The 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup

It was actually called the Coupe Internationale; however, even at the time, everyone referred to it as the Gordon Bennett Cup.  It ran for several years; the first iteration took place in 1900.  It was, by some reports, a complete failure.  But, this minor overture laid the basic foundation for team-based racing.

Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Capti...
Caricature of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.. Caption read “New York Herald”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper man, and son of the creator of the New York Herald, was based in Paris.  Since the 1894 Paris to Rouen run, the New York Herald had paid close attention to the burgeoning sport of automobile racing.  Basically, Mr. Gordon Bennett (a hyphen is incorrect) offered a trophy to the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.).  The trophy, or cup–as it were–offered this trophy to be “competed for under somewhat unusual circumstances.”  In particular, James Gordon Bennett Jr. dictated that the trophy would be competed for and won by the various national auto clubs.  In other words, neither the individual nor the manufacturer would take the honors.  Rather, the honor of the cup was to go to a winning country.  It was Gordon Bennett’s intention to spur automotive innovation by pitting the various national industries against each other.

James Gordon Bennett never attended any of his Coupe Internationales.  In fact, he was not even a big fan of driving.  He was typically known to roll up to his office in a horse-drawn coach.  But, importantly, he did believe that the automobile would transform the landscape.  Living in France, which was also the epicenter of the automobilism movement, Gordon Bennett offered his namesake’s cup to the A.C.F. in October 1899.

By January 1900, the French club had published a series of rules, called the “articles of competition.”  These rules, in and of themselves, are fascinating because they contain the first formalized rules of motorsport.  These rules define everything from the simple construct that the quickest to the finish line wins, to a basic form of parc fermé (generally understood to be the unavailability to modify a vehicle between race sessions).

Before sponsorship, cars were painted in so-called “national colors.”  These colors shifted a bit over time.  For example, Germany switched from white to silver over time (which is its own fascinating story of stripping paint to metal).  The Gordon Bennett Cup started this pre-sponsorship tradition.  The original chosen colors were red for America, white for Germany, yellow for Belgium, and blue for France.

The teams, for the Gordon Bennett Cup, were to be composed of one to three drivers.  The A.C.F. waisted no time in choosing the French Representatives.  The Chevalier René de Knyff received 32 member votes.  Charron received 25 and Girardot was third with 15 votes.  Almost immediately, some members (including possible drivers) were furious.  First, a democratic ballot is necessarily subjective as compared to some sort of tally of race results.  Second, and more importantly, all three selected drivers favored the Panhard et Levassor cars.  However, the Mors cars had been coming on strong since the last half of 1899.  The fallout from the disagreement included a threat by Levegh, Lemaitre, and Giraud to renounce their A.C.F. membership and defect to the competing Belgian club.  The fracas eventually settled.

Organization of the race continued into 1900.  While the A.C.F. had already chosen their drivers, other national clubs through their proverbial hats in the ring but did not specify team members.  England’s national club was conspicuously absent from the international entries.  First, they were focused on their own 1,000-Mile Trial.  Second, they did not actually have any decent race car manufacturers at the time, according to Gerald Rose.

A route was selected.  However, upon measuring the route, it was found to fall too short to be within the recently ratified articles of competition for the G B Cup.  A few tweaks later and it was long enough to pass muster.

Generally, the run up to the competition was plagued by misinformation and disorganization.  The fact that racing had been banned without specific government approval did not help.  There were other problems as well.  Camile Jenatzy’s new Belgian mount was stuck in French customs (which it remained through the date of the actual race, forcing Jenatzy to strip down a touring car of the same make in order to race).  Even Levegh’s recent win at Bordeaux to Periqueux renewed the kerfuffle over the A.C.F. driver selection.

