We Have It Pretty Good: Road Trips Then and Now

When people think of a summer road trip, they often imagine beautiful sunshine, pristine beaches, a cool drink in the shade. Stuff like that. The first-ever coast-to-coast road trip (kicked off on May 23, 1903), though, was anything but relaxing.

First coast-to-coast American road trip

car on road driving toward mountains

Roadtrip | Getty

According to the National Museum of American History and National Geographic, two travelers – H. Nelson Jackson, a doctor and businessman, and mechanic Sewall K. Crocke – needed to deal with plenty of challenges and car troubles during their 63-day trip (from San Francisco to New York) in a 1903 Winton. First was the lack of roads. On their trip, fewer than 150 miles of roadway had been constructed (and that was out of a nearly 3,000-mile journey) and bridges didn’t always exist over the waterways. Plus, there were no gas stations, so the pair needed to find general stores along the way to buy fuel. And they also needed lots of patience, as their average rate of speed was only four miles per hour.

Then, there was the mud. Lots and lots of mud. In fact, some areas were so bad that Jackson and Crocker needed to use a block and tackle system to get their vehicle out of the sludge. On the flip side, there was also dust, which got to be so overwhelming that the dog that accompanied them, Bud the bulldog, needed to wear goggles. (The reason the dust was so bad: the men needed to remove the cloth roof of the car to make room for their luggage! That couldn’t have been comfortable on rainy days.)

Their car would break down and, when it did, there were no convenient auto repair shops nearby. Instead, the duo needed to contact the car factory by telegraph and have the factory ship them parts by train. Seriously. Plus there was the cost, which was a staggering $8,000 for the vehicle, gasoline, hotel rooms, food and the like. According to a calculator provided by a governmental site, $8,000 in the year 1913 would equal $188,238.38 today. Oh, and do you want to know why they took this trip? Because someone bet them $50 that a car couldn’t complete a coast-to-coast journey. But, on August 1, 1903, Jackson and Crocker won that bet, making the net cost of the trip in today’s dollars only $187,061.89.

More about the Winton

According to Cleveland Historical, the Winton Motor Carriage Company was formed on March 15, 1897 with each individual vehicle made by hand. These were luxury vehicles, with elaborately painted sides, gas lamps, cushy padded seats and more. In a May 1897 test drive, their 40-horsepower vehicle got up to an astonishing 33.64 miles per hour. In 1898, these cars were in great demand and more than 100 of them sold in that year alone. In fact, this company kept selling cars until 1924, when it simply couldn’t compete with the prices offered by Henry Ford.

Modern road tripping

woman leaning out of car window

Woman on trip | Getty

Road tripping today may not be as challenging as back then. We have gas stations, for one thing, and bridges. And roads. But it can still be an adventure, and not always the good kind. To ensure your journey is more hurrah and less hassle, use our car maintenance checklist. To make sure your vehicle is in the best shape possible before you head out for your vacation, check out this helpful infographic for more tips.

Heading out for a trip soon? Tell us about it in the comment section.

Last updated March 19, 2021