SIDNEY — Rodney Rucker’s replica 1907 Thomas Flyer elicits curiosity everywhere it goes, including Sidney this week, similar to the response its predecessor drew more than 100 years ago.
Rucker, who has gained fame for his extreme vehicle builds, visited Sidney to see the hometown of his friend, Scott Dorsey. The duo, along with Dorsey’s fiancée, Anna Remsberg, cruised around downtown Sidney on Tuesday afternoon in the Thomas Flyer replica.
Rucker’s vehicle actually was a 1918 American LaFrance, an old firetruck, that he reconfigured to replicate a 1907 Thomas Flyer. He wanted to build the Thomas Flyer because of the fame it gained in 1908 when an American team won a race against five other teams from France, Germany and Italy that went from Times Square in New York City to Paris – traveling approximately 22,000 miles in 169 days.
“It was just a massive achievement for the time,” Rucker said. “No one thought that cars were dependable enough that you could drive it that far, and they proved it.”
When the New York to Paris race commenced in February 1908, horses were widely thought to be more dependable than automobiles, which still were a relatively new form of transportation. Without a modern system of roadways, competitors faced rugged terrain and frequently had to repair their vehicles throughout the race that only three of the original six cars finished.
“They fought every obstacle known to man with no restaurants, no gas stations, no places to get gas. All the gas had to be shipped to them,” Rucker said of the racers, who drove across the United States, shipped their cars across the Pacific Ocean and then continued the race through Asia and Europe.
The spirit of long distance races is what forged the friendship between Dorsey and Rucker. They both were competing in a two-week race when Dorsey noticed Rucker’s vehicle was garnering lots of attention along the route, much like his Thomas Flyer replica does.
“I was noticing that every time he pulled into a town the local fire departments pulled all their equipment out, pulled this thing in, and the firemen worked on his car all night long and I’m out in the parking lot with a flashlight in my teeth working on my car,” Dorsey said.
The two men started talking every day during the race, and a friendship was formed. And when Dorsey founded Freedom Road Rally 15 years ago, Rucker was one of his biggest supporters.
Freedom Road Rally recently finished its first rally of 2019 and has another beginning on Tuesday, which is what brought Rucker east from his shop in Winslow, Arizona.
The 2019 rallies, which include 55 vehicles each from across the United States and Canada, travel through eastern Kentucky and Tennessee on a pair of five-and-a-half-day trips. Rucker with his replica Thomas Flyer is a featured guest along with Jeff Mahl, the great-grandson of George Schuster, who guided the 1907 Thomas Flyer to victory in the New York to Paris race.
The tour of classic cars includes a presentation from Mahl in which he takes on the persona of his great-grandfather and talks about the journey from New York to Paris and the challenges racers faced.
“Cars of today, you can tell them when you want them to run,” Rucker said. “The cars of that time, they’re quite a challenge. They tell you when they’re ready to go somewhere after a lot, a lot of work.”
Purchasing an authentic 1907 Thomas Flyer was cost prohibitive, so when Rucker wanted one of his own he replicated it with a 1918 American LaFrance.
“The American LaFrance replicates it in so many ways,” Rucker said. “The only thing that is really a little bit different is the radiator and the basic physical size is a little bit bigger than the Thomas, but if you didn’t know your cars real good you wouldn’t really know the difference in them.”
Rucker also put a later model motor in his version of the famous car to make it more dependable. But it still took months of work to get it ready for the 2019 Freedom Road Rally.
“Everything is 101 years old so it takes a while to make parts because you can’t get parts for it so you have to make them,” Rucker said.
Rucker originally created his Thomas Flyer replica for the 100th anniversary of the race from New York to Paris and had it entered into the Great Race 2008, which was canceled because of troubles with permits in China. This past year he put a new engine and transmission in it.
“It’s a man killer to drive,” Dorsey said. “It has standard steering. It has very little brake. The emergency brake … you’ve got to use the foot brake and the emergency brake to get it stopped. You’ve got to leave a lot of room. If you watch how he maneuvers, you’ll notice he leaves a lot of space.”
Along with his replica Thomas Flyer, Rucker has gained famed for his other car and truck builds. Among his notable vehicles is the World’s Largest Shopping Cart, which stands 15 feet tall at the push rail and can seat eight passengers in its basket. He’s also built several monster cars, a giant Roller Skate Car that the driver sits inside and other vehicles.
“Even when you see them you don’t believe them,” Dorsey said. “Extraordinarily unique.”
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