There was serious doubt, even within the organizing A.C.F., as to whether the race would actually occur.  The original date was rescheduled for June 14, 1900.  Some drivers complained there was insufficient notice to prepare there respective cars.  The sole German representative, Eugen Benz, refused to start on these grounds.  However, the real reason he did not start may have been fear that his rear tires were doomed to fail at high speed.  Or, perhaps, it was because his Benz was so slow that his “chance of winning was microscopical.”`

The Race Report

Not unusual for races of this era, the race started just a quarter after 3:00 in the morning.  The entries were: René de Knyff (France), Camille Jenatzy (Belgium), Winton (America), Charron (France), and Girardot (France).  All three French entries did, in fact, end up being Panhard et Levassors.  Winton, the new American, was in a car of his own design.  Jenatzy, the sole Belgian, was stuck in his stripped down Bolide touring car (as his actual racing model remained trapped by French customs for unknown reasons).  Levegh, not chosen by the A.C.F. as an official French entry, raced alongside the others en amateur.

De Knyff and Winton got slow starts.  Girardot and Jenatzy were able to fight for the initial lead.  Just outside of Versailles, Winton’s Winton was in last place.  However, Jenatzy, the original king of the four-wheel-grip-the-grain-all-wheel-drift was already shredding his tires.  Having to replace both rears, he dropped into last place.

English: at the next to a vehicle of his make,...
A 1914 picture of Fernand Charron, the former cyclist, and later car designer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to contemporary reports, at Limours, Girardot was in the lead at 3:49:15.  Charron was second, reaching the checkpoint just under three minutes later.  De Knyff followed only one minute behind.  Winton was in fourth and Jenatzy brought up the rear.  Levegh, the unofficial entry, was 30 minutes ahead of Girardot, the official leader.

At Orléans, roughly the mid-point of the race, things were getting interesting for the competitors.   Charron, for example, was about to give up.  He had badly bent his rear axle in taking a rather ancient drainage ditch (caniveau) too quickly.  However, at Orléans, he was in second and found out that Girardot, the first place runner, had a steering gear in need of immediate repair.   He also found out that de Knyff, was essentially out of the race with a stripped top gear.  Jenatzy and Winton were a long way behind.  Given these facts, Charron soldiered on like a boss (but I’m mixing metaphors again).

I mentioned that Jentazy was way behind.  He had several flat tires, broken spark plugs, and clutch issues–and those were only the start of his issues.  According to Gerald Rose, “vowing that with car troubles, obstreperous gendarmes, dogs, and sheep, he had never in his life driven such a race”.”  Meanwhile, the new American, Winton had bucked a front wheel.  He bowed out just after Orléans, which took him 8:30.00 to reach, compared to the unofficial Levegh’s 5:25.00.

Thus, after Orléans, only Charron and Girardot remained.  But, remember, Charron axle was shot.  Luckily, his riding mechanic (and driver in his own right) Fournier, “staved off disaster by keeping up a steady flow of oil on the chains.”  Girardot was still far behind.  He got lost in Orléans.  This really wasn’t his fault.  By all accounts, this was the result of a poorly organized race.  Also, recall that his steering gear was still giving him problems.

Dogs, in these days of open-road city to city races, were a constant issue.  In his magnum opus, Gerald Rose recounts Charron’s harrowing encounter with a particularly large dog:

The bane of the race were the dogs, and it is said that every single driver killed five or six.  Ten miles before the finish Charron collided with an unusually big St. Bernard when going down hill at nearly sixty miles an hour.  Somehow the dog became wedged between the wheel and the steering arm, completely jamming the steering gear.  The car dashed off the road, across the ditch, between two trees into the neighbouring field, and thence between two more back on to the road, finally coming to rest facing in the direction of Paris, with its two occupants too startles to say anything.  Fournier just got down and re-started the engine, and in a minute the car was speeding on to Lyons as if nothing had happened.

The passage goes on to describe how Fournier had to lean over the edge of the car, in an acrobatic manner, to hold a water pump in place while Charron chugged on to victory.

Lord Montagu called the 1900 Gordon Bennett Cup an “Overture in a Minor Key.”  The crowd at the end of the race confirms this assessment.  The newspapers said there may have been up to 100 people at the finish line.  However, these accounts were a bit generous.  More accurate estimates from the drivers suggest that only about a dozen people were at the finish line to greet Charron on his win.

