The 1897 Marseilles-Nice-La Turbie Race

In The Squire’s Tale, Chaucer tells us “Men love of propre kynde newefangelnesse.”  Echoing these very sentiments, Dr. Dre tells us “I love the new technology….New challenges mean you have to keep up, you know?”  The 1897 motorsport season, and I use the term loosely, demonstrates that the newest thing can still cause challenges and even problems.  Simply put, the petrol/gasoline engine was still lagging in power, as compared to the coal-powered steam engine.  However, a new class of driver was quickly becoming fascinated with the relatively newer technology of internal combustion.  These drivers would help foster the enthusiasm that propelled engines far beyond anything ever achieved by the steam engine.

A New Class of Driver.

Thus far, in these early years of motorsport, racing was reserved for the aristocracy.  This is logical.  Automobiles were expensive and not yet mass produced.  As such, one needed considerable wealth to afford an automobile.  However, some interesting names start to show up in the 1897 results charts.  Gentleman such as René de Knyff and Fernand Charron represent the early hints of a professional class of drivers.  In this regard, the sport was starting to get a little more serious in that it was contemplating (even if silently) a move beyond sheer amateurism,

Rene de Knyff

A great entry in my Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats sets the stage for René de Knyff:

A familiar figure of the period was a big man with a bushy black beard.  As the years wore on, the beard grayed, but the man remained as erect as ever, until, at the age of 90 in 1955, René de Knyff, a Belgian but a Chevalier of France, died.

René de Knyff was born in 1864.  He was an early director of Panhard and Levassor.  But, at the heart of this great man was a passion for motorsport.  In time, he became the chairman of the Automobile Club de France.  His record, as a racer, was relatively short compared to modern standards, but it was certainly distinguished as the forthcoming posts will most certainly detail.

At a base level, however, de Knyff represents those who were racing out of pure desire and love of the game.  Relevant accounts suggest that his directorship at Panhard was merely incidental to his love of racing.  In this regard, he represents one of the very earliest “drivers.”  A driver, for our purposes, is the one that burns inside to be ultimately quickest.

Fernand Charron

Fernand Charron, to a lesser degree as compared to De Knyff, was also an early example of someone consistently participating in motor races.  Charron was born in 1866.  He would later die in 1928.  Like many racers of the day, he was a champion bicycler long before his involvement with the so-called “autocar.”  Even though his first race, as detailed below, nearly ended in fatal disaster, he stayed with it.  In so doing, he became one of the original notable figures in motor racing history.

Marseilles-Nice-La Turbie: The Race Report.

A Brief Contextual Note.

Technology is funny.  We love the progress and benefits of new technology, as humans.  However, as humans, we also have a tendency to resist change.  This dichotomy is at play during the 1897 racing season.  For example, one Mr. Meyan was critical in arguing against pure racing cars.  He contended that only touring cars should even be manufactured to assure the sport remained an amateur endeavor.  As another example, an article in La France Automobile railed against a rumored “special racing monster of 8 h.p.”

It retrospect, it is comical that 8 horsepower caused such a stir.  But, at the heart of these criticisms, it seems, was unabated fear of change.  In an odd way, this evidences the very deep connection we, as human beings, have with our automobiles.

The January 1897 Marseilles-Nice-La Turbie Race.

On a personal note, these early races were staged races in which the competitors set off at regular intervals.  In short, it is difficult to conjure an exciting report some such indirect racing.  However, this does not abate my two-fold conviction that: (1) these early races are historically important; and (2) their details are being lost to time’s cruel march forward.

In any event, it appears that the competitors were released, in random order, at one minute intervals.  The “interval thing” was an intentional effort to decrease the need for passing, on account of narrow roads.

Early in the race, Charron was gripping the grain, as it were, around a 90-degree bend.  The wheels dug in and everything in the car, including his riding mechanic, was thrown out.  However, Charron, managed to stay in the somersaulting vehicle.  Observers suggested that the accident could easily have been fatal to Fernand Charron; however, he escaped with only moderate injuries to his arm.

The first day, of the three day, 149 mile race, concluded in Fréjus, a distance of 96.3 miles.  The Count de Chasseloup Laubat was first, completing the distance in 4:47:14.  An entry under the name off Prévost was second, at 5:12:11.  Lemaitre was third trailing by only a few seconds off Prévost.  My man, de Knyff, was fourth.

