Throwback Thursday | The Great Race: Flying Machine Vs. Car!

Follow along as we take a look at the riveting race of early aerial flying machine vs. automobile 114 years ago to the date!

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | News | Roy Knabenshue’s California Arrow touches down of The Raymond grounds, South Pasadena (1904)

For Throwback Thursday this week, we celebrate “The Great Race” from Los Angeles to South Pasadena, pitting automobile against flying machine on February 12, 1905 (114 years ago this week).

Before The Great Race in 1904

The Pope-Toledo automobile had already earned a reputation for speed and durability for stock touring cars.

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PHOTO: Thomas Collection | News | Magazine advertisement of the Pope-Toledo automobile (1904)

While Roy Knabenshue was the first to make a dirigible balloon flight over the skyscrapers of New York City, one year after his original lighter-than-air powered flight at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904.

PHOTO: Thomas Collection | News | Newspaper etching of Knabenshue’s with California Arrow (1904)

The Great Race

On February 12, 1905, Knabenshue accepted a challenge from the cocky Colonel Hancock of Los Angeles. Hancock waged $500 that he in his Pope-Toledo automobile could drive faster from Chutes Park (Los Angeles) to The Raymond (South Pasadena) than Knabenshue could fly there.

The crowd was estimated at 25,000 people to witness Roy Knabenshue call out “Let her go!” The confining ropes were immediately cast off signaling the start of the race.

PHOTO: Los Angeles Herald | News | Roy Knabenshue’s California Arrow leaves the baseball field at Chutes Park, Los Angeles (1905)
PHOTO: Los Angeles Herald | News | Knabenshue’s California Arrow rises from the stadium (1905)

The automobile took the early lead. But like the story of the tortoise and the hare, the Pope-Toledo’s jackrabbit start eventually succumbed to engine trouble and road hazards along the Arroyo Seco causing it to fall behind.

PHOTO: Detroit Public Library Collection | | The full-throttle Pope-Toledo races toward the finish line (1905)

Meanwhile, Knabenshue’s airborne dirigible made steady progress toward The Raymond.

PHOTO: Thomas Collection | | Los Angeles Herald headline on February 13, 1905, announcing the outcome of The Great Race

Knabenshue’s dirigible touched down on the golf course of The Raymond first – beating the Pope-Toledo by a margin of two minutes.

PHOTO: R.W. Flan’s Roy Knabenshue Album Collection | News | Rare photo of Roy Knabenshue shows the dashing aeronaut in his flight-ready gear (1913)

First Passenger Air Service in America

After several years of barnstorming and serving as general manager for the Wright Brothers, Roy Knabenshue established the first passenger air service in America by taking paying customers in his “Knabenshue Airship” on a flight 800 feet in the air over parts of the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles.

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | News | Guests of The Raymond depart from the hanger grounds adjacent to the South Pasadena hotel (1914)
PHOTO: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) | News | Roy Knabenshue’s father, mother, and wife are his guest passengers during the airship flight (1914)

Roy Knabenshue’s 13-passenger dirigible aerial tours over the San Gabriel Valley cost passengers $25 each.

PHOTO: Pasadena Museum of History | News | Raymond hotel guests round Raymond Hill in Knabenshue Airship (1914)
PHOTO: Thomas Collection | News | Raymond hotel guests pass by The Raymond Knabenshue Airship (1914)

Note: Knabenshue established his headquarters near The Raymond hotel. His hanger was at the corner of Glenarm and Marengo. Walter Raymond’s son Arthur credits Roy for his lifelong passion of flight which later led him to design such classic aircraft as the DC-3 and DC-8.

Throwback Thursday is written and produced by Rick Thomas



Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.