Way Back When … 1908
In the fall of 1908, a locally-made vehicle dominated America’s first international auto racing event, the Vanderbilt Cup race. At the time, car racing had already caught on in Europe, but it had yet to become popular in the United States. So, William Kissam Vanderbilt II started the Vanderbilt Cup in 1904 and offered a large cash prize. One of his goals was to encourage American car manufacturers to get involved in racing. It worked.
Andrew L. Riker, who moved to Fairfield in 1911, produced the first American car to win the esteemed Vanderbilt Cup. The “Old 16” of the Bridgeport based Locomobile Company of America, was driven by George Robertson on Oct. 24, 1908. Together with Jim Florida, who drove a reserve Locomobile, Robertson sped off to complete the 258-mile course. The race was intense. Robertson traveled back and forth between the first few positions throughout the race. With one last lap to go, suddenly, one of the “Old 16’s” tires blew out. Despite this setback, Robertson fiercely drove the car quickly and capably to first place, finishing one minute and 48 seconds ahead of the “Old 16’s” Italian rival, the Isotta, while Jim Florida pulled in third. The tension-filled race did not end at the finish line. Though the Isotta came in second place, the car was disqualified and left Florida in second, giving Riker and Locomobile a perfect gold and silver finish at the Vanderbilt Cup.
This victory gave American fans a long-awaited victory at the historically European dominated sport. It was such a historic feat, that on November 9, of that year, Bridgeport Mayor Henry Lee declared a holiday, and the “Old 16” was driven down the streets of Bridgeport in front of 30,000 people at an exhilarating 60 miles per hour. Following the race, the “Old 16” was retired and Locomobile focused on producing luxury cars in America and military trucks used by Britain, Russia, and the United States in World War I.
By the time Andrew L. Riker (1868-1930) moved to Fairfield in 1911, he had already claimed a prominent position in American history. He engineered successful electric cars before the end of the nineteenth century, an astonishing fact considering that electric cars are scarcely adopted in the United States today. Despite the company’s meteoric success in the early twentieth century, after a period of poor business management, Riker left the company in 1922. Though the company dissolved by 1936, the “Old 16’s” Vanderbilt Cup victory created a lasting legacy for Riker and the company. Today, the story of Locomobile and the “Old 16” are displayed at The Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, celebrating this important piece of American and Connecticut history. A photo of the “Old 16” can be viewed at https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/20463/#slide=gs-215539.
The Vanderbilt Cup from 1908 is on display here in Fairfield in the Fairfield Museum’s “Creating Community” exhibition. The Museum is open daily from 10am to 4pm and is located at 370 Beach Road. For more information, call 203-259-1598 or visit Fairfieldhistory.org.
The Fairfield Museum relies on funding from individuals, corporations, and foundations. The Museum is especially grateful for support from the Department of Economic and Community Development, Connecticut Office of the Arts, the State of Connecticut, Town of Fairfield and Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. Members of the Museum and children under 5 are admitted free.