The final standings were:

  1. Charron (Panhard; 24 HP) 9:09:00 (38.6 mph)
  2. Girardot (Panhard; 24 HP) 10:36:23 (33.4 mph)
  3. De Knyff (Panhard; 24 HP) – (-)
  4. Jenatzy (Bolide; 16 HP) – (-)
  5. Winton (Winton; 14 HP) -(-)

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources

“The Gordon-Bennett International Cup Race”, The Motor-Car Journal, 285-287 (June 23, 1900).

The Gordon Bennett Races, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (1965) (Containing some minor discrepancies with the other sources.  As such, I am considering this slightly less reliable than my other, earlier sources).

A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949) (Originally published in 1909).

“The Gordon Bennett International Cup Race” The Horseless Age, Vol. 6 No. 14, p. 14 (1900) (Providing an American perspective on the race).

The Beginning of the 1900 Motorsport Season

Traditionally, the Riviera Speed Week in the south of France had been the opening of the motorsport season in early years.  However, a few minor–but still notable–races took place before the Speed Week in 1900.  These included the Course du Catalogue, the Circuit du Sud Ouest, and a voiturette only race from Paris to Rouen and back to Paris.  The Circuit du Sud Ouest race was the most important of these comparatively minor races.

The Course du Catalogue

The 1900 motorsport season opener took place on February 18, 1900.  It was a short race, just under 45 miles (72 km).  The race was organized by the publication, La France Automobile.

As noted in the last post, classes were seemingly arbitrarily created by the organizing committee to suit their disparate purposes.   This race had six classes, which were divided according to chassis cost.  In the so-called (or at least what I am calling) “big car” category, there were only two competitors.  A Mr. Degrais driving a Mors, and recent strong competitor Léonce Girardot.  Girardot was rocking his usual Panhard et Levassor.

Girardot at the 1900 Course du Catalogue.
Girardot at the 1900 Course du Catalogue.

Girardot, pictured above above in his Panhard, carried the day against Degrais.  Baron de Rothschild, philanthropist, racer, and ancestor of the wine maker, wagered he could complete the 72 kilometer (44.7 mile) circuit in 72 minutes.  He failed.  He broke a powertrain chain just before the halfway point.

The Circuit du Sud Ouest

The race on the newly devised Circuit du Sud Ouest was the main event of a series of races being held the week of February 22, 1900.  This main event took place on the 25th of February.  For races of the day, it was on the short side at 209.5 miles.

Map of the 1900 Circuit du Sud Ouest (modified from Wikipedia).
Map of the 1900 Circuit du Sud Ouest (modified from Wikipedia).

According the authoritative Gerald Rose, “In most cases, the cars were those of the Tour de France, though with additions and improvements.”  For example, René de Knyff had managed to lighten his Panhard by 200 kilograms (approx. 440 pounds).  The car was 440 pounds lighter in spite of a bigger, heavier engine as compared to the Tour de France setup.  This new engine was more powerful and also utilized “dual ignition” (dual ignition involves the use of both incandescent Platinum tubes and electric ignition).

Ferand Charron and Léonce Girardot also had lighter cars, utilizing changed axels, new ball bearing setup, and several other secret developments to be used in later models.  These secret modifications have been lost to history.

Girardot.
Girardot.

The race was preceded by heavy rain.  However, the rain not only cleared before the race, but also served to harden the dirt roads.  This reduced the usual cloud of dust following each car.  In general, conditions were great for high-speed rollicking.

It was an interval start.  Giraud left first; however, he was to have a rough day.  Conversely, de Knyff had an epic day.  At the 75 mile mark, he already led the field by a shocking 30 minutes.

Giraud, who had started first, had serious problems with his rear tires, which slowed him down throughout the race.

Fernand Charron wrecked before Saint Sever.  He hit a large hump in the road, which destroyed all four of his tires.  Upon simultaneously bursting all four tires, he (and his passenger) were thrown out of their Panhard.

