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, 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
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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).