1894 Paris to Rouen Trial: The (arguable) Origin of Motorsport.

1894 Paris to Rouen Trial

As noted by Gerald Rose, in his classic, A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, organized motorsport is generally regarded to have begun with the “Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux.”  This horseless carriage contest was organized by Le Petit Journal, a Parisian publication.

However, Rose notes, “It is not correct to describe the Petit Journal Competition as the first race for two very excellent reasons: – First, it was not a race, and secondly, it was not the first open contest for self-propelled vehicles on the open road.”

Again, according to Gerald Rose, a man by the name of Fossier organized a competition for the “vélocipede” in 1887.  It took place in Paris, which during the Belle Epoque, was a cultural and technological leader for all of Europe.  However, only one car showed up.  As is fairly obvious, a one-man race is not much of a race at all.  The only participant was the Count de Dion.  Count de Dion would prove to be one of the central figures of early motorsport.  In fact, he was fundamental in the creation of a national French auto club, which eventually morphed into the FIA.

Between 1887 and 1894, the petrol/internal combustion engine made significant progress.  The most significant of which was the infamous patent by Mr. Daimler, in Germany.  This progress was massive as compared to the relatively weak development of the steam engine.  The steam engine had been in use for some time; however, these vehicles were largely suited to business use, such as transportation of goods around a city-center.  Not only were the poor candidates for flying through the countryside, but they did not capture the imagination in the same manner of the comparatively smaller, faster, and sportier internal combustion engine.

In fact, Mr. Fossier’s 1887 race set the mold for the early races.  These early races were not just for bragging rights.  Rather, they were explicitly designed to promote the useful development of the self-propelled vehicle.  Unfortunately, it failed.

By 1894, there were enough self-propelled vehicles around Paris to contemplate another contest.  Mr. Pierre Gifford, writing under a nom de plume (as was oddly fashionable at the time), wrote up the idea of another self-propelled vehicle contest in Le Petit Journal on December 19, 1893.  The next day, on December 20, 1893, a simple contest was proposed.  The rules, according to Gerald Rose had but about 10 different strictures.

Of these simple rules, only a few are important for the purposes of this article:

  • Judges were to be the staff of the Petit Journal with “a number of consulting engineers.”
  • First prize was to be awarded to the car “which seemed to the Judges to best fulfill the conditions of being ‘without danger, easily handled, and of low running cost.’”
  • To be admitted into the actual race, each car was to complete a preliminary trial of 50 kilometers in three hours.  This was later changed to completing the 50 km. course in four hours, due to the perceived danger of even 10 miles per hour.
  • The finish, coachwork, paint, and general visual appeal of each car was “immaterial.”
  • The only technical requirement was that each car be able to move under its own power.


The entry list for participation in the preliminary trials closed on April 30, 1894.  There were 102 entries ranging from conventional steam cars to primitive internal combustion engines to the absolutely absurd.  For example, the entry list contains cars that would supposedly be powered by gravity, compressed air, the weight of passengers, mineral oil, a system of levels, and even a system of pendulums.  Certainly, these entries never came to fruition.

As for the race itself, it was more of a casual trundle than an all-out ten-tenths wheel-to-wheel action-fest.  Based upon the approximated records (exact times were not recorded), not a single car was able to crack an average exceeding 12 miles per hour.

There was a compulsory break for lunch.  This served an additional purpose of allowing the spectators the opportunity to examine the cars – a tradition in motorsport long since lost, many generations ago.

The fastest car was the Count de Dion in his De Dion “steam tractor” (the passengers were carried in a separate trailer).  However, internal combustion engines were starting to come on strong.  In fact, except for de Dion’s tractor, every petrol car beat every steam-powered car.

As for the petrol cars, the Peugeot’s of Mr. Lemaitre and Mr. Doriot were faster than the Panhard’s of Mr. Panhard and Mr. Levassor (each driving a car of their own marque).

Remember, this was not a contest of pure speed.  Moreover, de Dion’s large steam tractor fell outside the intent of the contest.  Accordingly, the firm of De Dion, Bouton et Cie were only awarded the second prize.

The grand prize, as it were, was awarded equally to the firms of Panhard and Levassor and Le Fils de Peugeot Freres (The Sons of the Peugeot Brothers).  It is certainly worth noting that both of these manufactures were using engines “of the type invented by Herr Daimler of Wurtenburg.”

As a footnote, Panhard and Levassor would continue to license the Daimler engine for many years to come.  In fact, it was not until much later, with the advent of the “Mercedes” brand, that the German marque sold cars directly to France.  The reasons for this are both peculiar and legal in nature; however, it is a story I will reserve for a later post.

The importance of the 1894 Paris to Rouen trial is clear.  While it may have not have been the first organized motorsport event, it remains accepted as the first successful trial in which numerous cars competed as a public spectacle.

Even more important, this event marks the installation of the internal combustion engine as a meaningful means of transport.  The public nature of the trial is further significant because this 1894 Paris to Rouen trial put French high-society on notice that internal combustion vehicles could be, well, cool.  In just a few short years, successful Parisians and member of the “Riviera class” were snapping up race-winning cars for many times the cost to produce them.


/Travis Turner of GPevolved.