Charles Jarrott: British motor racing pioneer

The are some figures in motorsport whose importance has been unfairly ignored, ad Charles Jarrott is one such. Bill Boddy believes it is time to redress the balance

So why Charles Jarrott? Because at the dawn of motor racing he, S F Edge, and C S Rolls were among very few British participants in this new, very exacting — even dangerous — undertaking. Apart from Austin, Napier and Wolseley, there were no British racing cars, or none that could win the Gordon Bennett Trophy as Edge’s Napier did in 1902. Jarrott was in there, but had to borrow French cars for the purpose. In fact, in the first decade of motorsport, only Napier scored a big win for Britain, and Jarrott won only one important race.

What races these must have been! I was not there, so cannot be dogmatic, but anyone who has driven a big Edwardian racing car like the existing 1908 GP Itala or 1908 GP Panhard, can visualise, in small measure, what the great town-to-town contests truly entailed. But the cars just mentioned competed on closed circuits where, if they ran into trouble, help — mechanical or medical — would not have been far-distant. In those early 1900s, drivers had not only monster cars with threshing chains and crude tyres to contend with, over unsurfaced roads, but passing was almost impossible because of the dust clouds. Protection from weather and flying stones came scarcely above ankle height, and drivers drove flat-out for hour after hour, most corners being unmarked, the brakes unreliable, the steering heavy. And yet speeds were climbing to not far short of 100mph, as ever bigger engines were used. That was what it was like when Charles Jarrott decided to race cars instead of bicycles and motor-tricycles.

You may be the proud owner of an early racing motor, and you may take it on some of the long-distance club rallies or social jollies of these times. But you cannot compare them with the pioneer motor races from, say, Paris to Amsterdam and back. Indeed, you probably spare your heirlooms by trailering them to meetings or driving them only for short distances, and in that you are fully justified. But racing, as Jarrott knew it, was something far more awesome.

The drivers then were bravely dedicated, tough, and had a kind of skill not required in later days, as they controlled their primitive cars at what were then seen as massive speeds.

Of the successful pioneer drivers Jarrott regarded Levegh (whose actual name was Velghe) as shining brightest of them all and an especially formidable opponent when driving a Mors. Levegh enjoyed a great duel with Panhard in the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race of 1900, which he won after a 21-hour drive over 838 miles.

Giradot, according to Jarrott, was so often second due to bad luck, but he was sound and safe and fought Fournier all the way in 1901 from Paris-Berlin, but a bad crash in 1905 retired him. De Knyff, named ‘Le Roi de l’Automobile’, was in from the start, and when his Panhard was the only French car left in the 1903 GB race, he drove to finish behind the dashing Jenaizy’s Mercedes — calm, collected and apparently untiring even after hundreds of punishing kilometres.

Charron, in contrast, was a bag of nerves, of slight build for the severe racing task, but dapper and charming — and, Jarrott added, a daredevil when required. Jarrott never forgot another ex-racing cyclist, Fournier, for that great Paris-Berlin drive when he led all the way, hotly pursued by other top drivers, to win for Mors. He then quit the sport to set up his Paris garage business. Jarrott saw Maurice Farman as brilliant, especially at nursing a car through those long races.

So what of Jarrott himself? Born in 1877, Jarrott, like many of his generation who craved adventure before the advent of the motor car, was a competent racing cyclist who turned to motorcycles and motor-tricydes when these were available. Even these could be dangerous when a front spindle broke, but Jarrott advanced from a 1hp machine to a fearsome 8hp de Dion-engined tricycle and set the hour record to over 43mph.

His interest in cars was fostered by seeing the 1896 Emancipation Run from London to Brighton, after which he gained experience learning to drive on a 3hp Panhard-powered van and taking a Bollee three-wheeler on the subsequent Coventry-Birmingham Run of the Motor Car Club. He helped to bring back Panhard No5, which Monsieur Levassor had driven in the 1896 Paris-Marseilles race, and later he drove the sister racing Panhard No8. Then came an exciting ride with Charron on the fast 8hp four-cylinder Panhard with which this driver had won the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris 901-mile contest in 1898. Getting keen, CJ took a 6hp Panhard on the 1898 London-Richmond Run, with smartly-dressed ladies as his companions.

