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Late Great Glidden Tour


When the automobile was first presented to the public, it took some time for it to catch on. Roads were virtually tracks worn in the dirt, and there were no maps of roads used by wagons. Automobiles were unreliable for going more than short distances, and motoring laws pretty much reflected public opinion that automobiles were nothing more than toys for the idle rich. In fact, many felt cars should be severely restricted, if not totally outlawed.

Not everybody agreed, of course. People who owned cars – and believed they were the wave of the future – started forming motor clubs. Club members wanted to fight the rising number of unfair laws and regulations, and they also wanted better roads. Together, they began hand-sketching maps and writing down directions for good routes.

While these clubs were fairly successful in their own regions, they weren’t very effective on a national scale. So, in March 1902, representatives from nine motor clubs got together in Chicago and formed the American Automobile Association – or AAA.

The new organization came up with a plan to feature an automotive tour through different parts of the country, with the final destination being the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Seventy-seven cars participated in that first run – sixty-six went the distance; but, those were just the official entries. As touring cars moved cross-country, hundreds more joined them. The official participants drove 36 separate makes of automobiles, 32 of which no longer exist.

The run from New York to St. Louis was 1,350 miles long and took 18 days to complete. Motorists were given the best maps possible and were also informed of local driving laws they’d encounter along the way. Pilot cars helped mark confusing turns, and various clubs provided lists of hotels and eateries along the way. Each night, AAA arranged for cars to be parked in a central location so the public get a closer look.

The event was front-page news, and automobiles were discussed at dinner tables across America. Reporters got a better look at how confusing the laws were and also became aware of how poor many of their region’s roads were. Politicians – even at the national level – became embarrassed and started to respond to public pressure to correct the problems.

The event was repeated the following year, but this time, to attract sponsors, AAA announced the object would be to test the reliability and endurance of different cars. There would be strict rules, and there would be a winner. At that time, European-made cars were more popular, and American automakers saw a chance to turn that around – they became major sponsors. The event also got a new name – the “Glidden Tour” – because Charles Glidden, a wealthy New England industrialist, offered a $2,000 award to the winner.

The tour became an annual event charted over mountains and other rough roads. In fact, Glidden Tours were considered the grueling test a motorist could face, until the Indianapolis 500 began in 1911. Not everybody was impressed, however. Local constables set up speed traps, and drivers often got lost because locals would change the route markings or even laid things in the roads as practical jokes.

The last of the original Glidden Tours was held in 1913. In fact, it was on this date of that year that the tour visited Grand Forks on its way from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. By then, American auto manufacturers had proven their cars were reliable – they were winning every tour. Roads, too, had been improved, and motoring laws were now more fair and reasonable.


The Veteran Motor Car Club of America (http://www.vmcca.org/bh/1905.html).

Glidden Auto Tour History. AAA website: (http://www.aaapublicaffairs.com/Main.asp?SectionID=&SubCategoryID=4&CategoryID=3&ContentID=95&)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm