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Horatio's Drive
About The Film
Behind The Wheel
From Sea to Sea
The Car
For Educators
The Car


The Vermont in a New York City garage. Photo credit: University of Vermont, Special Collections For the arduous trip they were now about to attempt, Sewall Crocker, Jackson's mechanic and co-driver, strongly advised that Jackson buy one of the touring cars produced by Alexander Winton's company in Cleveland — the sturdiest and most reliable automobile being made, in his estimation. "It will carry you through if anything will," he told Jackson. But no new ones could be found on the Pacific Coast. (The Winton Motor Carriage Company would make a grand total of 850 cars in 1903, part of the roughly 11,000 autos manufactured in the United States that year, bringing the nation's total car registration to 33,000. Most new cars — especially top-of-the-line vehicles like the Winton — were pre-ordered from the manufacturer rather than purchased at the dealership.)

After a quick but persistent search, Jackson at last found a Wells, Fargo executive in San Francisco willing to part with a 1903 Winton — but only for a $500 bonus over the list price of $2,500, even though the car already had nearly 1,000 miles on it and both rear tires were already in poor condition. Jackson gladly paid the $3,000 and immediately went to work with Crocker on preparing the car for the journey.

The Winton had a two-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine directly underneath the driver's seat, with a chain drive, capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour; two speeds forward and one reverse; steering wheel on the right; no windshield and no top. It featured two of Alexander Wilton's many engineering innovations: a ratcheted lever that prevented broken arms if the engine unexpectedly backfired in the midst of being crank-started; and a hinge that allowed the steering wheel to be tipped away as the driver took his position. Leather, upholstered seats were mounted high on a wooden body painted a reddish maroon with, as the sales brochure promised, "just enough polished brass… to enliven the general effect."

Supplies replace the back seat of the Vermont. Photo Credit: University of Vermont, Special CollectionsCrocker removed the tonneau (back seat) to make room for the piles of equipment Jackson quickly purchased: sleeping bags and cooking gear; rubber mackintoshes (rain coats) for themselves and even one that covered the entire car; coats and sweaters and two telescope valises for their clothing; a set of tools, including two jacks, a spade and a fireman's axe; a block and tackle with 150 feet of hemp rope; fishing gear; a shotgun, rifle, pistols and ammunition — and a small Kodak camera to record his trip. With Jackson (225 pounds) and Crocker (150 pounds) on board, the fully loaded vehicle weighed more than a ton and a half.

There were no gas stations at the time (the first would appear in St. Louis in 1905), but general stores in most towns carried fuel for farm machinery, stoves and water pumps. The Winton's gas tank held between 11 and 12 gallons, "sufficient to run the car about 175 miles over ordinary roads," according to the company's sales brochure. Jackson strapped on additional tanks to carry 5 gallons of cylinder oil and 12 extra gallons of gasoline, in case of emergencies. Unable to locate new tires for the worn pair on the rear wheels, he hoped the single spare he brought along would suffice if one of them gave out.

According to the Winton company's numbering system, the car Jackson had purchased was No. 1684, but its new owner concluded that a machine entrusted with so much needed a name, not a number. Like many automobile owners who would follow him, Jackson already was thinking of his new car as if it had a personality of its own, despite the injunction printed clearly in the Winton's instruction manual. "Remember," it said, "that an automobile has no brains. You must do its thinking. It is merely a man-made machine, subject to man's control. And under thoughtful handling, will perform all the work for which it is designed."

In honor of the state where he and Bertha made their home, the place he hoped Winton No. 1684 would eventually deliver him in triumph, Jackson officially christened his vehicle the Vermont.

Excerpted from Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, a Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2003 by The American Lives II Film Project, LLC. All rights reserved.