The last road racers

In 1895, the pioneering Automobile Club de France organized a 1178km (732 miles) road race from Paris to Bordeaux and back, marking the heroic age of city-to-city racing.

In 1957 Peter Collins on the Mille Miglia in the Ferrari 335 S

In 1957 renowned British motor sport photographer Louis Klemantaski accompanied Peter Collins on the Mille Miglia. This was his view in the Ferrari 335 S

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When the very first mass-entry properly organised motor race was conceived in 1895, nobody could accuse the embryo Automobile Club de France of not thinking big. In fact it ran its pioneering road race on a grandiose scale, choosing a public road route from Paris down south-west to Bordeaux… and back again. No fewer than 1178km – 732 miles, against the clock.

In effect it was point-to-point, city-to-city, though you could argue it created one of the narrowest road-racing circuits of all time, notionally one side of the road down and then the other side of the same road back again. The fastest driver home was Émile Levassor in his Panhard, covering the distance virtually non-stop and certainly without sleep in 48hr 48min, at an average of 24.54kph – 15.25mph.

The really heroic age of city-to-city racing, Paris-Marseille-Paris, Bordeaux-Biarritz, Paris-Berlin, provided motor sport’s pinnacle tier until 1903 when a succession of accidents led to the Paris-Madrid sprint being stopped in its tracks, and surviving competitors having their cars horse-drawn to Bordeaux railway station, before returning to Paris by train (see page 23).

Circuit racing subsequently became the norm. But racing history is studded by exceptions. Road racing survived, most pertinently via the three most celebrated. Perhaps the greatest was Italy’s national Mille Miglia (thousand miles) from the north-eastern industrial city of Brescia down the leg of the country, across to Rome, then back to Brescia. It reigned supreme from 1927 to ’57, albeit punctuated by a safety-grounds ban, then war. Post-WW2 in 1950 there was a true point-to-point, multi-stage road race the Mexican Carrera Panamericana, an epic challenge regarded by any who took part as the most dangerous of the lot. Then there was the Targa Florio. Based on a variation of epic circuits around the volcanic island of Sicily it was for years the oldest surviving having been first run as early as 1906. But 50 years ago this year it was stripped of its sports car world championship status and found itself merely a footnote in history.

From this distance it is hard for many of us to imagine such epics on such roads could actually have taken place at all. But they did. And we won’t forget. Here, then, we recall the last of the great road racers.