Driving in a New York State of Mind
A busy first of two media days at the 2017 New York International Auto Show saw plenty of new product presentations, ranging from a four-cylinder Jaguar F-Type to a twin-turbo Lincoln Navigator to an 840-horsepower Dodge Challenger, but as the day neared its close it was a modest display of select vintage cars that captivated our attention.
The major manufacturers’ new product presentations are always splashy affairs, and this year they ran the gamut from the mundane (a new grille on the Acura TLX sedan) to the questionable (Nissan based its Rogue-centric display on a Star Wars theme). Hiding in plain sight were fun vehicles such as Jeep’s 707-hp supercharged Trackhawk and odd choices such as Chrysler’s uninspired display including a Chrysler 200 sedan, a car that has been dropped from production.
On the middle level of the Jacob Javits Convention Center, we found the display assembled by the Saratoga Automobile Museum from Saratoga Springs, New York, and it was a display entirely appropriate for the venue: Vehicles with direct connections to automobile manufacturing and automobile racing in the State of New York.
Today most people do not associate the Empire State with the auto industry, but over the past century New York has been home to more than 100 distinct auto manufacturers. Some, such as Pierce-Arrow and Franklin, are well-known to vintage car aficionados, as are coachbuilders such as Brewster. The Thomas Flyer, which won the 1908 New York-to-Paris race, is reasonably well-known, and the Griffith, put together in a New York City suburb by Ford dealer Jack Griffith, is known to hard-score sports car enthusiasts.
Other car builders may be little more than footnotes in automotive history, but the purpose of a museum is to preserve history and so the Saratoga Museum’s display included a 1947 prototype of the Playboy, a car of which just 97 examples were produced in Buffalo. Adjacent to the Playboy in the museum’s display was a car billed as the “Sensuale,” a far more recent creation by a gentleman in New York State and powered by a Ferrari V-12.
In addition to cars built in New York, the Saratoga Automobile Museum displayed cars that raced in New York, and here again, New York’s racing heritage is not as well-known as it deserves to be. Racing fans know about Watkins Glen, of course, home to the Formula One World Championship series for two decades and today host to both NASCAR Cup series racing and the Indycar series. Older fans will recall with fondness the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, which opened in 1957 and closed in 1998. But New York State has been, and to a great extent still is, sprinkled liberally with lesser-known race tracks.
The Vanderbilt Cup, one of the first major races to take place in the United States, was conducted on Long Island, beginning in 1904. That race was run on public roads, as were the first Watkins Glen and Bridgehampton races before dedicated race courses were built. But eight years earlier, in 1896 (!) some six cars competed in New York State’s first automobile race, an on-road race from New York City to Irvington-on-Hudson and back, roughly a 25-mile distance completed at an average speed of ten miles per hour.
In the 120 years since, across the state, more than 35 speedways have held races sanctioned by NASCAR – and that does not begin to count the tracks that have staged races outside of the NASCAR sphere. Even Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, only a few blocks from the Javits Center, has seen wheel-to-wheel racing under its roof. When Midget racing boomed in the years surrounding World War II, short tracks cropped up everywhere – even inside the Polo Grounds stadium in the Bronx – and at least one of these tracks, Riverhead Raceway on Long Island, is still active today.
On display the museum had the Alco “Black Beast,” a car which raced in the first two Vanderbilt Cups and which also raced in the first Indianapolis 500. Steps away from the Black Beast was a 1950 Allard J2 that had raced in the Seneca Cup at Watkins Glen that year, finishing second behind winner Phil Walters. Walters also raced in the Midgets, using the nom de course Ted Tappet, and so it was fitting that a beautifully-restored Offy Midget was also on display. This particular Midget had been raced extensively throughout New York and elsewhere by championship-winning New Yorker Ed “Dutch” Schaefer.
Additional cars with a New York connection grace the Saratoga Automobile Museum display, along with placards which explain not only the cars but the context, including one documenting the 117-year history of major auto shows in New York City.
Densely-populated New York City is not a car town – even we parked in New Jersey and took a ferry across the Hudson to the Javits Center – yet the New York International Auto Show is consistently the best-attended auto show in the country and the number one ticketed event in New York City each year. More than four million people visited the show last year. We recommend visiting not only the show (which is open to the public April 14 through April 23) but also the Saratoga Automobile Museum (which is open every day except Mondays). And don’t forget to check out all the great car museums across the country listed on CarShowSafari.com’s Auto Museum Alley.
Museum photos by Tomm Scalera
Nissan image selected from NYIAS Media Center.