PHOENIX, Ariz. – Alan Travis remembers being at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction when he heard someone talking about a race for old cars, a course that started at Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California and ended at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a first-place prize of $100,000.
Travis was more than merely intrigued when he first heard about the race — The Great Race — back in the early 1980s. He bought a 1936 Ford at the auction and decided he’d enter the following year. He did. He liked it — he should, he’s won his class several times since — and he also decided that he wanted to compete in increasingly older vehicles.
Travis and his wife (and race navigator) Mary displayed the oldest vehicle at the annual Motoring Through Time car show staged by the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation department here in downtown Phoenix this year. That vehicle was not their 1907 Delaunay-Belleville Phaeton — though it was the oldest car in Heritage Square and Heritage & Science Park. But the oldest vehicle on display was the 1878 Pope Columbia high-wheeler bicycle they carried on the back of their phaeton in a bumper/bike rack.
SA des Automobiles Delaunay-Belleville was established at St. Denis, Seine, in France in 1904 and built cars until 1948. Before cars, Belleville produced Dreadnaught boilers used on ships. The name changed and the company started building motorcars after Louis Delaunay, a naval engineer, married into the Belleville family.
Delaunay-Belleville vehicles were among the best, and were owned by European royalty and heads of states.
However, Louis Delaunay died in 1912 and designer Marius Barbarou left. The company, now led by Delaunay’s sons, continued, but never regained the acclaim of its pre-war production.
The Phaeton owned by the Travises was imported from Australia by the acclaimed Harrah’s museum, was later sold to actor/racer Steve McQueen and then to McQueen’s stuntman and motorycycle-racing buddy Bud Ekins. Alan Travis bought the car from Ekins’ estate.
For good measure, the Travises also brought a 1915 Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a car show that this year was part of Arizona’s official Statehood Centennial celebration. Those entering the grounds were greeted by a 1912 Ford Model T and its 100-year-later successor, a 2012 Ford Focus.
Travis has been collecting classic vehicles since the early 1980s. He said he currently has four of five Brass Era cars such as the Delaunay-Belleville, “not more than 10″ vintage motorcycles — one, a 1912 Pierce-Arrow, is on loan for six months to the Smithsonian Institution — and a 1930 Studebaker President roadster.
For the 2012 running of The Great Race, which will start in Traverse City and end at The Henry Ford Museum, Alan Travis is preparing a 1907 Renault Grand Prix/Vanderbilt Cup car, which for its era has an amazingly powerful 60-horsepower engine and is capable of speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
Though the years, The Great Race has experienced changes in routes, race management and even prize money. The top prize this summer will be around $25,000.
The Great Race begins June 23 in Traverse City, crosses the Mackinac Bridge to Sault Ste. Marie, then enters Ontario. The contestants and their cars re-enter the U.S. north of Watertown, N.Y., on June 27, then travel through New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The race ends July 1 at Greenfield Village.
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.