In short, de Knyff crushed it.  In the end, he won by over 40 minutes.  In fact, he flogged his Panhard until it had nothing left to give.  According to Rose, “Just before the end of the race, the winner’s pump gave out, and although he managed to reach the finish, his car arrived enveloped in a blue haze of smoke and refused to move an inch beyond the finishing line.”

With nearly every race, average speeds were rising, which is a testament to the furious rate of technological advancement occurring.  This race set a new record pace for an automobile race of 43.8 miles per hour, which is not too shabby for a car rated at only 16 horsepower.

Paris to Rouen and Back: A Voiturette Race

A voiturette, by the way, is a smaller car relative to the “big cars.”  However, for many years, the division between the two would remain vague at best.  Théry won in a Decauville weighing roughly 1,030 pounds.  However, the Renault voiturettes were also particularly strong.

Renault Voiturette circa 1900
Renault Voiturette circa 1900.

One criticism of motorsport then, which oddly still rages today even in Formula 1, is the disconnect between racing cars and road cars.  However, the Paris to Rouen to Paris race in early March 1900, raised an oddly practical point.  Several people ordered voiturettes based on their observation of the cars in the race.  They were infuriated to realize that the company merely delivered a touring model.  It was the racers, themselves, that were converting these to race cars.  The purchasers were not happy to realize that they had ordered and paid for a car rather incapable of racing, without serious modification.

A photograph from the March 1900 Race of the Renault Voiturette, drawn above.
A photograph from the March 1900 Race of the Renault Voiturette, drawn above.

Stay tuned for the next post, which will detail the story of how the “Mercedes” came to be!

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

 

Primary Source:

A Record of Motor Racing, 1894 – 1908Gerald Rose (2nd. ed. 1949).

The Late Races of 1899

Following the 1899 Tour de France, there was a smattering of semi-important races.  Most of these originated out of Paris.  Paris, five years into the existence of proper motorsport, was still the center of this grassroots movement.

On Classes and Cars

Unlike today’s highly-defined racing segments, in the early days of motorsport, there were no settled classes for cars.  Instead, virtually every committee sponsoring a race was devising unique classes as they saw fit.

However, as a general rule, there was three classes: (1) big cars; (2) voiturettes; and (3) tricycles.  As of 1899, the development of the big cars was most important.  However, the voiturettes were progressively becoming more important.  These lighter, often speedier, cars would eventually rise in popularity as a response to the monstrous big car engines.

In this era, so-called big car engines were continually increasing in size.  In an era where few cars could rev past 1,200 to 1,500 RPMs, the answer for more power often came from merely increasing the displacement of a given engine.  In the early years of motorsport, power was more easily gained from increasing size than improving engine efficiency.

Incandescent Platinum Tube Ignition
Incandescent Platinum Tube Ignition

This does not mean that development was slow.  On the contrary, the rate of development, particularly by Panhard et Levassor was rapid.  One development occurring during this time was the switch to electric ignition.  Electric ignition was generally superior to the previous technology of incandescent platinum tubes.  Panhard et Levassor made this change between 1899 and 1901; whereas Mors successfully used electric ignition from the beginning.

Diagram of Electric Ignition
Diagram of Electric Ignition

Paris to Saint Malo

The Paris to Saint Malo race took place only five days after the Tour de France on July 30, 1899.  The net racing distance was 231 miles.  Most races, in these early years, originated out of Paris.  Such concentrated motoring activity did not go unnoticed by the public.  In fact, there was a growing backlash against the grassroots motorsport movement.

According to Gerald Rose, Paris to Saint Malo was “essentially a race for tricycles.”  The tricycles were fastest overall in this race.  In fact, for the shorter races, the tricycles were generally quickest in 1899.

A Mr. Renaux won in a tricycles of his own construction.  However, his victory was not without incident.  At one point, he made a wrong turn and took a longer overall route to one of the control points.  As he had not gained an advantage, he was not disqualified.

Antony on his Mors in the Paris to Saint Malo.
Antony on his Mors in the Paris to Saint Malo.