The second day was a shorter stint from Fréjus to Nice, a distance of 42.2 miles.  Prévost managed to run over two dogs.  Another competitor, managed to run over his mechanic.  The record is silent on the well-being of either the mechanic or the dogs.

The Count de Chasseloup Laubat won the second day as well.  He was trailed by Lemaitre and Prévost.  The final day, in this January race, was quite colder than the prior race, in spite of the fact that they were approaching the mediterranean setting of La Turbie, which sets just above Monaco and down the road from Nice, France.

This route was only 10.5 miles, owing to the historically winding nature of these roads. The Count de Chasseloup Laubat again prevailed.  But, his victory was somewhat surprising.  He was rolling hard in a steam engine.  Yet again, the petrol engines were defeated.

Nevertheless, the superiority of the steam engines was waning.  Development and progress were increasing rapidly.  The next car, of Lemaitre, in terms of overall finishing time, averaged 18.3 miles per hour.  Each race seems to be resulting in an increase in overall speed, regardless of the weather or course.  In other words, significant progress was being made.  In just a few short years, petrol engines would relegate steam power, in vehicles, to a thing of the past.

 

By Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

 

If you are interested in staying current on my progress through motorsport history, please consider taking a moment to follow the GPevolved Facebook page, or the @GPevolved Twitter account.

 

Sources:

Mercedes and Auto Racing in the Belle Epoque: 1895 – 1915, Robert Dick (2005).

Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats, Cutter and Fendell (1973).

A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949).

 

The 1896 Paris to Marseille to Paris.

GPevolved title graphic for Paris to Marseilles, 1896

The Formation of the Automobile Club de France.

Men of the Day No.761: Caricature of Le Comte ...
Men of the Day No.761: Caricature of Le Comte Albert de Dion. Caption reads: “Automobile” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was November 1895.  The committee that sponsored the major city to city race last summer had to determine its future.  Initially, there was some disagreement as to whether the committee should remain just that, a committee, or become a proper club.  In the end, the Automobile Club de France was formed at the “Quai d’Orsay” home of the Comte de Dion on November 12, 1895.

Why is this important?  Let me tell you.  For the first time, the burgeoning motorsport movement, as it were, had a head.  Moreover, the formation of a French national automobile club assisted in cementing France’s leadership of the movement.

Following its formation in November 1895, the high-society types that formed the club started work on a major city to city race for the upcoming 1896 motor racing season.

Paris to Marseilles and back was chosen as the general destinations of the race.  However, all-night racing (as used in the 1895 Paris to Bordeaux) was abandoned in favor of a timed-stage setup.  There seems to have been a recognition that the all-out endurance type of event, through the night and on unfamiliar roads, was simply too dangerous.  In other words, the means did not justify the ends.

January 1896: The Route from Paris to Marseilles, and Back, was Published.

The race was to start and end in the epicenter of early motorsport culture: Paris.  From Paris, the race was to go have daily stages to Auxerre, Dijon, Lyons, and Avignon, before arriving in Marseilles.  The route in return was only slightly different.  But, in publishing the details as early as January 1896, it was clear that the new Automobile Club de France meant business.

February 1896: Classes Introduced.

Das benzinbetriebene Dreirad Voiturette von Lé...
Das benzinbetriebene Dreirad Voiturette von Léon_Bollée, 1896; Damit legte er die Strecke Le Mans – Paris in sieben Stunden zurück. 650 ccm, Cité de l’Automobile – Musée National – Collection Schlumpf, Mülhausen, Frankreich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The regulations were published in full detail the next month, in February 1896.  In these early days of the automotive frontier, not just new vehicles were being created, but also entire new categories and types of vehicles.  For example, the three-wheelers by Bollée and de Dion certainly broke the established mold.

It was these diverging strands of vehicles that provided the impetus for instituting multiple classes for the upcoming 1896 Paris-Marseilles-Paris race.  There was a subdivided class for cars, depending on the number of seats, and a subdivided class for motorcycles, depending on whether or not they were assisted by pedals.

The regulations were  simple in these early days of racing.  Each car had to carry an Automobile Club de France (ACF) observer.  Repairs were, generally, to be made only during running time, although there was some quibbling as to what actually constituted a repair.  In the end, it was decided that anything short of completely replacing a part was to be allowed outside of actual running.

