-important race meets in the country.
Driver Barney Oldfield (seated) and Henry Ford with the Ford 999 Race Car.
The auto club, and really the entire city, was excited about the automobile time trials to be conducted on the Cape May beach speedway. These trials would eventually lead to attempts at breaking the world’s record for speed in gasoline automobiles. Many prominent racing officials came to Cape May to examine its beach to see if it was satisfactory for racing. Among the officials was Robert Lee Morrell, chairman of the racing board of the AAA, who was the leading authority in racing matters in America.
Cape May’s auto club, which arranged for the time trials and races, offered two trophy cups – one to be known as the Cape May Trophy – was valued at $1,000 and the other valued at $500. Both cups were splendid examples of silversmith’s art and designed by J. E. Caldwell of Philadelphia. The Cape May Trophy would be awarded for the best time over a straightaway beach course for one mile. The other cup ($500) called the Kilometer Cup and would obviously be awarded for the best time on the beach’s kilometer course.
The auto club arranged to have seven other events to run the mile course. Amateurs in all makes of cars would be classified as to the horsepower of their cars and they would be trying for the best timed speeds. Chauffeurs and professional drivers would be in other events to show off their talents in handling their employers’ cars. All in all it would be quite a day for Cape May and racing in America. So much excitement was generated in the Philadelphia area that special trains were run on the Pennsylvania Railroad to ensure enthusiasts would get a chance to view the racing at the Cape May Beach Speedway.
Colonel John Tracy, manager of the Lafayette Hotel, said, “The racing would be one of the greatest events in the history of Cape May. I am satisfied that we have the best mile and kilometer course in the country and possibly the world. Should these meetings be held successfully as they now promise to be, a new attraction will be added to the many superior and natural advantages we already possess.”
The race, scheduled for July 29, 1905, was rained out and held the following day.
The Cape May Automobile Club had to get special permission from the AAA to race on a Sunday as the regular rules restricted Sunday racing.
Christie was victorious in his 8 cylinder, 180 hp Blue Flyer and took his great machine over the course several times. In these heats, the times were very close to the record and in three heats his time was 25.2 seconds or 90.72 mph. Finally, as the spectators and officials looked on, he was clocked at 25 seconds flat (89.28 mph) – a new kilometer record.
Christie told a local newspaper reporter, “I am gratified of course, by the performance, but not at all surprised. I believe I can clip a little more off the record on this beach.”
“How about the mile record?” the reporter asked.
“I have always believed I can lower the mile record on the Cape May beach, but conditions must be perfect.” Christie replied.
The Cape May Automobile Club sent out entry blanks for a two-day automobile meet and speed test to be held Friday and Saturday, August 25 and 26, under the official sanction of the AAA racing board. There would be a special prize for a free-for-all event for the mile and kilometer opened to the world. A one-mile gymkhana race; standing start; touring cars with three passengers and cars to be run three-eights of a mile. Also on the roster of events – stop car, unload all passengers who would select umbrellas from a barrel, open them before resuming their seats – car to continue as soon as all passengers were seated with umbrellas raised. First car crossing the mile finish line is the winner. If any umbrella was closed, broken, or turned inside out, the car would be disqualified.
According to Carrie Daly’s diary, August 25th, the first day of automobile racing, was fair all morning with rain starting about 11:30. She wrote that it rained very hard all afternoon. As track conditions were spongy from the rain, some of the racers put off racing until the next day.
An estimated 20,000 spectators viewed the first races. The boardwalk was lined for two miles.
Results of the races of August 25th were: Cedrino, in his 20 hp Fiat won the first event; Kelsey, in his Maxwell, made a good show for the second prize. In the second event, open to women, Mrs. C. C. Fitler, in her Packard with 28 hp, won in 56 seconds.
Events 5, 6, and 9 between the great racing experts were postponed, owing to unfavorable conditions. Henry Ford did not put in an appearance. Christie’s machine was not in perfect condition. Louis Chevrolet’s car was out of kilter.
