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).

Early Automotive Races in 1899

While Jenatzy was still perfecting La Jamais Contente, the 1899 racing season got underway.  As was quickly becoming tradition, the season began with a “speed week” of sorts in the south of France along the Riviera.

Nice – Castellane – Nice, 1899

The first race of the 1899 season took place on March 21st.  The Riviera speed week, or semaine automobile, was organized by the automobile club of Nice.  The club was headed by Jacques Gondoin.  According to Robert Dick, the speed week was a complete affair including a long distance race, a touring car race, a one-mile sprint, a hill climb, and an exposition at the end of the week.

As for the long distance event from Nice to Castellane and back, there were some last minute changes to the route due to narrow roads; however, nobody seemed too dissatisfied.  Albert Lemaitre’s Peugeot was the popular favorite for the week.  His Peugeot was rated at 20 horsepower, with a two cylinder engine (140 x 90 mm.).  The Panhard and Levassor’s of 1899 were four cylinders (80 x 120 mm); however, they were only rated at around eight horsepower.  Only Lemaitre had the new, faster Peugeot.

According to Gerald Rose:

“The only important incident in the race was the accident to Marcellin.  The redoubtable cyclist had started ten minutes late and was going at top speed behind a car, as the habit was of tricyclists, and so failed to see a turn in the road in the cloud of dust which encompassed him.  He collided with the parapet that edged the corner, and short over it, rolling down the slope beyond.

Marcellin was shaken, but unhurt.  Another driver, Ducom, experienced a similar incident where he was blinded by dust and collided with a hall.  His car was out of the race, but Ducom was also unhurt.  Giraud, driving a Bollée had transmission  problems, an apparently recurrent problem for him.

There were only a few spectators waiting when the first cars and tricycles began to roll in.  Lemaitre, as was the favorite, won with an average speed of 26.0 miles per hour.  Girardot, rocking a Panhard et Levassor was second in his eight h.p.  Koechlin was third, averaging 22.2 miles per hour.

Lemaitre also won the standing mile and the Le Turbie Hill Climb.

Pau – Bayonne – Pau

This race took place four days after the final day of the Riviera speed week.  It was organized by A.C. Bearnais.  Lemaitre and his badass 20 h.p. horsepower won this event as well.  The weather was terrible.  There were not many competitors.  Nevertheless, the event was considered a great success.

Paris – Roubaix

On April 2, 1899, La Vélo hosted its annual trike race.  Again, according to the authoritative Gerald Rose, “It was won by Osmond on his de Dion in 5 hrs. 35 mins. 30 secs., which represents an average speed of about 32 m.p.h.”

On April 11, 1899, Le Matin  announced the creation of event to be known as the “Tour de France.”  It was to be a massive race of around 2,500 kilometers.

Paris – Bordeaux

This race returned to an only rarely used method of racing that we now associate as critical to motorsport: a mass start.  The Paris to Bordeaux race took place on May 24, 1899 and was something of a preview of the new cars that would be seen at the Tour de France.

74 entries were received.  65 entries showed up on race day.  There was 37 motorcyclists and 28 cars.  The en bloc start was something of a train wreck, of sorts.  Lemaitre ran into another racer, and his mechanic–seeing that an accident was about to occur–just got up and jumped off.  Yes, at high speed, he simply jumped.  He was severely injured, though Lemaitre escaped by running off the road.  Lemaitre could have continued; however, he opted to remain with his badly injured riding mechanic.

“At Venome, the first important pace on the route, Leys and Charron were leading with De Knyff 11 minutes behind, closely followed by Giraud.  Unfortunately, Giraud took a turn too fast, burst a tire, and turned his Bollée over in a ditch.

Hourgieres, who was the one to nearly collide with Lemaitre, was shaking down a brand new Mors for the Tour de France.  At Poitiers, his car was in third.  Charron remained in the lead, but Leys was down to fourth.  De Knyff was about 12 minutes back from the leaders.

In the end, Charron drove with excellence and won the race in his 12 h.p. Panhard with an average pace of 351 miles of 29.9 miles per hour.  René de Knyff was second, averaging 29.6 miles per hour.  Girardot was third, with an average of 28.0 miles per hour.

Touring Car verses Thoroughbred Racer

To date, the so-called voiture de course (racing car), was merely a stripped down touring car, often with a more powerful engine than would otherwise have been fitted to the car.  Previously, there was little differentiation between touring cars and racing cars.

