Trips to remember: six of history's more unusual road odysseys

As Disney and Pixar's road trip epic Onward hits cinemas, here's a look at some of history's quirkier road trips.Friday, 6 March 2020

Odyssey, errand, mission, quest: the road trip has taken many forms over the years. And the romance of the long distance car journey shows no signs of losing its, well, romance – in real life, within the pages of literary classics and on the big screen. 

This week it crosses the boundaries of fantasy with the release of a road trip movie with a twist. Onward is the story of two brothers, who set off across a magical realm in a battered van named Guinevere.

(The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.)

Onward isn't even set on Earth – but the ingredients for a quintessential road trip are all there, right down to the charismatic vehicle, brotherly bickering and the (almost recognisable) widescreen vista of the open road.

But back here on the roads we all know, where did the concept of the road trip begin – and what are some of the more eccentric examples? Here are six that made their mark on the map.

The first-ever road trip – in the first ever car

Germany, 1888

Few can lay a more convincing claim to the throne of the road trip than the intrepid Bertha Benz. Although she only drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim, the circumstances of her journey – and her own ingenuity along the way – made it remarkable. Benz was the wife and business partner of Carl Benz, who in 1886 registered a patent as the inventor of the motor car. It wasn’t an elegant contraption – and so its disappointing sales proved. Facing impending ruin with five children and a disheartened husband to support, Bertha took it upon herself to prove the worth of the vehicle, undertaking the 12-hour 100km drive in the smoking Patent-Motorwagen – nicknamed ‘the monster’ – with two of her sons, through Germany on unpaved roads with poor knowledge of the route – and without the knowledge of her husband.

This was risky for many reasons: the invention had been condemned by the church, labelled as a ‘Devil’s carriage’– and superstitious rural people reputedly made the sign of the cross as she passed. Fuelling the car with supplies of ether or pharmaceutical solvent ligroin obtained from chemists along the route, the drive did not go entirely smoothly. Benz was evidently an ingenious woman, at various points pushing the vehicle uphill, unblocking fuel lines with her hat pin, using a garter as a makeshift fan belt and recruiting a local shoemaker to make a brake pad from leather. Upon arriving at her mother's house in Pforzheim, she telegrammed her husband and the following day – as legend has it – drove back. 

The PR stunt, which it ostensibly was, worked: news of the drive spread, the Benz family became successful – and motor cars went on to be rather popular, with the family name found on car bonnets to this day. Today a memorial route marks the way of the first ever automobile journey.

The literary odyssey

USA, 1920

The spacious skies and vanishing-point highways of the USA are the spiritual home of the road trip, in both public imagination and the associated literature. As such there have been many notable American writers who have taken to the road – generally for the purposes of great material, but not always. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (1962) saw the Of Mice and Men author hit the highway with a dog in a camper van named after a horse. His poodle was the 'Charley' of the title, and the two set off to rediscover America in a vehicle named after Don Quixote’s steed, Rocinante. Steinbeck claimed the trip was to reconnect with his country – though it is rumoured the author knew he could succumb to heart disease at any moment and wanted to see America one last time. This he indubitably did: his route covered 10,000 miles. Steinbeck lived until 1968.   

American writer Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent followed similar literary territory. This 1987 journey of 14,000 miles saw the by-then UK-resident author set off through small-town USA in his elderly mother’s elderly car in search of the quintessential, idealistic American town of his youth – a mythical and, as it turns out, composite destination he christened ‘Amalgam.’

 

But perhaps the most batty of these was the journey 24 year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald made with his wife Zelda, when the pair travelled from New York to Alabama – over 1200 miles – in search of a particular type of biscuit Mrs Fitzgerald had been fond of as a child. Newly famous and enjoying his status, Fitzgerald impulsively decided to drive his 19 year-old wife back to her Alabama hometown in a car hardly fit for the task. A journey beset with broken axles, flat tyres, bad navigation and scandalous attire, the story appeared lightly fictionalised as a series of essays republished in the UK in 2012 as The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, in reference to the vehicle. 

