1911 T36 Auto Drivers Set Featured Some of the Earliest Racing Cards
The T36 Auto Drivers set of tobacco cards is arguably the most popular pre-war auto racing series
The American Tobacco Company produced all sorts of tobacco cards in the early 1900s. But while they are most popular for their baseball cards and cards of non-sports subjects, their T36 Auto Drivers set is a series worth recognition.
The ‘Auto Drivers’ set comes to us on the back of the cards. Technically, even, the title is Auto-Drivers, but the hyphen is generally left out. The pictures on some could create all sorts of confusion. Some look like race car drivers. Others look like aviators. Still others look as if they are merely non-sports subjects out for a Sunday drive.
While automobile and racing cards eventually became more popular overseas in the 1920s and 1930s, in the 1910s, there were not many of these sets issued. I have dug and dug for early auto racing cards but have mostly come up empty.
Is this the earliest set of real race car drivers? Far from an expert on the subject, I suppose there are some cabinets of race card drivers, simply because there are cabinets for practically everyone. And trade cards of race cars, even with generic drivers, would not be a surprise. Plus, let’s be honest — there are so many pre-war cards out there that a fully legitimate set of drivers may exist as racing was taking place in the late 1800s. But the subject is so little covered that you’ll excuse me for not knowing the answer. Earlier notable races were held before this release so the sport was in the public eye. But while there may be earlier sets, none appear as popular and, at worst, this is one of the earliest.
Like other tobacco cards from the same era, these feature color lithographic renditions of the drivers as opposed to real photographs. Some of the pictures are horizontal while others are vertical. They measure a shade below 1 3/4″ wide by 2 1/2″ tall. That makes them a somewhat odd shape compared to most other cigarette cards the time that were long and narrow. They are wider but also significantly smaller than today’s modern cards. They do not include card numbers and biographies of the subjects are on the back.
The cards were produced by the famous American Tobacco Company, makers of T206 cards and other popular baseball card sets. They were distributed with one inside each package of ten cigarettes and with two inside each package of 20 cigarettes. These cards were packaged with ATC’s Hassan and Mecca brands with those advertisements found on the back. Additionally, each of those brands released cards from Factory 30 and Factory 649. So while there are a modest 25 cards in the set, including all of the different backs, there are actually 100 completely different cards if you’re one of those little freaks obsessed with distribution factories and such:
- 25 with Hassan Factory 30 backs
- 25 with Hassan Factory 649 backs
- 25 with Mecca Factory 30 backs
- 25 with Mecca Factory 649 backs
Which backs are rarer? I don’t know that any are extremely difficult but I have personally seen more Meccas than the Hassans and more Factory 649 cards over Factory 30. Take that for what you will as it was based on a cursory scan of about 100 such cards found online.
Ironically, the ATC was found in violation of antitrust laws and forced to dissolve in 1911, the same year this set was issued. The set is sometimes heralded as a 1910 set, though 1911 is the more accepted year of release. ‘Proof’ of a 1911 start date has been linked to a 1911 ATC letter (on ATC letterhead) that indicates cards from this set would replace cards of the ATC’s lighthouses set in their Hassan cigarette packages. The letter is dated as March 27, 1911 and indicates packing and delivery of these cards would commence on the same day. It’s an absolutely fantastic piece of history since we have such little documentation on early card sets beyond standard advertising. Assuming the cards for the other brands were packaged at the same time, we can effectively date this set to 1911.
The dissolution of the ATC, consequently, could be the reason we did not get a second series of these cards. Backs of the cards state that they are part of Series 1, alluding to the idea that more would be printed. But this was the only set issued.
Additionally, it seems as if these cards were not distributed for very long. In selling a set in 2014, Huggins and Scott indicated that the set was issued over only four days. That seemingly helps to explain the rarity of these cards.
So, what’s in the set? More specifically, who is in the set?
To most collectors, honestly, the names will not jump out at you. In fact, even many vintage collectors of cards in other sports may be hard pressed to identify many of the names.
