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The Glidden Tours hold a unique standing in American’s automotive history. First held in 1904, these events, sometimes dubbed “reliability runs,” were many Americans first exposure to cars. They also rallied the “Good Roads” movement during a time in which many roads around the country weren’t equipped to handle cars or other traffic. In turn, the Glidden Tours helped further “automobilists’” fight to improve American roads and subsequently create the National Highway System a half-century later.  

The Glidden Tours are a product of the American Automobile Association (AAA), which formed in 1902 in New York. The AAA formed with six guiding principles. These include creating national automotive legislation, formulating traffic laws, “encourage the use of the automobile and its development, and to promote the “Good Roads” movement. The Good Roads Movement was a grassroots organization that lobbied to improve the nation’s roads started by cyclists.

To further its efforts, and likely its membership, the AAA developed a plan to hold a cross-country “tour.” It emanated from several points in the country, including New York and Baltimore. It culminated at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. The New York route took 18 days to complete.

Aerial view of overlapping state highways with cars and semi trucks driving
U.S. Interstate Highway | Ivan Zhaborovskiy via iStock

Local automobile groups provided maps, outlined local driving laws and marked the trail with confetti. In all, 77 cars competed in the inaugural event, with 66 completing the journey. Among them was Boston telephone pioneer and automotive enthusiast Charles J. Glidden. The industrialist offered a $2,000 trophy in the tour’s subsequent years, which were later referred to as Glidden Tours.

The Glidden Tours, which were held from 1904-1913, were significant in spreading the AAA’s gospel. This was aided by extensive media coverage highlighting the events in the automobile’s formative years in the U.S.

Tammy Ingram writes in her 2014 book, “Dixie Highway,” the Tours were “covered by dozens of reporters who tagged along on the arduous journey and reported every detail.”

“Their accounts described encounters with people who had never seen a car before, welcoming committees in the countless small towns they passed through, and endless frustration with vehicles that frequently broke down along rough terrain or became mired in thick, glue-like mud up to their axles,” Ingram writes.

With nearly a decade of promoting cars, and the need for better national roads, the Glidden Tours ended.

“It was felt that the purposes which had given rise to its birth had been fulfilled, and the activity ended,” AAA notes. “American-made cars had proven their reliability and ended European prestige by winning every tour. Good Roads were now being built. Fair motoring laws were being enacted.”

However, these tours were recently revived by antique car enthusiasts. The Veteran Motor Car Club of America and Antique Auto Club of America, with AAA sponsorship, now hold “Revival AAA Glidden Tour” events. The tours are open to cars built before 1943. The most recent revival event was held in October 2023 in South Georgia and North Florida.