The ‘motor-mountaineering stunt’

UK, 1926

Now well-established and occasionally controversial in Britain, the first people to complete the national ‘Three Peaks’ challenge did so impressively early in the history of endurance motoring: May 1926. Aiming to drive between and then climb the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland – Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis respectively – within 24 hours, a team of three undertook what they called a 474-mile ‘motor mountaineering stunt.’ It was led by an intrepid anaesthetist named Charles F Hadfield, who'd speculated that “…with reasonable luck and a fast car it would " go," though without leaving much margin for loitering,” Hadfield later wrote in the 1926 Fell and Rock Climbing Club Journal.

The car was a 1925 21-Horsepower Chrysler, which suffered a broken spring and at times struggled to get above 20mph on rough Scottish Highlands roads. Beginning in snow and lamplight on 1,345m Ben Nevis, and finishing on the summit of 1085m Snowdon, Hadfield and W.G. Pape (with H.P. Cain driving) managed to become ‘the first people to stand on the tops of the three highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales… on the same day.’ They had an hour and four minutes to spare. Even today, with motorways and decidedly faster vehicles, the challenge remains a tall order – and is often completed with not much more time in the bank than this original crew.

Remarkably, this wasn't the first time Britain's highest mountain was been recruited for the purposes of intrepid motoring, either: in 1911, one Henry Alexander Jr. drove a Ford Model T to the summit.  

The never-ending journey

187 countries, 1984-present

Swiss couple Emil and Liliana Schmid currently hold the Guinness World Record for the longest driven journey – piloting their extremely blue 1982 Toyota Land Cruiser through 770,000 kilometres, 186 countries and 35 years – as of October 2019.

Read the Schmid’s website and it’s clear there doesn’t seem to be any kind of will to stop: at the time of publication they are in Posadas, Argentina.The comprehensive records of the trip reveal a now very mature couple living their whole lives on the road – albeit just about every road on the planet, with a car that, despite the occasional ‘rejuvenation,’ seems to just keep going.   

The road-testing road trip

USA, 1919

A series of convoys – long processions of military vehicles and personnel – took place across the United States in the second decade of the 20thcentury. These were spurred on by agitators such as the National League for Good Roads, whose members were tired of riding bicycles and, later, automobiles rough-shod on unsurfaced tracks and saw the commercial and transportation potential of an improved road network.  

Combined with a desire to test the long-range mobility of the army, this led to the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy, which chose Washington, D.C. and San Francisco as its ambitious bookends. Beset with breakdowns, bottomed out trucks and squabbling soldiers, it took 62 days for nearly 300 men and 81 motorised vehicles to cover the 3,251 miles across the country, much of which – in the west particularly – was still relatively wild. It was an insightful test of the military vehicles’ capabilities – but it was the convoy’s influence on the Tank Corps officer sent to report on its progress that would have the most lasting legacy. His name was Lt  Col Dwight D Eisenhower, and it was during his Presidency over thirty years later that the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed. This was inspired by the pioneering Lincoln Highway, the road that would later follow the route the convoy took – an experience Eisenhower claimed was key to his proactivity in developing America’s road system.

The road-trip by algorithm

Conceivably anywhere, 2015

One person’s fun is another person’s fury – and planning a roadtrip can be both. In 2015 Dr Randal Olsen, a data scientist who specialises in machine leaning and data visualisation, came up with a genetic algorithm to compute the ‘optimal’ road trip across the United States – taking in a specified list of destinations and landmarks along the way.

“The potential is the holy grail of all planning-reluctant travellers: a complete trip, mapped out for any budget or duration, with stops, and costs factored in – worked out by a computer, in seconds.”

According to Olsen’s website, ‘instead of exhaustively looking at every possible solution, genetic algorithms start with a handful of random solutions and continually tinker with these solutions — always trying something slightly different from the current solutions and keeping the best ones — until they can’t find a better solution any more.” 

If this sounds more complicated than actually sitting and planning the old fashioned way, it most certainly is, but the potential of this idea's development is the holy grail of all planning-reluctant travellers: a complete trip, mapped out for any budget or duration, with stops, and costs factored in – worked out by a computer, in seconds. To prove the theory as portable, Olsen then released another hypothetical road trip using the same method – but this time for Europe, taking in Business Insider’s 50 Places in Europe You Need to Visit in Your Lifetime. The result was a 16,287 mile exploration the originator predicted might take 3 months.

Onward is in cinemas now.

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