The Altruistic Automobile

The Altruistic Automobile
Written by Matthew Hocker

The Romance of a Motor Mission (1906)
By December, the jingling bells of the Salvation Army should be a familiar sound in front of supermarket and department store entrances everywhere.  Since William Booth founded his organization in 1865, meeting the needs of the downtrodden worldwide has remained a top priority.  In order for organizations in the early twentieth century to remain effective, connecting with their audience in the best possible way proved crucial.  For Booth, the automobile’s awe-inspiring appeal made it an effective instrument for delivering his message of goodwill in what would become known as his “motor missions.” Column

Unique individuals come and go, and the Army’s founder was one of a kind.  Heading an organization patterned after the military, Booth assumed the title of “general” wherever he traveled.  In his later years, children often mistook him for Santa Clause thanks to the twinkle in his eye, long flowing white beard and, above all else, his almost infinite generosity.  “Isn’t he like Father Christmas?” a little girl was heard to say during one of his motor missions.
William Booth (1905)

Between 1904 and 1910 Booth and his motorcade embarked on seven motor missions throughout the United Kingdom, the first of which covered a distance of 1,224 miles over a period of 29 days. With each stop, the saintly looking traveler stood in his car and delivered emotionally charged speeches to the enthusiastic crowds of spectators that flocked to see him (Left: Actual footage from a mission).

In the literary world, Booth’s 2,250 mile trip of 1905 was immortalized in W. P. Ryan’s 85-page book, The Romance of a Motor Mission.  Although published by the Salvation Army in 1906, the author was himself an independent journalist for the then-widely circulated Daily Chronicle.  Looking for a great story, Ryan accompanied the fleet’s tour with an outsider’s perspective, which he claimed Salvation Army leaders openly welcomed and appreciated.

Onlookers welcome the Motorcade (1905)Booth giving a speech from his car (1905)

While Booth focused on preaching the need to help the “less fortunate,” there was no mistaking the added power of his horseless carriage.  After all, this was a time when few could afford to travel, let alone own a car.  According to Ryan, “…because [Booth] traveled as he taught, because he was a traveler full of the fire and poetry of travel, he moved men more, he fascinated imaginations.”  One little boy was so excited that he leapt from his bath and ran to the door of his home “covered in soap” to salute the passing motorcade.

The General in the White Car (1905)

Image of the General and his men sitting in the “White Car” (1905)

Surprisingly, very little information exists regarding the cars used in the Salvation Army’s motor missions.  Even in Ryan’s book, Booth’s vehicle is simply referred to in capital letters as the “White Car,” suggesting it may have been manufactured by the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  Since the company had a strong reputation for its cars at the time, not to mention a branch office in London, it’s entirely possible that Booth may have traveled in a White Steamer at some point.  However, while the car pictured in the book bears some resemblance to a White, it’s not.

The General's StaffAs Booth was traditionally chauffeured in a car painted white, Ryan may have simply been referring to the car’s appearance.  According to the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre, an English newspaper article mentioned that the General utilized a white 60hp Darracq.  Furthermore, period issues of the Salvation Army’s publication, The War Cry, frequently referred to this Darracq as “the Big White Car” and “the Big White Car with the Red Wheels.”

The GeneralWhile such details of General Booth’s motor missions have been lost to history, there’s no denying their cultural impact.  Like Santa and his sleigh, Booth and his car were considered just as magical, lifting the Spirits of many a British Citizen encountering hard times.  For those wanting to learn more about the 1905 tour, stop by the Library and check out The Romance of a Motor Mission.  It’s just one of our collection’s more than 60 different travel narratives, published as far back as 1887.

Note: Special thanks to The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre for providing additional information on the cars used in the motor missions.

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