Excerpt from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An American Legend

by Laura Hillenbrand

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 416 pages
    Mar 2002, 448 pages

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Nor were these the only obstacles. The asking price for the cheapest automobile amounted to twice the $500 annual salary of the average citizen— some cost three times that much—and all that bought you was four wheels, a body, and an engine. "Accessories" like bumpers, carburetors, and headlights had to be purchased separately. Just starting the thing, through hand cranking, could land a man in traction. With no gas stations, owners had to lug five-gallon fuel cans to local drugstores, filling them for 60 cents a gallon and hoping the pharmacist wouldn’t substitute benzene for gasoline. Doctors warned women away from automobiles, fearing slow suffocation in noxious fumes. A few adventurous members of the gentler sex took to wearing ridiculous "windshield hats," watermelon-sized fabric balloons, equipped with little glass windows, that fit over the entire head, leaving ample room for corpulent Victorian coiffures. Navigation was another nightmare. The first of San Francisco’s road signs were only just being erected, hammered up by an enterprising insurance underwriter who hoped to win clients by posting directions into the countryside, whose drivers retreated for automobile "picnic parties" held out of the view of angry townsfolk.

Finally, driving itself was something of a touch-and-go pursuit. The first automobiles imported to San Francisco had so little power that they rarely made it up the hills. The grade of Nineteenth Avenue was so daunting for the engines of the day that watching automobiles straining for the top became a local pastime. The automobiles’ delicate constitutions and general faintheartedness soon became a source of scorn. One cartoon from the era depicted a wealthy couple standing on a roadside next to its dearly departed vehicle. The caption read, "The Idle Rich."

Where San Franciscans saw an urban nuisance, Charles Howard saw opportunity. Automobile-repair shops hadn’t been created yet—and would have made little sense anyway as few were fool enough to buy a car. Owners had no place to go when their cars expired. A bicycle repairman was the closest thing to an auto mechanic available, and Howard’s shop was conveniently close to the neighborhoods of wealthy car owners. Howard hadn’t been in town long before the owners began showing up on his doorstep.

Howard had a weakness for lost causes. He accepted the challenge, poked around in the cars, and figured out how to fix them. Soon he was showing up at the primitive automobile races held around the city. Before long, he was driving in them. The first American race, run around Evanston, Illinois, had been held only eight years before, with the winning car ripping along at the dizzying average speed of seven and a half miles per hour. But by 1903, automotive horsepower had greatly improved— one car averaged 65.3 mph in a cross-European race that season—making the races a good spectacle. It also made for astronomical casualty rates. The European race, for one, turned into such a godawful bloodletting that it was ultimately halted due to "too many fatalities."

Howard was beginning to see these contraptions as the instrument of his ambition. Taking an audacious step, he booked a train east, got off in Detroit, and somehow talked his way into a meeting with Will Durant, chief of Buick Automobiles and future founder of General Motors. Howard told Durant that he wanted to be a part of the industry, troubled though it was. Durant liked what he saw and hired him to set up dealerships and recruit dealers. Howard returned to San Francisco, opened the Pioneer Motor Company on Buick’s behalf, and hired a local man to manage it. But on a checkup visit, he was dismayed to find that the manager was focusing his sales effort not on Buicks but on ponderous Thomas Flyers. Howard went back to Detroit and told Durant that he could do better.

Excerpted from Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand Copyright© 2002 by Laura Hillenbrand. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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