The seed was sown; Jarrott drove in the 691-mile Paris-Berlin event of 1901, one of the great races which all the top drivers and cars entered. Not only had he no racing experience but his personal Bollee (of the kind which S C H Davis of The Autocar and others drove in the Brighton Runs of much more recent times) was fast but temperamental and crude. However, the resourceful Charles got Harvey du Cros, the English Panhard agent, to persuade the Chevalier Rene de Knyff, who controlled Panhard affairs, to find him a car. With understandable reluctance, one of the 40hp racers was offered, not just one of the cars in the light car or Voiturette classes.

Fifteen of the 40s were entered, but this was a tough assignment for Panhard, its 40s up against the new 60hp Mors, which weighed only 100kg more than their lower-powered rival. ‘Batting’ for the latter were top drivers like de Knyff himself, Charron, Henri Farman and Giradot; Mors had Fournier, Brasier and C S Rolls among the six 60s entered. Both makes were of similar specification, apart from the Mors’ long-stroke engine, coal-scuttle bonnet and low hung radiator; both had automatic inlet valves but, instead of a low-tension magneto, Panhard had battery and coil ignition. Mon used a metal clutch instead of the usual leather-lined cone. It was the age when drivers ‘threw out the clutch’ in corners, losing engine-braking — whether to save strain on chains and tyres, or to avoid the engine stalling, I do not know, but am sure I shall soon be told.

Jarrott went to Paris for his car a week before Paris-Berlin. De Knyff gave him a few words of advice, and he set off on a trial run. The car was numbered 13, but to compensate was painted green, France’s lucky colour — which rather rules out the suggestion that this was a British ploy to compliment the Irish in the 1903 Gordon Bennett. In the race he did well, being 10th out of 22 Heavy-class finishers even though he was delayed on the first day by a broken commutator spring and sticking governors. He and his mechanic Smits (also in his first race) then changed three tyres and eight tubes on the second day of the three-day contest.

The finish attracted crowds estimated at some 20,000, and at a great banquet afterwards, the winner Fournier (Mors) was given the Kaiser’s cup, the Grand Duke of Luxemburg’s Cup and 1,500 from the city of Hamburg. Giradot was second, de Knyff was third, only 0.2mph separating the three. On the parade into Berlin, Foumier broke a chain; he had no spare, only links, so Giradot was so very nearly a winner. Only five of the many big Panhards retired. Who says real racing did not commence until 1950?

De Knyff had told Jarrott that finishing his first race would be sufficient and, thus pleased, he made another, lighter Panhard 40 available for the 540-mile Circuit du Nord, run on alcohol fuel to appease a French Government which was against racing, as this would benefit the Ministry of Agriculture. Jarrott took du Cros as his passenger, whose first race this was. Du Cros’ son had a 16hp Panhard for the light-car class. De Knyff had the first of the 70hp Panhards, a formidable car, light but powerful, its handling perhaps not enhanced by a very slender transverse front spring, but the forerunner of such ‘greats’ as the much later Mercedes-Benz W125 and Alfa Romeo P3, but handling very differently — which Punch would call a blinding glimpse of the obvious. But everything is relative; Jarrott described his 40hp car as “beautiful to handle, sensitive, and delicately responsive to each movement of steering wheel, clutch and brakes”.

Du Cros sat on the step to attend to the oilers, urging full speed. A bomb and bugles alerted crowd-control soldiers in the towns to approaching cars. But fuel blockages delayed CJ and then rain shorted out the coil and a water pipe broke. Finally, rushing to the finish, they hit a Police Inspector who ran into the Panhard’s path. This was amicably resolved. They eventually finished second to Farman’s Panhard 40, but over an hour in arrears. De Knyff had clutch trouble and the new 70 was fifth.

Jarrott’s next race was Paris-Vienna, for which he was given, three days beforehand, a Panhard 70. Its wooden frame had not been strengthened, as on the other 70s, and it broke up. So the 50 miles of rough road to Provins were taken carefully, after which in went fourth speed. Edge on the big GB Napier and-others were soon swallowed by CJ’s dust. A terrific battle raged on the run to Belfort between de Knyff, Jarrott and the Farmans. The 70’s chassis had cracked along the o/s before the second day’s racing through Switzerland. A puncture, and leaks from the delicate soldered water jackets, had also occurred before the 369km to Salzburg.