Suddenly, changes started to become apparent in the race entries.  The new breed of cars, especially those to be shown at the Tour de France, were lower, sleeker, and faster.  The center of gravity was dropped significantly from touring models.  Engine sizes began to increase dramatically around this time.  This is, in fact, the beginning of the lead up to the massive displacement engines seen in the early 1900s.

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Sources:

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

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

The 1898 Racing Season Concludes.

The last race I covered, the 1898 Paris to Amsterdam to Paris race, ended on July 13th.  At the end of the month, on July 22, 1898, the standing 100 kilometer record was broken.  Jamin set the new record at 1:53:15.  In doing so, he beat the previous 100 km record by three minutes and thirty seconds.

According to Gerald Rose, about a week later, there was a race from Lille to Calais.  It was only “remarkable for the large mortality in live-stock which occurred at the same time.”  Then, on August 21, 1898, the last major race of the year took place.

1898 Bordeaux to Biarritz

On August 21, 1898, the Bordeaux to Biarritz race marked the final major race of the 1898 racing season.  The route, starting in Bordeaux, went through Le Réole, Marmande, Casteljaloux, and Mont de Marsan.  The race was set for 180 miles.

The race was “tropically hot” according to Gerald Rose.  The competitors, and particularly the motorcyclists were exhausted after the 180 mile race.

Giraud started in a Bollée.  He was soon passed by Lemaitre, a participant in the 1894 race from Paris to Rouen.

Lemaitre was in the lead until he came up on a gated bridge at Marmande.  As he approached, the bridge-keeper through the gate closed, forcing Lemaitre to slam on his breaks.  In doing so, Lemaitre destroyed the rear-end mechanicals of his Peugeot.  Lemaitre and bridge-keeper got in a heated argument lasting until the townspeople threatened to throw the bridge-keeper into the river, below.

There was also some sort of cattle affair, which the drivers has to get special permission to drive through.

In the end, Loyel’s Bollée was first in 6:48:00, at an average speed of 26.7 miles per hour.  Mr. Koechlin, of the tiny suit shenanigan from the last post, was second.  He finished in 7 hours and 36 minutes.

Lemaitre, in a Peugeot, was third, in spite of his run in with the bridge-keeper.  He completed the course in 8 hours and four minutes.  There were no other timed finishers.

1898 Saint Germain to Vernon to Saint Germain.

This was a minor city to city race.  It took place on October 20, 1898, and was only for the make, “Mors.”  Tires, and especially the puncture thereof, continued to be problematic.  Otherwise, the race was rather uneventful.  It was certainly only a minor, one-make, late-season race, decades before the days of a championship.

And so, the 1898 season came to a close.  The seasons are still very loosely structured.  Paris remains the center of the racing world.  However, the tentacles of influence of the grassroots motoring movement are reaching farther and farther into continental Europe.  Moreover, the regular racing is causing cars to develop at a comparatively rapid rate.

A Brief Commentary.

Altogether, these late season races, and really all of the 1898 races exemplify the problems of the “great” city to city races.  Essentially, unforeseen obstacles inevitably are both dangerous and dispositive to the race outgoing.  In other words, externalities were causing drivers to lose, when they were otherwise fastest and most reliable.  For example, Lemaitre would have done much better had he not needed to deal with the bridge-keeper.  I, for one, will champion the advent of proper circuit-based racing.

On a separate note, as the creator and author of GPevolved.com, I question what is the useful scope of this blog.  A gather this is a problem forced upon most any non-fiction writer.  How microscopic must you be to tell a story accurately?  At what point do you lose the forest through the trees.

Certainly, there is no need to go into every hillclimb and speed trial.  Well, even that cannot be made a rule to govern the scope of this project.  For, if it did, I would miss the entire story of La Jamais Content.  So, perhaps, it is a matter of judgment.  In any event, stay tuned for the next story about Camille Jenatzy and the electric racer that made him the first person to average faster than a mile a minute.

 

/ Travis Turner of GPevolved.com

Source:

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

The 1897 Marseilles-Nice-La Turbie Race

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

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

 

If you are interested in staying current on my progress through motorsport history, please consider taking a moment to follow the GPevolved Facebook page, or the @GPevolved Twitter account.

 

Sources:

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).

 

The 1896 Motorsport Season Begins…

Bordeaux Gets into the Game.

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.

In Conclusion.

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).