The 1896 Race Itself: Paris to Marseilles and Back.

Thirty-two competitors started the race on September 24, 1896.  Of the 32, there was 24 petrol cars, 3 steam cars, and 5 tricycles.  The tricycles had previously qualified in a race from Paris to Mantes, a few days earlier.  At the start, there were thousands out watching this event.  The police did what they could to control the crowds.

According to Gerald Rose’s account (cited below), “In all twenty-seven competitors finished the first stage and the speeds were unusually high, the Bollée averaging about 20 M.P.H.”

Through the night, there was an electrifying change in the weather and a massive storm swept across France.  The roads turned to mud and became incredibly slippery. Trees were down.  Debris filled the competitors paths.  Yet, these hearty competitors endured.  Oddly, one of the Bollées was charged by a bull. The car was damaged so badly that it could not continue.

The next day, the heavy rain continued, even if the thunder had subsided.  The real threat to these high mounted, low horsepower cars, was the wind.  The rain eventually stopped, several days later, but not before wreaking havoc on the field.  Rose summarizes:

 

The finish of the race was considered a great success and those involved enjoyed the parties along the way.  The race was won by one Mr. Mayade who finished the entire race at an average pace of 15.7 miles per hour.

 

//Travis Turner

Primary Source: Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908.

The 1896 Motorsport Season Begins…

Bordeaux Gets into the Game.

The 1896 motorsport season began with a couple relatively minor races out of Bordeaux, France.  Admittedly, Gerald Rose’s tome, cited below, is my only source for these races.

In short, the excitement of being the destination of the major 1895 city to city race led some interested folks in Bordeaux to organize a couple of their own races.

April 26, 1896: Bordeaux to Langon.

This was a relatively short race of 28.75 miles.  Six cars finished the race, which was won by a Mr. Bord; however, accurate times for this race have been lost to history.

Another driver, by the name of Marly, drove into a house.  However, as noted by Mr. Rose, the accident was not that bad as he still finished the race in fourth place.

There was a dinner at the end of the race.  Clearly, there must have been some excitement over the success of the event, because they decided there and then to organize another–longer–race for May 24th and 25th of that year.

May 24-25, 1896: Bordeaux to Agen to Bordeaux.

Day one was the race from Bordeaux to Agen.  The second day was the return trip.  The total race totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 170 miles (171.25 according to Rose).For whatever reason, the race was only open to folks who had possessed cars before January 1, 1896.   This seems to be an odd, and possibly elitist rule; however, it had the effect of curtailing the number of entries.

Like many of the early races, there were far fewer starters than entrants.  Of the 30 cars entered, only seven made it to the starting line.  There were three Peugeots, two Panhard et Levassors, a Hildebrand-Wolfmüller, and a De Dion.  One Mr. Bousquet was the first to reach Agen, the midpoint of the race.  On the second day, he was also the first to get back home to Bordeaux.  Thus, Mr. Bousquet won.

This race did not receive the attention that the Bordeaux organizers had hoped for, primarily because the race occurred at the same time as another, much more popular event: the Bordeaux to Paris bicycle race.

A Cosmopolitan Failure.

The magazine “Cosmopolitan” (which it turns out is a much older publication than I had ever expected), organized a race in New York City for May 30, 1896.  Again, according to Gerald Rose, the race was a “complete fiasco.”

There were only six cars entered for the tour around through Central Park and through New York City.  Only one car, a Duryea, managed to complete the course.  The race was such a failure that Rose opines it “seriously damaged” the reputation and future of the self-propelled vehicle in France.

In Conclusion.

I find these early races fascinating because you can literally see the foundation and future of  motorsport being figured out by a few interested groups of people.  I cannot help but wonder if they knew the destiny that motorsport would end up having world-wide?  Were they cognizant of the virtual certainty of the cars’ future as the dominant mode of transportation (at least in America)?

I also have a sense of regret that these early races are disappearing into the darkness of history.  Motorsport is inherently a forward-looking sport.  It is always looking for new technology and new drivers to be ultimately quickest.  In this regard, motorsport is a cruel friend to history.  I find this quite sad.  And so, perhaps in some humble way, Project GPevolved can bring a bit of forgotten history into the light again.

 

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Source: Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908 (1949).