The fastest car was Antony.   His 16 horsepower Mors completed the 231 mile course in 7 hours and 32 minutes.  This translates to an average of 30.7 miles per hour, which supports a conclusion that the average speeds were consistently increasing.

One driver, Broc, burst a tire.  In fact, as I have previously discussed, inflated tires continued to cause problems.  However, the cars were simply too fast for solid rubber tires.  The Mors’ cars, which debuted at Paris to Bordeaux, came on strong in the last part of 1899.

Paris to Trouville

This was not strictly a motor race.  If for no other reason, this Top Gear-esque challenge, deserves mention  purely for its uniqueness.  This was the first, and quite possibly only, race to pit racing cars against pedestrians, horses, bicycles, and motorcycles.  Each class started at different times, equating to their respective speed.  The goal was to have the winners of each class arrive at Trouville at the same time.

The race took place on August 27, 1899.  It was 104.5 miles in length.  The different class winners did not exactly arrive at the same tune,  However, they were within a couple hours of each other.  The runners (pedestrians) hustled along the course for 21 hours.  The racing cars completed the course in about three hours.

Antony leading the way to Trouville on his Mors.
Antony leading the way to Trouville on his Mors.

A nine year old horse was the first to arrive at 3:12 pm, at an average speed of 8.5 miles per hour.  Antony’s Mors was the fastest car.  Levegh was second, also in a Mors racing car.  The Mors continued to come on strong late in the season.

Paris to Ostend

The publication Vélo organized this 201 mile race to take place on September 1, 1899, only a few days after the Trouville event.  The race was to end at a racecourse known as the “Velodrome de Wellington.”

Described as a most dangerous practice by Gerald Rose in 1909, the race involved a mass start.  It is interesting that motorsport wholesale adopted a practice that was initially seen as an unnecessary danger, even at low speeds.  The cars started first.  Only two minutes later, there was a simultaneous start of 24 cycles.

The problem with mass starts was compounded by the issue of dust.  On these old city to city races, the overwhelming majority of the drives were inevitably on mere compressed dirt.  As such, a simultaneous start implied not only a dangerous group of cars, but a visibility reducing cloud until the cars finally managed to sufficiently spread out.

For the cars, the start was a dusty, confusing race to a dangerous corner at Saint-Ouen-l’Aumone.  Levegh reached the corner first; however, he was only ahead of Charron by a mere 800 yards.  And right behind Charron, Camille Jentazy was snapping at his heels, trying to get past.  Following the battle for second by Charron and Jenatzy was a dogfight involving Girardot, Georges, and Broc.

As for that dangerous complex at Saint-Ouen-l’Aumone, Rose notes:

“All got past the danger spot successfully except Georges, who was going too fast, and after swerving from one side of the road to the other, he finally crashed into a ditch, luckily without injuring himself or his machine to any great extent.”

The first part of the race maintained a tremendous pace.  Levegh covered 129 kilometers in a mere 133 minutes, a record pace for this era of racing.  However, at Beauvais, a fine mist slowed the pace.  The rain turned into a downpour and further slowed the pace, by the next control point.

C.S. Rolls in the 1899 Paris to Ostend Motorrace.
C.S. Rolls in the 1899 Paris to Ostend Motorrace.

As was found to be competitively advantageous, the tricycles followed in the wake of a racing car, to help keep the pace up in their low-powered engines.  Teste followed closely behind Levegh, leader.  By St. Paul, Girardot was in second place and was closely followed by Baras, in his tricycle.

By Dunkerque, the tricycles had gotten bold and overtaken the cars altogether.  Teste was ahead of Levegh by a full two minutes.  In the end, however, the tricycle driven by Baras took the lead and won the race.

The crowd in the Vélodrome went crazy at the instant the first two cars entered.  There they were, Levegh and Girardot racing absolutely head-to-head to be the fastest car.  Girardot, driving his Panhard, beat Levegh’s Mors to the finish line.

Bordeaux to Biarritz

The 1899 season ended where it began: the south of France.  The route proceeded through Langon, Auros, Grignoles, Casteljaloux, Mont de Marson, Dax, and Bayonne.