Only Campbell, with his 80 hp Darracq (Red Devil) was in shape to race. Campbell, to please the crowd, went the kilometer distance in 25.8 seconds (86.51 mph) and 25.2 seconds (88.57 mph) His last trial was only one-fifth of a second behind Christie’s American record. However, had he beaten Christie’s record, it would not have counted officially. Christie, who was a favorite of the spectators, went the distance in 26.8 seconds (83.28 mph) and 26 seconds flat (85.85 mph) with a disabled car.
Cape May was proud of the officials of the Cape May Automobile Club who showed they were capable of handling the biggest events that had ever come to Cape May. According to reports “there were no problems throughout the city except for the rain that fell yesterday afternoon which prevented the breaking of the established speed records of the mile and kilometer.” All persons interested in automobiles said Cape May was destined to be the established home of the sport because the stretch of beach on which the trials was held was the finest in the country.
Due to the sponginess of the track on August 25, the $1,000 Cape May trophy was not offered, but would be up for grabs the next day. Just prior to the races on the 26th, Chadbourne went over the stretch of beach accompanied by a representative of the Daily Wave. It was apparent that the heavy rains also caused “many inequalities to appear,” but those involved in the race decided not to risk disappointing the great crowd assembled.
Campbell, with his Darracq machine, may have proved to have had a slight advantage in the heavy sand. His was said to be the best mud machine and would go best under these conditions. When Campbell’s remarkable time of 38 seconds was announced, a wave of approval swept along the two miles or more of boardwalk that was crowded with spectators.
Later in the race Henry Ford with his Six Cylinder Wonder was going at a terrific pace. Campbell, who pressed him for the lead, had a narrow escape from an accident that might have cost him his life. As the story goes, both were in the stretch of the second heat. Campbell intended to pass Ford on the ocean side. About this time his wheels slipped in water and the machine ran on one set of wheels momentarily, leading many to believe he would flip over. The crowd held its breath, but Campbell skillfully recovered control of his racer. As soon as it was obvious that Campbell was out of danger, racing enthusiasts lining the boardwalk gave him a hearty applause as he returned to the starting point.
In speed trials before Saturday’s race, repeated efforts by Christie and Ford met with disappointment, when they failed to break the time record for the mile. Louis Chevrolet made one effort in his 120 hp Fiat, but his car was disabled in the first heat in which his time was 40.6 seconds.
A Philadelphia newspaper man praised Henry Ford, “This man is a student of speed as well as a demonstrator. He has involved a racing car that has every appearance of having much greater speed than it showed yesterday (August 25, 1905). It takes a car some time to get tuned up. His new machine just fresh from the factory, had been run over the beach less than a half a dozen times before it was called upon to go against the time. When it gets to working right/well autoists expect great things of it.”
As Henry Ford had promised, he gave Dan Focer who most in Cape May called “Uncle Dan” the nation’s first Ford agency in 1908. Focer took J. Mecray as a partner who later opened a Ford Agency in Ocean City and one in Cape May Court House. Alec Lyle was told these facts by Dan Focer when he went to work as a car salesman in October of 1921.
In 1908 Ford produced the famous Model T and five years later it became the first car to be mass produced by the moving assembly line system of manufacture.
A local newspaper reported in 1908 that Dr. Emlen Physick sold his 400 acre farm just north of Schellenger’s Landing to Henry Ford of Detroit, Michigan. At the time Ford thought of having a branch manufactory of automobiles. Later he sold the farm to the United States government where Camp Wissahickon was built in 1917 as a Naval Training Station during World War I. This location would be around milepost “0” of the Parkway.
As you walk the promenade on a summer night and if you should happen to be near Madison Avenue it might not be unusual to hear, over the sound of the breaking waves, the ghostly shouts of the crowds egging on the racers driving their new machines – the apparitions might be the likes of J. Walter Christie, A. L. Campbell, Henry Ford, and Louis Chevrolet.