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).
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.
Ernest Henry: The Grandfather of the Modern Competition Engine
Ernest Henry was born in 1885. Mechanically inclined, he studied at an applied school of mechanics in Geneva, Switzerland. He graduated in 1906, at age 21. Initially working on marine engines, he soon moved to Paris, France. By 1911, he was picked up by Peugeot. It was there that he would hook up with a few race drivers to create an engine that would have an everlasting impact on motorsport, and even cars in general. The cars that he designed for Peugeot, Ballot, and Sunbeam achieved no more than moderate success; however, his influence on motorsport was (and remains) profound.
The Henry System.
Henry’s system, as it were, refers to the integration of several disparate concepts: (1) one or more overhead camshafts; (2) inclined overhead valves; (3) monoblock casting; and (4) central spark plug location. Henry was not the creator of any of these particular concepts. However, he was the first to shove all four into a single engine. This combination of concepts indelibly stamped itself upon motorsport history.
The Henry System, as it became later known, first appeared in the three-liter 1912 Peugeot. The 1912 Peugeot car was ahead of its time. In fact, anytime you see “DOHC” (Dual OverHead Cams) stamped on a production car or its engine, be aware that the technology is over a century old. It all began when three drivers, by the names of Zuccarrelli, Boillot, and Goux got together and conceived some ingenious ideas for a race car. Ernest Henry, an enigmatic swiss draftsman, was tapped to force some big ideas into a single car.
The 1912 Peugeot was powered by a 7.6 liter inline four-cylinder engine with a bore of 110 mm. and a stroke of 200 mm. This remarkably high bore to stroke ratio (1.82 : 1) allowed higher revolutions per minute than were previously possible. In fact, the then high-revving car was capable of a whopping 2,200 RPMs (some accounts suggest 2,800 RPMs). At this engine speed, Laurence Pomeroy estimated that the car would have conservatively put out around 130 brake horsepower (Peugeot claimed 175 bhp). The car weighed a mere 3,100 pounds; it was rather nimble for its time. Apparently, the designers made no effort to streamline the car; however, some streamlining was employed for record attempts at Brooklands in the spring of 1913.
The first major race that the 1912 Peugeot competed in, the French GP of the same year, was also one of the longest Grands Prix of all time. It took place at the Dieppe Circuit, which was a triangular circuit between three cities totaling roughly 48 miles per lap. The cars were to run 10 laps per day totaling a nearly 1,000 mile Grand Prix. The only restriction for the Grand Prix cars was that they were limited to a width of 69 inches (1.75 meters). In this era, the cars did not race head to head; rather, at this race, they were started in 30 second intervals. Jules Goux, Georges Boillot, Zucarrelli, and Thomas comprised the Peugeot team.
Goux was the first Peugeot off the line at approximately 5:34 am. He ran the first lap in 40:16; however, on time, he was ultimately slower than David Bruce-Brown (Fiat) at a blistering 37:18. However, Boillot’s Peugeot was not much slower at 38:40. Boillot made progress on Bruce-Brown on the second lap and Goux slotted into the third position.
Unfortunately, Peugeot’s fastest, Boillot had to stop on the third lap to repair a broken brake cable. Goux also stopped, due to a hole in his fuel tank. He refilled outside of the pits, and was consequently disqualified. Boillot continued to struggle as he had to change both rear wheels mid-way through the fourth lap. Zucarrelli, in the ‘third’ Peugeot, had to stop to replace a water house. Overall, the engines themselves seem to have held up well through just shy of 200 miles of hard racing.
According to David Hodges, one thing was clear at the first day’s halfway point: the Peugeots and Fiats were closely matched. After five laps, the Fiats were first, third, and fifth overall. However, Boillot kept on fighting maintaining second place. The crowd, who only saw a given car pass every 40 minutes, was excited to see Bruce-Brown (first) and Boillot (second) stop at the same time. Boillot struggled to drop his car into gear while Bruce-Brown raced away in the lead. About a minute late, Boillot finally initiated his pursuit behind another Fiat driven by Wagner. Some race accounts suggest that Boillot had better top speed; however, Bruce-Brown commanded superior acceleration. Other reports suggest that Bruce-Brown’s flying kilometer was at times faster than Boillot’s. One thing is certain, dueling down the long straights, if only by time and not by direct competition, they traded places a couple times between the fifth and eighth laps. The first day concluded with Boillot trailing Bruce-Brown by a few ticks over two minutes.
The weather was not so pleasant on the second day. A soft drizzle turned into sharp cold rain on the second day. The water seeped into the Peugeot’s trick spark plugs and required changing before Boillot could get away. Boillot was determined and soon caught sight of Bruce-Brown’s leading Fiat. According to Hodges, “Boillot passed while the American [Bruce-Brown] changed a tyre at Criel, Bruce-Brown repassed as Boillot refilled. And then the Peugeot passed the stationary Fiat at the bottom of Sept-Meules hill.” Bruce-Brown had run out of fuel from a fractured pipe. He scrounged up some Petrol, but was later disqualified for receiving fuel outside of the pits. Sadly, Bruce-Brown was killed later that year practicing for a race in Milwaukee.
Wagner was behind the Boillot, the new leader. However, as hard as Wagner tried to catch Boillot, he was unable to make up the distance he was behind. Finally, Boillot was triumphant winning his home Grand Prix. Thus, the Henry system was victorious on its first outing.
The 1913 Indianapolis 500.