There were 27 drivers in total.  However, if you were not driving a Mors, you would have had little chance in this race.  The Mors, which had come on very strong in the late races of 1899 were completely dominant in the 163 mile trek from Bordeaux to Biarritz.

The race was won buy Levegh, followed by Antony.  This race is most notable for setting a new high average pace for a race.  Levegh completed all 163 miles at a shocking average of 37 miles per hour.

And So, 1899 Came to an End.

The 1899 season has been an interesting season to study.  Motorsport, as a whole, is in a state of transition.  The early races, between stripped down touring cars were beginning to fade.  Instead, races composed of purpose-built chassis.  There are still a great many epic city to city races remaining, before the sport–as a whole–realizes the superiority of closed course circuit-based racing.

 

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Primary Source:

A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1909) (providing the definitive account of early motorsport times and events).

Paris to Dieppe in 1897

Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe in the Morning
Val-Saint-Nicolas, near Dieppe in the Morning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As early motor racing seasons go, 1897 was not the best.  January’s race had generally been a success, as I detailed in my last post.  However, the Automobile Club de France (ACF) did not exactly go big in their planning for 1897.  Gerald Rose blames the lack of mechanical progress in the 1897 cars on the absence of a major city to city race.  One must remember, it is nearly another ten years until the usefulness of major circuit based races is really discovered (i.e. the Grand Prix).

The run from Paris to Dieppe is relatively short.  The course measured only 106.2 miles.  It was to be a simple one-day affair.  The lack of a major race did not translate to a lack of amateur enthusiasm in the 1897 races.  Nearly 70 entries were received for the 1897 run from Paris to Dieppe.  59 of those entries managed to show up for the race.  It is clear that more amateurs were rolling around in increasingly reliable machines, at this point in history.

It was a hot day.  The roads were dusty.  The officials had a grand idea; they would officiate the start and then take a chartered railcar to beat the cars to the finish.  That way, they could manage both ends of this relatively short city to city race.

At Beavuais, one Mr. Vicomte de Soulier had been leading, until a tire burst.  Pneumatic tires were still in their infancy and prone to failure.  However, speeds had exceeded the useful range for solid rubber tires.  Metal wheels, were just terrible, and had since been abandoned.

English: 1897 Leon Bollee
English: 1897 Leon Bollee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After de Soulier’s tire failed, Jamin, in a Bollée “tricar” took the lead.  However, in the hot wind, his ignition failed.  By Gourney, Amédé de Bollée rolled through leading in a car of his own make.

Fernand Charron, introduced in my last post, rolled through in his Panhard et Levassor, just a couple minutes behind a Mr. Hourgieres.  Shockingly, as the cars started to cross the finish line, the officials were nowhere to be seen.  Their plan of chartering a railcar had failed.  As such, the competitors were left to their own devices when it came to certifying finish times.  Thus, Rose’s finish tables (in my estimation) should be viewed with caution.

What is certain, however, is that average speeds had again increased.  The two-seated car leaders averaged upwards of 22 to 24 miles per hour.  The four seated cars, which included the De Dion steam car, were even faster.

Gerald Rose, one of the only sources for these early races, notes that this race hosted a couple of technical advancements with the new cars that ran.  For example, aluminum components began to replace their (often brass) counterparts.  Moreover, the gilled radiator also made it’s first appearance at this race.

 

Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Primary Source:

A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908, Gerald Rose (1949).

 

The 1896 Paris to Marseille to Paris.

GPevolved title graphic for Paris to Marseilles, 1896

The Formation of the Automobile Club de France.

Men of the Day No.761: Caricature of Le Comte ...
Men of the Day No.761: Caricature of Le Comte Albert de Dion. Caption reads: “Automobile” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was November 1895.  The committee that sponsored the major city to city race last summer 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.

Das benzinbetriebene Dreirad Voiturette von Lé...
Das benzinbetriebene Dreirad Voiturette von Léon_Bollée, 1896; Damit legte er die Strecke Le Mans – Paris in sieben Stunden zurück. 650 ccm, Cité de l’Automobile – Musée National – Collection Schlumpf, Mülhausen, Frankreich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

 

//Travis Turner

Primary Source: Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing 1894 – 1908.