At least one will ring a bell for practically everyone — the name of Louis Chevrolet. While collectors might not know who he was, they will recognize the Chevrolet name, and there is, of course, a connection to the famous automobile company. Chevrolet was a Swiss race car driver an a co-founder of Chevrolet Motor Car Company, along with his brother and some investors.
There are many other big names in racing, obviously. Ralph DePalma, winner of the 1915 Indy 500, is one. David Bruce-Brown, an early star that tragically died in 1912 during a practice session, is another. Bruce-Brown won the second Indy 500, held in 1912. Yet another is Ralph Mulford, a famous champion. The set also includes Barney Oldfield, an early pioneer of the sport.
The set is sometimes linked heavily to the inaugural Indy 500 race in 1911. Some have said that all of the drivers in this set participated in that race. The fact that this set was released in 1911 has increased that theory. But that is not true as many of the set’s participants were actually not in that race.
In fact, only seven drivers from the set were in that race — David Bruce-Brown, Lewis Strang, Herbert Lytle, Ralph DePalma, Harry Grant, Ralph Mulford, and Bob Burman. The winner of that race, Ray Harroun, is not found in the set.
Of note is that there are at least two errors in the set for Victor Demogeot and Herbert Lytle.
Demogeot, like some other auto racers, began his career as a cyclist. According to this page, which has a wonderful biography of him, he began as a mechanic and test driver, before becoming a leading driver. The back of his card states that he was best known as one of the first foreign drivers to participate in the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup before winning many races in France.
His card credits him as only ‘Demoget’ on the back of his card omitting his first name. The omission is not the error. Rather, it is the incorrect spelling of his last name.
Additionally, Herbert Lytle’s card prints his name as ‘Lyttle’ on the back. Lytle competed in several races including, as mentioned, the 1911 Indy 500, finishing 32nd. He and his wife tragically died a day apart in March of 1932 from pneumonia. While the Demoget error is a bit more well known, Lytle’s error is not usually recognized.
Despite the mistakes, no premium is paid for these. That’s because the cards are not believed to have ever been corrected. The set’s short distribution life obviously plays a factor in that. Even if the errors were noticed early on, the cards were gone so quickly that there wouldn’t have been any time to change them. All of the cards have the typos and, thus, are not worth any more because of it.
Rarity and Price
All of the cards are fairly rare but while prices are rising on them, they are still low, given how tough they are to locate and how old they are. Even if they are not the first set of real drivers, they have to be among the first.
On the surface, I’m not sure that any cards in the set are that rarer than others. None of the three major grading companies that have been around for a while, PSA, SGC, or Beckett, has graded even ten of these cards. PSA has seen the most, having graded about 170 of them to date.
The population reports aren’t a great indicator of how many of these cards exist, though. Almost all you come across are raw and ungraded. eBay has about 60 cards from the set that have recently sold since mid-December — none were graded. This is one of those sets that it is hard to take the pops seriously because collectors have largely ignored having them graded because of their modest prices.
We can use the pops to try to get an indication of which cards are the rarest. But even then, the low numbers don’t make that easy. To date, PSA has graded the fewest of Victor Hemery — only three cards. But they’ve graded only four or five of several other cards, and I’m not sure that those are much easier to find.
As far as prices go, in low-grade condition, commons typically start around $10-$15 each — though you can find them cheaper by buying them in lots. Problem is, it’s just such a rare set that finding them can be difficult. So that sellers as more for them is unsurprising. The more valuable cards include the likes of Chevrolet, Bruce-Brown, and DePalma. While they exceed that price range, in low-grade, none are terribly expensive.
- David Bruce-Brown
- Bob Burman
- Louis Chevrolet
- Walter Christie
- Ralph DePalma
- Victor Demoget (Demogeot is correct spelling)
- Bert Dingley
- Arthur Duray
- Henry Fournier
- Harry Grant
- Victor Hemery
- Camille Janatzy
- Vincenzo Lancia
- Herbert Lyttle (Lytle is correct spelling)
- Fred Marriott
- Ralph Mulford
- Felice Nazarro
- Barney Oldfield
- George Robertson
- Joe Seymour
- Lewis Strang
- Francois Szisz
- Joseph Tracey
- Louis Wagner