Back when doctors counseled women against even riding in cars, Alice set off on a 3,800-mile drive.
In 1909, ten years before women got the right to vote in the United States, one woman was the first to take a cross-country drive. Twenty-two-year-old Alice Ramsey—Vassar College graduate, housewife, and mother—drove 3,800 miles from New York to San Francisco along what would become the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway.
Doesn’t Alice just look like a great gal? She had been driving for one year and was crazy about it. The summer her husband bought her a car, she put a whopping 6,000 miles on it driving mostly dirt roads around Hackensack, New Jersey. According to Alice, her husband, John, never drove, but bought her new cars on a regular basis. An average driver today racks up about 10,000 miles in an entire year, so clearly Alice was a driving fool. This was at a time, as Louise Boyd James wrote in From Coast to Coast, when some doctors thought it was dangerous for women even to ride in a car. They said women became too excited at speeds of 15 mph and wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Worse, there was the danger of a condition called automobile face—a perpetually opened mouth that resulted in sinus trouble.
Three Passengers, No Co-Drivers
Alice’s big break came when a representative of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company saw her driving in a 150-mile endurance race on the East Coast and hatched a plan to use her to promote the company’s brand-new 30-hp Maxwell DA by driving it across the country. She stuffed the four-seat, open-air touring car with two older sisters-in-law and a girlfriend, none of whom could drive. They left New York in a torrential rainstorm after endless media hoopla, when Alice said, “If we’re going to go, let’s go.” And off they went.
Miraculously, little five-foot-tall Alice did not contract automobile face on her journey. At the end of her historic trek, Maxwell-Briscoe ran an ad saying that Alice had travelled “without a particle of car trouble.”
Let’s recap: Alice changed eleven tires, cleaned spark plugs, and repaired a broken brake pedal. She ran out of gas, slept in the car when it was stuck in the mud, crossed the trail of a manhunt for a killer in Nebraska, and was surrounded by a tribe of Native Americans with bows and arrows drawn. They were hunting rabbits. Not one particle of trouble at all.
Maxwell-Briscoe branded its Maxwell DA as “[t]he car for a lady to drive.” My kind of lady, to be sure!
Had I known a thing about automotive history, I would have discovered that Alice Ramsey was living in Covina, California, when I started at Car and Driver. By that time, she made at least thirty cross-country drives, had been named Woman Motorist of the Century by the American Automobile Association and the First Lady of Automobile Travel by the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and published Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, a memoir recounting her 1909 drive. She died at age ninety-six, in 1983, and became the first female inductee to the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000.