A Review of Early Auto Racing Cards
Early motor racing cards aren’t commonplace — but they are out there
What many of you might not know is that I’m a pretty devoted fan of F1 racing. No, I don’t do NASCAR. And I don’t do IndyCar or any other kind of racing, really. Those branches of motor racing are fine but I’ve just never paid much attention to them. F1 (fine, Formula 1), on the other hand, holds my interest incredibly and it’s one of the sports I watch the most.
F1, if you’re a card collector, has been in the news lately. The sport has been thrust into the spotlight with a reality series, Drive to Survive, which appears on Netflix. New seasons of it essentially recap the past season. And the show, thanks in part to Netflix’s large reach, has stretched to bring in many new fans.
In turn, F1 cards have become incredibly hot. No, the increased prices of those cards are not due to Drive to Survive. F1 cards have gotten hot, largely due to many collectors seeing them as an investment because the sport is incredibly popular worldwide and cards/boxes have been flipped for large profits. But the series did help to put the sport more on the radar.
F1 cards have gotten hot because they’ve become valuable — not necessarily because collectors are interested in midfield battles between Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly. Don’t believe me? See how many of those collectors can even identify how many career wins those two drivers have off the top of their head. I rest my case.
Now, I’m not a modern card collector, of course. But I have been following the popularity of F1 cards because, on a broader scale, I think it’s relevant to pre-war card collecting. And while we’re not going to see the kind of gains seen in early racing cards, they do provide good opportunities for growth. And my interest in F1 has sort of drawn me to research the older auto racing cards out there.
Now, I preface this by saying that I don’t anticipate the same explosion in prices of pre-war auto racing cards as is seen in modern F1 cards. First, and most importantly, pre-war cards are a niche all to themselves. Many collectors don’t even bother with collecting early baseball cards, let alone something like racing. There’s always going to be a cap only early auto racing cards. Another reason for that is because, while F1 is a huge sport globally, it still barely makes any sort of noticeable dent in terms of sporting interest here in the U.S., even with recent gains. The sport is growing here but it’s more akin to soccer growth, not growth that would suddenly thrust it anywhere close to the Big 3 or major college sports. Historically, too, while most modern collectors know the names Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, or Honus Wagner (sometimes leading them to pursue cards of those players), hardly any could identify the names of early racing stars.
That said, if you’re still interested in finding some early auto racing cards, here are some to keep a watch for. More are certainly out there — probably internationally where checklisting those cards is more difficult. But these are a few that I’m aware of. As the sport got more popular, more sets were issued in the 1920s and 1930s. Here’s a look at the earliest racing cards before those releases.
1911 T36 Auto Drivers
Point blank, the T36 Auto Drivers set is the most famous of the pre-war auto racing issues. In fact, it is arguably the first mainstream set to exclusively feature actual drivers (I’ll define that word ‘mainstream’ in a bit).
Despite rarity, prices on them had generally been pretty low. That’s started to change in the past year with even low-grade commons rising to starting prices of about $15-$25 level lately.
The set consists of only 25 basic cards (back variations bring the total for a master set to 100) but don’t think that it’s an easy build. They are very tough to find these days, particularly in bulk. PSA has not even graded a grand total of 200 of them and even cards of famous drivers, such as Barney Oldfield, Ralph de Palma, David Bruce-Brown, and Louis Chevrolet have only a handful of copies graded.
While this might be the first true set of real drivers, though, actual drivers did also appear in other earlier multi-sport sets.
1908 and 1922 Felix Potin Chocolates
The three massive Felix Potin sets of the pre-war era (a fourth set was printed in the 1950s) contain roughly 1,500 total cards.
Like the similarly-sized Ogden’s Tabs and Guinea Gold sets around the turn of the century, these cards included all sorts of famous people under the sun. The majority of the checklist is made up of non-sports subjects, including world leaders, military men, entertainers, artists, businessmen, and much more. But there is a decent chunk reserved for athletes and that’s where you’ll find several auto racing drivers.
One of those drivers is even a female — Madame Camille du Gast, the first female auto racing star that I recently wrote about. du Gast is the only female in the racing cards subset. She also is found on postcards but I have not identified those in this article as she is not identified as a driver on those.
In all, the Felix Potin set is a tremendous source for collectors looking for early auto racing cards. A total of ten drivers are featured in the 1908 set (second series) and another five are in the 1922 set. Among the biggest names among them are de Palma and du Gast.
1908 Garfield’s Tea Syrup New York-Paris Auto Race Trade Cards
Earlier, I mentioned T36 as being the first mainstream set of racing drivers. But a less common set featuring real drivers actually exists.
In 1908 in anticipation of a famous auto race that literally went from New York in the U.S. to Paris, France, Garfield’s Tea Syrup issued a set of advertising/trade cards. The cards showed several of the cars at the start of the face along with the drivers. The drivers themselves weren’t named, rather, the cars were. However, the cards did picture the actual drivers.
The race started in New York with drivers going to Alaska and then traveling by boat to Japan before heading to Siberia, Asia, and ending in France. The United States was one of four countries participating (six cars were in the race with France represented by three of them) and ultimately won the race.
These slightly larger style of cards are popular among auto racing collectors but not nearly as well known as the T36 cards or others that feature real drivers. But they are an important from a historical vantage point because of the famous race they featured.
c1901 Ogden’s Automobile Club Cards
The aforementioned Ogden Tabs General Interest sets include just about everything. And among the myriad of sports cards are at least a pair of auto racing cards.
Two cards exist with the title Automobile Club — Endurance and Speed Tests. Unfortunately, these cards do not have back descriptions on them and do not have any other sort of description.
The name and location of the specific club is not even identified. But the cards do show actual cars that presumably participated in the speed tests and, while unrecognizable, they also included drivers in them.
Like other cards shown here, these are not particularly easy to find. But you can find them on eBay occasionally or from sellers specializing in international tobacco cards.
1910 T37 Turkey Red Automobile Series
Right after the T36 Auto Drivers set in the American Card Catalog is a set classified as T37 — the Turkey Red Automobile Series.
The series is certainly different from T36. While T36 featured real drivers, this one focuses on the cars themselves. But the good news is that the cars were actual automobiles that existed.
The set includes 50 cards and ranges from ‘standard’ automobiles being driven by regular folk and others that were race cars. It’s an intriguing set that includes names that are still in existence today. Many of those — the cards for recent brands such as Ford, Mercedes Benz, Renault, Buick, Fiat, Oldsmobile, and more are included here.
As great as the fronts are, the backs are just as spectacular with red-only ink advertisements or Turkey Red along with the checklist.
Pricewise, while less than the T36 cards in general, some of the more popular cards can easily sell for $50 or more in better condition. Low-grade commons start around $5-$10 each.
Other Generic Issues
In addition to these cards, several others exist depicting the sport of auto racing in general without picturing actual drivers.
One of those is a Motor Racing card found in the 1916/1917 Sports of the World set (issued by many tobacco brands, including British American Tobacco, Village Maid, Wills, along with MacRobertson’s Confectionery). To a lesser degree, there’s a card titled, ‘Motoring’ in a set called “Sports and Pastimes,” which was issued by many different companies, starting in the early 1900s.
Additionally, you’ll find other racing cards scattered in other sets and likely even some trade issues dating back to the late 19th century.