Drastic measures were called for. Jarrott and du Cros bought tools and broke up furniture in their hotel bedroom and repairs were made! CJ’s powerful 70 then made a very fast climb of the Arlburg Pass. De Knyff still had a big lead, though, only to retire 30 miles from the end, the differential gears broken. Thus Edge was given the GB Cup at the Innsbruck finish. Eliot Zborowski’s Mercedes 40, officially delayed at a control, was sandwiched by the Farmans, Henri winning and the Panhard 70s finishing 1-3-4-5. But Marcel Renault’s 16hp Renault was 0.5mph quicker.

On went Jarrott, but the car’s frame was now truly collapsing and, 5km from the finish, the gearbox did likewise. CJ cycled to find a Panhard mechanic but eventually drove to the finish in first gear.

Jarrott was now a top British driver of difficult cars, able to average over 70mph on those difficult roads, with a top pace of some 90mph; but keen as he had been, du Cros had had enough. In the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes, Jarrott proved this. A closed-circuit contest of 16 laps (320 miles), one leg was of the old-style very dusty roads. CJ had intended to do the kilometre speed-trials at Welbeck on the Duke of Portland’s estate (I walked this oldest of courses a few years ago) but was told his stricken Panhard could not be prepared in time. But entry into the Belgian race ensured that it was! He took as his mechanic another newcomer, A McCormack, Manager of Panhard’s London repair depot.

Off at 5.23am on a 70 Panhard “car of the year”, after a duel with Vanderbilt (Mors) and Gabriel (Mors), Jarrott won at 54.0mph after six hours’ racing. Gabriel was second, delayed by replacing a broken chain. Vanderbilt was third.

For the tragic 1903 Paris-Madrid, stopped at Bordeaux because of the terrible accidents, Jarrott had a 45hp de Dietrich, for which his London motor business was agent, along with Crossley and other makes. Untried up to the 3am start, with a lever and strap hastily fitted to be hauled on if the clutch still slipped, hopes seemed slender.

But then things improved and, apart from a fuel blockage and change of an igniter, CJ, with Bianchi as mechanic, got along well. Nevertheless, it was a sad time, Lorraine Barrow of the de Dietrich team being among those killed. CJ was third, behind the two 70hp Mors, of which Gabriel’s streamlined car had won, at 65.3mph for the testing 342 miles.

The nationalistic Gordon Bennett race came to Ireland as a result of Edge’s 1902 victory, and CJ had a Napier for it but crashed. He and Bianchi were laid out under sheets, believed dead, when they were merely unconscious, it is said. Jenatzy’s win for Mercedes in 1903 took the prestigious event to Germany in 1904. Austin asked CJ to drive one his 96hp Wolseleys. CJ had hedged his chances by also driving an 80hp de Dietrich in the French Elimination Trials prior to Austin’s request. The Wolseley broke first gear of the four-speed ‘box at the start of the IoM test race; the untried de Dietrich had radiator trouble in France, giving Jarrott a miserable 12 hours on the test course with nothing to show for it.

In the Gordon Bennett race proper, Jarrott had the Wolseley improved after his IoM tests but the railway delivered it four days late. It was fast but developed many troubles, losing third speed and, for a long time, running on just three cylinders. On top of this, Bianchi had to switch off at corners when the governor packed up. Unsurprisingly, the result was that, in a very hot, tiring race, CJ was 12th and last.

Jarrott now retired from road racing to run the business of Jarrott & Letts, with agencies for Oldsmobile, Crossley, de Dietrich, Bugatti and other cars. Crossley took over in 1910, and it was probably William Letts who persuaded them to build 16-valve Bugattis in Manchester. It was said that all or some of the few made had a wheelbase shorter on one side than on the other, which is probably apocryphal, but the cars did exist; indeed, I have a Crossley-Bugatti radiator badge among my oddments.

Jarrott’s subsequent experiences are as follows: two London-Monte Carlo record runs with Crossleys; drove a de Dietrich in the 1907 opening parade at Brooklands; tied with Newton’s Napier on a de Dietrich in the Byfleet Plate at Brooklands’ first race meeting; second in a Sizaire in a 1908 race; set an hour record of 83.1mph on a de Dietrich 60; raced occasionally in 1909; took part in the 1911 joke race for Fiat taxis. Bianchi also took class records for him in 1912 with a Crossley. Janott was also present to watch Lambert’s 100-in-the-hour Talbot record in 1913. Nor did he neglect sprints, using a 120hp de Dietrich at one event.

This well-respected driver from the true pioneer days of motor racing died in 1944.