The Tour de France was conceived by the French publication, Le Matin. The race took place between July 16 and July 24, in 1899. The race was to be approximately 1,350 miles and stands as one of the longer automotive races of all time. The first bicycle Tour de France did not take place until 1903, which makes this the true original.
The regulations for the July 1899 race were published in April in Le Matin. There are two sets of regulations of note. First, there were “new rules affecting the disposal of cars during the nights between stages.” These rules provided that the cars could generally not be worked on outside of certain periods before and after a stage. In other words, parc fermé regulations date back to early racing. Second, flags were introduced at this race. A yellow flag indicated “attention.” A red flag was the symbol to stop.
There were three categories of cars. The first category was for “cars having at least two places side by side, carrying two passengers.” The fact that cars were required to have two seats seems to indicate that, even this early in the development of motorsport, there was a fear of alienating public interest in the sport by creating too great a divide between the thoroughbred racer and the regular touring car. The second category was for motorcycles. To meet the main category, the motorcycles had to weigh less than 150 kilograms. Finally, there was a third catch-all category for vehicles not fitting into the first two categories.
The stages were as follows:
- Stage 1 (July 16): Paris to Nancy = 180.1 miles
- Stage 2 (July 17): Nancy to Aix-les-bains = 227.3 miles
- Rest Day (July 18)
- Stage 3 (July 19): Aix-les-bains to Vichy = 237.2 miles
- Rest Day (July 20)
- Stage 4 (July 21): Vichy to Perigueux = 187.7 miles
- Stage 5 (July 22): Perigueux to Nantes = 212.4 miles
- Stage 6 (July 23): Nantes to Cabourg = 216.1 miles
- Stage 7 (July 24): Cabourg to Paris = 119.2
The gross racing distance was 1,378 miles . Due to a few excepted sections, the net racing distance was 1,350 miles.
A Few Notes on the Cars
Out of the multitude of competitors in the three classes, there were 19 cars, which started the race. Of those 19, eight were Panhard et Levassors. Interestingly, there were 7 cars with horizontal engines (Vallée, Bolide, Richard, and the Bollées); however, only one of these cars managed to finish.
These were low hung cars, with “wind cutting fronts” and a long wheelbase. If nothing else, they looked racey. The Bollées were driven by drivers including Castelnau, Giraud, Avis, and Jamin.
The Panhard et Levassors
Fernand Charron and René de Knyff each had the very new 16 horsepower models. According to Gerald Rose, “The six other Panhards were all 12 H.P. vehicles.”
These entries were the first proper racers built by the firm. This was only their second race. Previously, the Mors had done quite well in the 1899 Paris to Bordeaux. Mors were driven by Levegh, Jenatzy, and Antony.
This was described as a “truly remarkable vehicle. It was fitted with a horizontal engine having four cylinders with a 100 mm bore and a 200 mm stroke. Transmission was by means of a single belt. Unfortunately, the belt slipped and Dr. Lehwess withdrew this car on the very first stage.
The Bolide was an odd car. The horizontal engine was under the main bodywork of the car; it did not really have a traditional hood. According to Rose, “the radiator, a vertical tubular one, stood straight up in front of the driver, and gave the car a curious fore-shortened appearance, as the seats were practically mid-way between the wheels.”
Stage 1: Paris to Nancy (180.1 miles)
The race started at 8:00 am on Sunday, July 16, 1899. As was the usual practice, this was an an interval race, where the cars were released in thirty second intervals. 19 cars. 4 voiturettes, and 25 motorcycles started the race.
Tires were a persistent problem for the duration of the race. Pneumatic tires were still in their very early development in 1899. Flash, driving a Vollée had “immediate and persistent” tire problems. In fact, a blowout caused him to collide with a post, which damaged his car. Although he arrived at the destination too late to be timed, he did continue on for the remainder of the race, albeit untimed.
Charron’s time (6:05:42) was particularly slow owing to problems with his water piping. The top three times, and thus leaders of the race, were as follows:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 5:19:27
- Girardot (Panhard): 5:35:47
- Pinson (Panhard): 5:44:24
Stage 2: Nancy to Aix-les-bains (227.3 miles)
Spectators from the nearby “Ecole Professionelle” (Professional School) were already outside and waiting around 4:30 am. The cars were off starting at 6:00 am. There was an allowance for some rough roads on the first part of the stage.
Antony, Broc, and Lefebvre each dropped out; however, the reasons why have been lost to history. Girardot lost a wheel. However, he managed to replace it with an ordinary cart wheel and continue on. Although Charron arrived first, both front springs were broken, due to gripping the grain a bit hard for the extremely rough roads.
The next day was a rest day. There was some excitement when the town’s major hotel spontaneously and accidentally burned to the ground.
