By Maureen Storey
This article was published in the April 2020 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
When Karl Benz produced the first petrol-powered car in 1885, he could have had little inkling that his invention would spawn what has become the multi-million pound sport we know today. Motor racing began while the motor car was still in its infancy. What is generally recognised as the first race between petrol-driven cars was run between Paris and Bordeaux in July 1894 with the winning vehicle, a Panhard-Levassor, achieving an average speed of 15 miles per hour!
There followed a rapid development of the motor-racing industry. The first race in the USA was held over a 54-mile course between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, in 1895, and was won by Frank Duryea in a time of 7 hours 53 minutes. The first regular motor-racing venue was in Nice, France, and this was the site of a ‘Speed Week’ held in March 1897. It was during this week that many types of racing events were invented, including a hill climb and a sprint (the fore runner of drag racing). In 1900 the first competition between national teams rather than individuals was held with the winners, France, receiving the Gordon Bennett Cup.
Another first for the motor racing world took place on 3-4 Jul 1905 when a 24-hour race was included in a race meeting held at a long oval, dirt, horse-racing track in Columbus, Ohio. The 24-hour race began at 3.20 pm on the 3rd and the winner was the driver who had travelled the farthest by 3.20 pm on the 4th. A number of other events were scheduled over the two days including the Columbus Motor Derby for which there was a prize of $2000. One of the other events held before the 24-hour race was a touring car novelty race for standard production cars. This two-lap race began from a standing start with the competing cars full of passengers. On the first lap the cars stopped at each quarter-mile post to set down a passenger and then on the second lap the passenger was picked up again. This race was won by Charles Soules, driving a Pope-Toledo.
The Pope Toledo logo
No doubt bolstered by his win in the novelty race, Charles Soules, with his brother George as co-driver, joined the line up for the 24-hour event in another Pope-Toledo.
Four cars had been entered for the event, but one driver had to pull out due to illness, so only three actually took part, the Soules brothers in a Pope-Toledo, Lee Frayer in a Frayer-Miller, and Messrs Ballenger and Feasel (forenames not recorded) in a Peerless.
The Ohio State Journal reported that the dirt track had been made suitable for high-speed racing by illuminating it with 50 arc lamps and making plans to sprinkle it regularly to keep down the dust. In this way it was hoped that the drivers would be able to travel at ‘breakneck speeds’ for 24 hours with stops only to refuel and change tyres. However, it did not quite work out that way and unscheduled stops began almost immediately after the race started.
First into the lead was the Peerless, but towards the end of the first hour, as the car was pulling into the pit for refuelling, it blew a tyre, which resulted in it crashing through the fence into a water barrel, shearing off the car’s starting crank and damaging the radiator.
While the Peerless was being repaired in the pits the Soule brothers forged ahead, but the Pope-Toledo soon developed problems of its own and, with George at the wheel, a tyre exploded as the car was coming out of a bend, causing it to veer into the outside fence. It demolished more than 100 feet of fence before coming to a stop. Repairs to the car took about an hour and involved straightening the frame, replacing the radiator and changing the wheels.
By the time both cars were back in the race the Pope-Toledo, now driven by Charles, had a lead of about 50 miles but by 9 pm the Peerless had steadily gained and the Soules had a lead of only 7 miles. Meanwhile the third car in the race, the Frayer-Miller, also ran into problems.. A stone thrown up from the track ripped three teeth from its main gear, resulting in a bent camshaft. The repairs proved very time-consuming and when it re-entered the race at about 4 am it was 350 miles behind.
By 3.20 pm on 4th July a crowd of over 15000 people had gathered to watch the end of the race. The distinction of winning the world’s first 24-hour race fell to Charles and George Soules, who had covered a distance of 828.5 miles, second with 728.6 miles was the Frayer-Miller and last the Peerless with 726 miles.
Charles Soules’ name crops up quite frequently in reports of early motor racing events and he was highly regarded as both a driver and a ‘mechanician’ (such was the unreliability of the cars at that time that many carried a mechanic during racing to make running repairs – he was known as the mechanician). There are many claims for who was first to do something (e.g. win the first Grand Prix or competitive rally) in motor sport, largely because there are different ideas of what constitutes the first of a particular event. Charles and his Pope-Toledo certainly took part in the 1905 1000-mile Glidden Tour, which many consider to be the first competitive rally. He won the climb section, an 8-mile climb up Mount Washington, in a time of 22 min 37.4 sec. He has also been credited with winning the first 100-mile race in about 1902.
Charles Soules in a Pope-Toledo (ca 1904)
There are currently no further mentions of George Soules’ exploits on the Internet, but one report says that Charles was one of five brothers who were all involved in motor racing. These five brothers, the sons of Jedediah Soules and Ann Kealty, were John Edward (b 1866), George Washington (b 1871), William Henry (b 1872), Thomas Francis (b 1873) and Charles Patrick (b 1876). The Soules brothers were all born in New York State but at some point Jedediah, a blacksmith, moved his family to Toledo, Ohio. It seems likely that Jedediah’s involvement in metal working helped to give his sons the skills they needed to build and repair the early racing cars, and eventually they all earned their living from related occupations, from being motor mechanics to working in heavy engineering.
In 1905 the eldest of the brothers, John Edward, together with H G Dykehouse and David Wolf, founded the Soules Motor Company of Grand Rapids Michigan. The company produced cars and commercial vehicles. Its most successful product was a light delivery truck designed for use in towns and cities. The 1906 model came with either an open detachable top or enclosed with wire sides and had a load capacity of 2000 lbs and sold for the ‘moderate’ price of $1800. The company’s initial success did not last and it folded in 1908, though John continued to work in the motor industry throughout his life.
The love of motor racing continued into the next generation of the family with John’s son Alton (b 1893). Alton served his apprenticeship working for his Uncle Charles, first in the pits and then riding with him as the mechanician. To gain more experience Alton also rode with other well-known drivers, taking part in races at the most important US venues of the day, e.g., Indianapolis, Sheepshead Bay and Cincinnati.
In 1921 Alton decided that it was time to try his hand as a driver. He started well, coming fifth in his first race, while in his third race he stayed neck and neck with the leader for 45 laps until a broken connecting rod ended his hopes. It was on the basis of these first few races that he featured strongly in the advertisements for the ‘Raisin Day’ 150-mile race that was held on the board track at Fresno, California on 1 Oct 1921. The promoters offered a prize of $15000 and expected the race to start with about 12 competitors but in fact there were just nine starters including Alton and his mechanician, Harry Barner, in the newly-repaired Frontenac. Alton started strongly but on the 75th lap disaster struck and the Frontenac shot over the top of the barrier on the southwest turn and tumbled about 50 feet to the bottom of the banking. Harry Barner died either in the crash or immediately after but Alton was taken to a nearby hospital and it was while he was being prepared for surgery that he told a friend that he could not understand what had caused the accident but thought it might have been a broken steering knuckle. Despite the surgeon’s best efforts, Alton died on the operating table, aged just 28. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.
Alton Edward Soules at Tacoma Speedway, July 1921
By the time of the 1920 census, Charles, then aged 42, was living with his wife Mary (nee Vogt) and their son Franklin in Sacramento. He gave his occupation as ‘mechanic’ so perhaps he had retired from racing by then. He died in 1952 in Los Angeles
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