Following the 1899 Tour de France, there was a smattering of semi-important races. Most of these originated out of Paris. Paris, five years into the existence of proper motorsport, was still the center of this grassroots movement.
On Classes and Cars
Unlike today’s highly-defined racing segments, in the early days of motorsport, there were no settled classes for cars. Instead, virtually every committee sponsoring a race was devising unique classes as they saw fit.
However, as a general rule, there was three classes: (1) big cars; (2) voiturettes; and (3) tricycles. As of 1899, the development of the big cars was most important. However, the voiturettes were progressively becoming more important. These lighter, often speedier, cars would eventually rise in popularity as a response to the monstrous big car engines.
In this era, so-called big car engines were continually increasing in size. In an era where few cars could rev past 1,200 to 1,500 RPMs, the answer for more power often came from merely increasing the displacement of a given engine. In the early years of motorsport, power was more easily gained from increasing size than improving engine efficiency.
This does not mean that development was slow. On the contrary, the rate of development, particularly by Panhard et Levassor was rapid. One development occurring during this time was the switch to electric ignition. Electric ignition was generally superior to the previous technology of incandescent platinum tubes. Panhard et Levassor made this change between 1899 and 1901; whereas Mors successfully used electric ignition from the beginning.
Paris to Saint Malo
The Paris to Saint Malo race took place only five days after the Tour de France on July 30, 1899. The net racing distance was 231 miles. Most races, in these early years, originated out of Paris. Such concentrated motoring activity did not go unnoticed by the public. In fact, there was a growing backlash against the grassroots motorsport movement.
According to Gerald Rose, Paris to Saint Malo was “essentially a race for tricycles.” The tricycles were fastest overall in this race. In fact, for the shorter races, the tricycles were generally quickest in 1899.
A Mr. Renaux won in a tricycles of his own construction. However, his victory was not without incident. At one point, he made a wrong turn and took a longer overall route to one of the control points. As he had not gained an advantage, he was not disqualified.
The fastest car was Antony. His 16 horsepower Mors completed the 231 mile course in 7 hours and 32 minutes. This translates to an average of 30.7 miles per hour, which supports a conclusion that the average speeds were consistently increasing.
One driver, Broc, burst a tire. In fact, as I have previously discussed, inflated tires continued to cause problems. However, the cars were simply too fast for solid rubber tires. The Mors’ cars, which debuted at Paris to Bordeaux, came on strong in the last part of 1899.
Paris to Trouville
This was not strictly a motor race. If for no other reason, this Top Gear-esque challenge, deserves mention purely for its uniqueness. This was the first, and quite possibly only, race to pit racing cars against pedestrians, horses, bicycles, and motorcycles. Each class started at different times, equating to their respective speed. The goal was to have the winners of each class arrive at Trouville at the same time.
The race took place on August 27, 1899. It was 104.5 miles in length. The different class winners did not exactly arrive at the same tune, However, they were within a couple hours of each other. The runners (pedestrians) hustled along the course for 21 hours. The racing cars completed the course in about three hours.
A nine year old horse was the first to arrive at 3:12 pm, at an average speed of 8.5 miles per hour. Antony’s Mors was the fastest car. Levegh was second, also in a Mors racing car. The Mors continued to come on strong late in the season.
Paris to Ostend
The publication Vélo organized this 201 mile race to take place on September 1, 1899, only a few days after the Trouville event. The race was to end at a racecourse known as the “Velodrome de Wellington.”
Described as a most dangerous practice by Gerald Rose in 1909, the race involved a mass start. It is interesting that motorsport wholesale adopted a practice that was initially seen as an unnecessary danger, even at low speeds. The cars started first. Only two minutes later, there was a simultaneous start of 24 cycles.
The problem with mass starts was compounded by the issue of dust. On these old city to city races, the overwhelming majority of the drives were inevitably on mere compressed dirt. As such, a simultaneous start implied not only a dangerous group of cars, but a visibility reducing cloud until the cars finally managed to sufficiently spread out.
For the cars, the start was a dusty, confusing race to a dangerous corner at Saint-Ouen-l’Aumone. Levegh reached the corner first; however, he was only ahead of Charron by a mere 800 yards. And right behind Charron, Camille Jentazy was snapping at his heels, trying to get past. Following the battle for second by Charron and Jenatzy was a dogfight involving Girardot, Georges, and Broc.
As for that dangerous complex at Saint-Ouen-l’Aumone, Rose notes:
“All got past the danger spot successfully except Georges, who was going too fast, and after swerving from one side of the road to the other, he finally crashed into a ditch, luckily without injuring himself or his machine to any great extent.”
The first part of the race maintained a tremendous pace. Levegh covered 129 kilometers in a mere 133 minutes, a record pace for this era of racing. However, at Beauvais, a fine mist slowed the pace. The rain turned into a downpour and further slowed the pace, by the next control point.
As was found to be competitively advantageous, the tricycles followed in the wake of a racing car, to help keep the pace up in their low-powered engines. Teste followed closely behind Levegh, leader. By St. Paul, Girardot was in second place and was closely followed by Baras, in his tricycle.
By Dunkerque, the tricycles had gotten bold and overtaken the cars altogether. Teste was ahead of Levegh by a full two minutes. In the end, however, the tricycle driven by Baras took the lead and won the race.
The crowd in the Vélodrome went crazy at the instant the first two cars entered. There they were, Levegh and Girardot racing absolutely head-to-head to be the fastest car. Girardot, driving his Panhard, beat Levegh’s Mors to the finish line.
Bordeaux to Biarritz
The 1899 season ended where it began: the south of France. The route proceeded through Langon, Auros, Grignoles, Casteljaloux, Mont de Marson, Dax, and Bayonne.
There were 27 drivers in total. However, if you were not driving a Mors, you would have had little chance in this race. The Mors, which had come on very strong in the late races of 1899 were completely dominant in the 163 mile trek from Bordeaux to Biarritz.
The race was won buy Levegh, followed by Antony. This race is most notable for setting a new high average pace for a race. Levegh completed all 163 miles at a shocking average of 37 miles per hour.
And So, 1899 Came to an End.
The 1899 season has been an interesting season to study. Motorsport, as a whole, is in a state of transition. The early races, between stripped down touring cars were beginning to fade. Instead, races composed of purpose-built chassis. There are still a great many epic city to city races remaining, before the sport–as a whole–realizes the superiority of closed course circuit-based racing.
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1909) (providing the definitive account of early motorsport times and events).