1895: Paris to Bordeaux and Back.

“Who has ever attended a gathering of motoring enthusiasts for any purpose, whether it be at a race, or a hill-climb, or outside a Court of Justice, without noticing the feeling of brotherhood which seems to pervade the atmosphere?”  —Gerald Rose.

Following the success of the 1894 Paris to Rouen trial, another contest was organized for 1895.  This race  was to be pure race (although the cars were still to be started in interval fashion).  The winning prize was top be split 50 percent to first place, 20 percent for second place, 10 percent for third prize, and five percent each for fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh.  Additional rules included a provision that a manufacturer could not enter more than one car of identical design and drivers could be changed en route for the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race.

Panhard et Levassor's Daimler motor carriage, 1894
Panhard et Levassor’s Daimler motor carriage, 1894 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Again, spectators were given easy access to the cars; a tradition long since forgotten in motorsport.  Gerald Rose commented:

“It was an excellent idea, as it not only afforded those interested an opportunity of examining the cars both before and after the race, but also gave those makers who had not had time to complete their tests a chance to bring before the public possibilities offered by their vehicles.”

In modern parlance, it was good to give the crowd an opportunity to check out the new rides and helped sell a few cars too.

1895 Paris to Bordeaux Race

The race itself started on June 11, 1895 at 9:00 am.  The race started under the Arc de Triomphe.  Some of the cars, such as the Peugeot Number 16, driven by Koechlin, had some difficulty getting out of the city center.  This was a result of the “rough pavé.”

Initially, the steam cars started strong led by the De Dion steam brake number 3, followed by an older “omnibus” made by Bollée.  The De Dion steam car was in trouble soon thereafter with a broken driveshaft.  This allowed the number 5 Panhard et Levassor, driven by Mr. Levassor himself, to take the lead.  Remember, there were no HID headlights, in these days; the competitors were tasked with driving through the night using unreliable oil lamps.

Nevertheless, between 8:45 ppm and 5:30 am, the next morning, Levassor kept a strong pace of around 15 miles per hour.  Of note, this is nearly a 25 percent increase over the pace of the prior years’ race.  Records indicate that there was a close battle for second, third, and fourth with car numbers 8, 6, and 15.  They passed and re-passed each other throughout the night.

1895 Peugeot in Paris to Bordeaux race.
1895 Peugeot in Paris to Bordeaux race.

According to Rose, “Levassor reached Bordeaux at 10:40 am, signed on at the control, turned his car, and started off at once for the journey back to Paris.”  In my mind, this qualifies Mr. Levassor as a proper driver, one consumed by the desire for speed, quickness, and ultimate victory.  This inference is supported by the fact that he would not allow another driver to replace him, in spite of being at the wheel in excess of 24 hours.  He stopped roughly every 60 miles for water and supplies.  Other than that, he could not be stopped, except for a single 22 minute stoppage on the return trip.

46 cars entered the 1895 Paris to Bordeaux to Paris race.  22 actually started the race.  11 of those cars reached the midpoint at Bordeaux.  Of those 11, 9 completed the entire pace.  The final results of the top five were as follows:

  1. Mr. Levassor; Panhard et Levassor; Petrol; 48:48; 15.0 miles per hour.
  2. Mr. Rigoulot; Peugeot; Petrol: 54:35; 13.4 miles per hour.
  3. Mr. Koechlin; Peugeot; Petrol; 59:48; 12.2 miles per hour.
  4. Mr. Doriot; Peugeot; Petrol; 64:30; 11.3 miles per hour.
  5. Unknown driver (Car #12); Peugeot; Petrol; 72.14; 10.1 miles per hour.

 

Sources:

Gerald Rose, A Record of Motor Racing: 1894 – 1908 (1949)

Robert Dick, Mercedes and Auto Racing in the Belle Epoque: 1895 – 1915 (2005)