Two of the 7.6 liter 1912 Peugeot’s, linered down to 7.4 liters each, were sent for the 1913 Indy 500. One was to be driven by Zuccarrelli, who did not have much success at the race; the other was to be driven by Jules Goux. Going into the third edition of the famous circle track race, Goux had an edge. While most continental Europeans had little experience with this type of track, Goux had spent considerable time in a 1912 Peugeot at Brooklands earlier that year. He also received advice from an American driver, Johnny Aitken.
According to William Court, “Goux apparently decided to use a tyre of half an inch less diameter on the left (inside) front wheel though this did not do him much good as is bursts of leadership in the early stages were interspersed with stops for tyres after which ‘he was out of pursuit of the field at a terrible speed.’ The race was one of attrition, and the Henry system was continuing to prove itself a reliable model of engine.
Popular lore suggests that Jules Goux drank upwards of six pints of champagne throughout the race. William Court notes that some accounts, including that of W. F. Bradley deny this, suggesting he was drinking water out of champagne bottles. However, in a letter to one Peter Helck, dated November 2, 1963, Goux himself swore it was champagne. Goux, therefore, was the first European to win the Indy 500. Having won the race, it was back to continental Europe for the French Grand Prix, later that summer.
In slightly smaller form, a set of similar 5.7 liter Peugeot’s turned up for the 1913 French GP. Zucarelli had previously been killed testing the car when it struck a cart. Georges Boillot noted, “we lost not only a close friend but an engineer of considerable ability.” Boillot and Goux were both back to pilot Peugeot’s at a much shorter track for an also shorter Grand Prix.
The 5.7 liter incarnation of the Henry system was consistent with the general trend of the day. The huge displacement titans had become dinosaurs and were disappearing in favor of smaller, nimbler cars. Yet, engineering such as that by Ernest Henry ensured rising power in spite of falling displacement. In any event, the success of the Henry system at the 1912 French Grand Prix resulted in a substantially similar, albeit smaller, engine for the 1913 races.
The 1913 French Grand Prix instituted a new formula. In a parallel to the current 2015 rules, the 1913 French Grand Prix race sought to slow the cars by limiting fuel consumption. Fuel consumption was limited to 20 liters of petrol per 100 kilometers. This required each car to run at least 14.12 miles per gallon. Cars also had to weigh between 1,763 pounds (800 kg) and 2,425 pounds (1,100 kg) ‘dry.’
There were three early morning practice sessions. These were largely devoting to fuel testing by the various entrants. On race days, dense crowds were ready for the race at 5:00 am; however, the fog was even denser and caused the race to be delayed by a half-hour or so. According to David Hodges, “At 5:30 visibility had improved somewhat, although the ‘yellow advertising balloons presented mere dim outlines in the sky,’ and the race was started.
After the first lap, Boillot was fastest and Goux was second fastest. The gaps between the first three were increased during the second lap. On the third lap, Boillot had to stop to fix a broken ignition wire. This allowed Goux, in his Peugeot, to take over first place. However, Boillot immediately put in the fastest lap of the race, thus far, at 16:15. The fog began to clear and the morning progressed and lap times dropped consistently. It soon became clear that only the Delages and Sunbeams could compete with the Henry-designed Peugeots.
By lap 12, Boillot had moved into second place, in spite of a stop for his riding mechanic to repair a “lubricant sight-feed” according to Hodges. Just beyond half-distance, the order was Guyot (4:02:32); Boillot (4:03:51); and Goux (4:05:09). However, on the next lap, Guyot gave the race over to the Peugeot’s when he ran over his mechanic. According to Hodges, the mechanic had jumped out while the car was still moving. However, the car was moving faster than he expected. He was knocked down and run over. “No bones were broken but Guyot had to lift him into the cockpit once he had changed the wheel and slowly complete that lap.”
Thereafter, there were essentially no changes to the order and Boillot won the French Grand Prix for France for the second year in the row. Boillot had averaged 72.12 miles per hour over the course of the race. His win made him a national hero of the day. Goux came in a strong second. Thus, the Henry designed inline four cylinder again proved its relative dominance over the large displacement titans that had come before.
Peugeot’s success with these cars was modest, as compared to the sheer magnitude of Ernest Henry’s impact on overall modern engine design. It was Ernest Henry who proved that a smaller, more efficient engine could beat the huge-engined chain-driven titans that came before. As just one example, the Offenhauser engine that was so dominant in American racing owes its fundamental design principles to those employed in the Henry system. We may never know whether Ernest Henry was a mere draftsman or the driving force for the ideas. However, before the age of 30, Ernest Henry forever altered the direction of motorsport engineering.
Works Relied Upon.
Court, William, Power and Glory: The History of Grand Prix Motor Racing, Vol. 1: 1906-1951 (1988).
Fox, Jack, The Indianapolis 500: A Pictorial History of the Greatest Spectacle in Automobile Racing (1967).
The Henry Affair, Motor Sport Magazine, 38 (July 1974).
Hodges, David, The French Grand Prix: 1906 – 1966 (Temple Press Books 1967)
Racing Car Evolution, Motor Sport Magazine, 3 (September 1942).
Wikipedia, Ernest Henry (engineer), https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Henry_(engineer) (accessed November 5, 2015) (establishing the basic biographical details of Ernest Henry’s life. This resource was used cautiously, and only in the absence of other sources, to identify the basic timeline of Mr. Henry’s life).
Pomeroy, Laurence. The Grand Prix Car Vol 1. S.l.: Motor Racing Publications (1954).