The 1896 run from London to Brighton signaled the legal start of motoring in Great Britain. Excitement had been building since the amendment to the Light Locomotive Act earlier in 1896. I have found two interesting accounts of that inspirational day.
The 1896 amendment, raising the speed limit to approximately twelve miles per hour, went into effect on November 14, 1896. Thousands arrived to watch cars legally travel down public roads.
London to Brighton, 1896.
In Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, Charles Jarrott provides a first-hand account of the historic run from London to Brighton. According to Jarrott, “for the first time in English history legal restrictions in regard to the use of motor-cars on the public highways, except when proceeded by a man with a red flag, had been removed, and we were to be allowed to drive a car on the road not exceeding twelve miles an hour. The run from London to Brighton had been arranged ti celebrate the event.
It was “a foggy, dull, wet, typical November morning.” Jarrott provides color to his narrative by adding, “An occasional petrol blaze was seen through the fog which filled the hall, making the scene resemble a veritable inferno.” It was a “who’s who” of early British car culture.
It must have been an unforgettable scene. “The spectators had availed themselves of every possible point of vantage, to view for the first time these wonderful machines which were that day allowed to be run upon English roads. Lamp-posts, housetops, balconies were all occupied and the thousands thronging the roadways made the passage for our car almost impossible.”
It was a cosmopolitan event for high-society and the masses alike. “The Frenchmen were of course wildly excited; if gesticulation and talking could have accomplished anything, much would have been laid to their credit. The English crowd was rather fearful.”
The start was slow. Unfortunately, thousands also watched the relative unreliability of early automobiles. The only motorcycle crashed before it ever really got started. All things considered, Jarrott noted wryly, “it might have been worse.”
Finally, Charles Jarrott wrote of the race:
The effect of the run on the public was curious. They had come to believe that on that identical day a great revolution was going to take place. Horses were to be superseded forthwith, and only the marvelous motor vehicles about which they had read so much in the papers for months previously would be seen upon the road. No one seemed to be clear as to how this extraordinary change was to take place suddenly; nevertheless, there was the idea that the change was to be a rapid one.”
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, Charles Jarrott
A History of the First Ten Years of Automobilism, Lord Montagu
Encyclopedia of Auto Racing Greats, Charles Jarrott, Cutter and Fendell.
“Without any deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
Motoring in Great Britain was, in essence, illegal until 1896. Emancipation Day, a cold and rainy November day, saw the run from London to Brighton, following the passage of less restrictive legislation. This run stands as the legal start to motoring in Great Britain.
Motoring is Banned.
Motoring was banned in Great Britain before the motor act even existed. An essay by John Henry Knight notes that 70 years before 1906, just as railroads were being introduces, “there were scores of steam coaches and steam carriages running on [British] roads.” He recites the great pioneers of the steam coach and steam carriage such as Hancock, Gurney, and Summers.
However, according to Knight, :”but the opposition of the Turnpike Trustees, the coach proprietors, and the railway companies nipped in the bud a promising industry by the imposition of excessive tolls and adverse Acts of Parliament.”
That Act of Parliament included the The Locomotives Act, 1865, provided “it shall not be lawful to drive any locomotive along any turnpike road or public highway at a greater speed than 4 miles per hour, or through any city, cotton , or village at a greater speed than 2 miles per hour.” These few words quashed most progress in the motoring arts until 1896.
It is important to realize that The Locomotives Act of 1865 never contemplated the petrol/gasoline powered vehicle. According to Mr. R. E. Moore, writing in 1906:
Of course, the truth of the matter is, that when these regulations were first imposed, the Legislature had in contemplation only such cumbrous and unwieldy machines as the old-fashioned steam traction engine, and it never occurred to any of those responsible for framing that it would ever be possible for anyone to place on the road such a striking example of engineering skill and applied science as the modern light motor-car.”
Society was hesitant to accept similar technologies. According to John Henry Knight, “Even when the bicycle appeared about 1869, it was viewed with displeasure and suspicion; horses would shy at it, and several accidents occurred from this cause.”
It wasn’t exactly “fast and furious” yet; however, there was a London underground motoring scene before the passage of an amendment to The Locomotives Act in 1896. For example, Sir David Solomons, Bart., built an electric automobile in 1874, The wealthy were quietly importing motoring vehicles for on the use on private property. However, these privately imported vehicles were few and far between.
Public Opinion Opposed Motoring in Britain.
According to Lord Northcliffe, in Montagu’s compilation of essays, “We had first enthusiasm and curiosity, causing cheering crowds to assemble when we arrived in a town; then, when it began to be seen that horses were frightened (and in those days every horse was frightened), the populace became wrathful.
Sir David Solomons, Bart., was an early proponent of legalized motoring. According to him., “the first step would be to interest the public, if only by way of curiosity, secondly to obtain the opinion of the press, and thirdly to influence parliament by a powerful and impartial combination…”
Although simply stated, this small grassroots movement faced overwhelming opposition. Sir David Solomons planned to change it.
The Tunbridge Wells Demonstration.
Organized by Solomons, himself, a demonstration of several cars occurred on October 15, 1895. According to C. L. Freeston, “it was then that the public realized for the first time that a new means of locomotion had been brought into being.”
However, the success of the event was not left to chance. Solomons had over 10,000 invitations mailed out to this event. It was a general success. The press covered the event and this, presumably, helped to sway the opinion of the members of parliament.
Parliament Debates Motoring.
The comments summarizing the July 30, 1896 parliamentary debate give a sense of inevitability. There was a feeling that the legislation would pass; it was just a matter of hammering out the particulars. The car had to carry lights at night. It had to have a bell. Breaking any part of the proposed amendment would result in a fine of up to 10 pounds.
Debate heated up on the topic of “rate of speed.” It is clear than an unlimited speed limit would never have gained parliamentary support. The debate started off with discussion of a ten mile per hour speed limit. They were concerned about protecting against “furious driving.”
Others objected to imposition of a strict liability statute, that it would be better to set standards depending on condition. This suggestion, while noble, was quickly shot down. In the end, the speed limit was increased to 14 miles per hour, from the original suggestion of 10 miles per hour. However, in getting the increase, the proponents of motorsport gave in to language to allow every city, town, and municipality, to reduce this speed in any manner they saw fit.
And in doing so, Lord Solomon, Lord Montagu, and other proponents of motoring succeeded in changing the law of the land. However, the act would not go into effect
The celebration of the emancipation of the motor vehicle was celebrated by a run from London to Brighton, covered in a forthcoming post.
/ Travis Turner of GPevolved
A History of the First Ten Years of Automobilism, Lord Montagu (a collection of essays published in 1906).
Locomotives on Highways Bill [H.L.] (Hansard, 30 July 1896) (summarizing the parliamentary debate)
It was November 1895. The committee that sponsored the major city to city race lastsummer 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.
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.
Primary Source: Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908.
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.
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).