If women had been in charge, we might have been driving electric cars for more than a century

Review: Vivien Horler

The Race to the Future – The adventure that accelerated the 20th century, by Kassia St Clair (John Murray/ Jonthan Ball)

In the world’s quest for fewer polluting emissions, electric cars are being touted as the next new best thing. And best they might be – but they’re certainly not new.

As author Kassia St Clair tells us, at the turn of the 20th century around 40% of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38% by electricity and just 22% by petrol, “which had a reputation for being smellier, noisier, less reliable and prone to price fluctuations”. (As we South Africans well know, bracing ourselves on the first Wednesday of every month.)

This is one of hundreds of fascinating facts St Clair has uncovered in this amazing title.

Central to the narrative is the description of the longest, toughest car race or rally ever have been held, from Peking (now Beijing) to Paris in 1907, over around 13 000km on roads that varied from good (although often cobbled for the convenience of horses) in major cities to dirt roads to mule and camel tracks.

There were no filling stations, and for the first 80% of the route, from Beijing to Moscow, nowhere to get hold of essentials like spare tyres, tools, lubricants and various other parts all motorists were advised to carry, even on short trips. Fuel supplies had to be cached along the route, often carried to the cache point by camel.

The race was sponsored by the Paris morning newspaper Le Matin, and was first mentioned by the paper on January 31, 1907, just five months before the start.

The idea – and the actual race – made international headlines from the beginning, with the London Sunday Times saying on August 1907 that automobiles could be agents for progress, civilisation and peace. “Wars are likely to disappear since the common interests will become so strong in the future that they will easily absorb the separate interests of the different nations.”

Sadly that was written just six years before the outbreak of World War 1.

At dawn on June 10, 1907, five cars lined up on the parade ground of the French Legation in Peking: A 34/45hp Itala, driven mainly by Prince Scipione Borghese of Italy; a 15hp Spyker, a Dutch-made car driven by Frenchman Charles Godard; two 10hp De Dion-Boutons, French-made cars driven by Victor Collignon and Georges Cormier, both French; and the tiny, three-wheeled 6hp Contal Mototri, driven by Frenchman Auguste Pons.

The Itala was heavy, but relatively powerful, the Contal battled as its single back wheel had to drive on the middelmannetjie, which made life difficult. Each car was piled with luggage and equipment.

In addition to the drivers, each car had at least one passenger – a mechanic, co-driver, navigator or one of the three journalists who covered the journey for their respective newspapers – Le Matin, Il Secolo, Corriere della Sera and the Daily Telegraph.

The race lasted for two months, with increasingly large crowds welcoming the lead car, the Itala, in capital cities, and half a million in a pouring wet Paris in early August. That isn’t really a spoiler, as Borghese’s car was the most powerful and he and his co-driver mechanic were in the lead from the start.

There were alarms and excursions, drivers got lost, the Contal was left behind,  the Spyker ran out of petrol in the Gobi desert and the journalist aboard nearly died, Godard turned out to be a conman, telegraph offices were shut when journalists needed to file copy, wooden wheels split, or found no traction on ice, some hills were so steep the cars had to go up them in reverse, the Itala’s wheels were trapped on a railway line with a train approaching, and also fell through a bridge, and for weeks the men ate little other than eggs and tea.

It was as tough a race as could be imagined. But that’s only half of the story. St Clair has interspersed her chapters on the race with chapters about the state of the world at the time which are truly fascinating.

We read about China in 1907, with the Qing dynasty about to collapse after nearly two millennia, the problems of opium addiction and Britain’s role in that; the development of the telegraph which meant news could be transmitted across the world in a matter of minutes rather than days and weeks (provided the operators weren’t stupefied by opium); early woman drivers; the toll of car accidents; what happened to the horses; why petrol won the fuel race (mainly thanks to the portability of petrol in World War 1).

I was absorbed by the description of early women motorists. In 1905 Dorothy Levitt was a racing driver who beat several men at the 1905 Brighton Speed Trials. She recommended other women drivers should always carry, in addition to the tools, inlet and exhaust valves and so on, chocolates, a handmirror (for checking your hair and what was behind you – cars didn’t have rear-view mirrors in those days) and “a small revolver”.

I love a book that is discursive, wandering off occasionally into absorbing topics about horses and the use of road spaces (they were often places where children played).

People were simply not used to the speed of cars compared to horse-drawn vehicles and many pedestrians died. The first recorded death of a pedestrian was Bridget Driscoll, 44, of Croydon in London, who died in August 1896 while out walking in Crystal Palace Park. The vehicle responsible had a top speed of 13mph but St Clair says was probably going much slower.

Today, 1.53 people die for every 10 000 vehicles on the road in the US; in 1913 the rate was 33.38 per 10 000 vehicles. In America, vehicle crashes have been the leading cause of death of children every year for the six decades leading up to 2020. (In a wry footnote, St Clair points out that since then firearms have become the leading cause of children’s deaths.)

By 2007, a century after the race, the world was a very different place. The home of the automobile had moved from Europe to the US, cars were very much faster, horses were rarely seen on the roads, suburbs had opened up and of course petrol was the fuel of choice.

It seems machismo has something to do with why the motoring world plumped for petrol rather than electricity.

Because electric cars were more suitable for short journeys, they became increasingly associated with women, who tended to stay closer to home. Vehicles with combustion engines, on the other hand, were seen as more masculine. So there we have it – had women been in charge of the world in the early 20th century…

My only quibble is the map of the route printed in the front, which for reasons that escape me, reads from left – Peking – to right – Moscow and Paris, when we all know if you look at a map of Europe and Asia, Paris is on the left and Peking the right. This has the effect of making Scandinavia and the boot of Italy face the wrong way.

Apart from that, this is a great and brilliantly readable book.


One thought on “If women had been in charge, we might have been driving electric cars for more than a century

  1. David Bristow

    Sounds absolutely marvellous. In 1989 I was invited to be one of several journos to cover a rerun of that race. However, as we were packing the Berlin Wall came down and the race sponsors feared there would be political unrest throughout the Soviet Union, so cancelled. Bummer, but I lived. 🙂


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