Overall Leaders with Times on Stage 2:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 7:15:21
- Charron (Panhard): 6:50:52
- Jamin (Bollée): 7:16:25
Stage 3: Aix-les-bains to Vichy (237.2 miles)
By only about 10 miles, this was the longest stage of the tour. At the start, there were 35 total competitors running from the three different classes. Giraud made his way to the front of this stage. However, he was soon passed by the Count de Chasseloup, who recently raced Camille Jenatzy for the fastest over a flying kilometer. Then, at Montbrison, the Count was overtaken by Fernand Charron and then René de Knyff. The day was filled with incidents. Seeing as these were the first cars any dogs had ever come across, they were a perpetual problem. It had to be amusing to be among the first to realize dogs are all but pre-programmed to chase cars.
There was another rest day following this lengthy stage. The Bollées were already getting pretty weak, in that they were starting to fall back and drop out.
Overall Leaders with Times on Stage 3:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 8:28:48
- Charron (Panhard): 8:12:12
- Pinson (Panard): 8:51:07
Stage 4: Vichy to Perigeuex (187.7 miles)
This was said to be the most trying stage of all. The competitors were passing through the mountainous area of Auvergne. In fact, this route was so trying that it was later used for the 1905 Gordon Bennett trophy.
Again, according to Gerald Rose:
The hill up La Baraque to the top of the Col de la Moreno was the last straw to some of the weary [motor] cyclists.
Remember, these early motorcycles often required assistance from the rider by pedaling. In fact, a couple cyclists, such as Rigal and Osment, simply gave up on the hill.
For the cars, the four mile hill section gives a good indication of the relative strength of some of the top remaining cars. De Knyff and Charron covered the section in 15 minutes. Pinion took 18 minutes. Girardot took 19 minutes to complete the section.
The Count de Chasseloup-Laubat burst both of his rear tired trying to avoid a dog. De Knyff led the stage from start to finish.
Overall Leaders with Times on Stage 4:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 6:44:55
- Charron (Panhard): 7:10:52
- Pinson (Panhard): 7:25:00
Stage 5: Perigueux to Nantes (212.4 miles)
At this point, there were only 23 of the original 48 competitors. All 23 completed this relatively uneventful stage. Count de Chasseloup-Laubat was the surprise fastest time of the day. However, he drove the entire distance with his toolbox open, causing him to lose every single spare tire that he was carrying. He also lost his jack. Giraud was unable to even start the stage. As such, there was only one Bollée remaining. Girardot overtook Pinson for third place, overall.
Overall Leaders with Times on Stage 5:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 6:53:45
- Charron (Panhard: 7:16:15
- Girardot (Panhard): 7:07:52
Stage 6: Nantes to Cabourg (216.1 miles)
There was a bit of rain on this stage. However, the roads were not overly affected. Charron, who had been running in second, overall, since the second stage, ran into trouble. He broke the aluminum cap of the bearing between the gearbox and the bevel drive on the sprocket shaft. This left him with the ability to drive only in reverse. He, in fact, did just that for 25 miles, before giving up. He tried to forge a replacement part with Clément; however, it failed. Charron was out of the race for good. It must have been crushing for him to have to abandon hope of winning such an epic race.
The fastest time of the day was from Levegh (6:26:44). Yet, this was largely inconsequential as he was quite far back in the overall order.
Overall Leaders with Times on Stage 6:
- De Knyff (Panhard): 6:48:03
- Girardot (Panhard): 7:00:25
- Count de Chasseloup-Laubat (Panhard): 6:34:21
Stage 7: Cabourg to Paris (119.2 miles)
An honorable mention goes to Camille Jenatzy for absolute dogged persistence in the face of “innumerable incidents and perpetual troubles.”
The stage was largely uneventful as the drivers raced all-out to win this epic tour of France. there was a massive crowd at the finish line. De Knyff was the first in at around 4:15 pm. Girardot was second at around 4:20. Due to the time differential, Girardot waited on pins and needles for enough time to go by to assure him second ahead of the Count de Chasseloup-Laubat.
The Panhard et Levassors were absolutely dominate throughout the race. Clearly, these were the mounts to have.
In the end, De Knyff carried the day from the beginning to the end of the race. Girardot and the Count had a close battle, once Charron dropped out. Pinson and Castelnau were the best of the rest.
- De Knyff (Panhard): 30.2 mph
- Girardot (Panhard): 27.2 mph
- Count de Chasseloup-Laubat (Panhard): 27.1 mph
- Pinson (Panard): 25.6 mph
- Castelnau (Bollée): 25.2 mph
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/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com
A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949).
100 Years of the Tour de France, Motorsport Magazine (July 1999).