EARLY HILL- CLIMBS by "baladeur"





4. LA TURBIE, 1897-1903

iT the end of the nineteenth century, the ” season ” in the south of

France was in the winter and early spring. At any other time of the year, in the opinion of contemporaries, the Riviera would have been intolerably hot. Having myself spent a number of summers on that enchanted coast, I am convinced that the only reason why the visitors of the nineteenth century held this opinion with so much firmness was because they wore too many clothes. Admittedly, as the twentieth century advanced, one was equally driven to the conclusion that their successors, even when their figures were unsuitable, tended to wear too few. At any rate, in the early days of the automobile the season at Nice and thereabouts was still in the winter ; and nothing could be more natural after the success of the events held in other parts of France in 1895 and 1896 than that in 1897 it Should have been decided to hold a motor race on the Riviera. The course originally decided upon was from Marseilles to Monte Carlo, but it was soon realised that beyond Nice the racing cars were going to run into trouble. “The ascent of the celebrated La Turbie hill, and above all the descent to Monte Carlo,” records M. Pieire Souvestre, “did not fail to worry everyone, to such an extent that while the drivers were wondering how they would ever get to the top, the organisers decided to stop the race at the village of La Turbie and that the descent should be effected ‘en touriste.’ “

Now today three roads lead eastwards from Nice : the Lower Corniche, which follows the coast by Villefranehe and Beaulieu to Monte Carlo ; the Middle Corniche, which, a little further inland, reaches the same destination by the village of Eze ; and the Grand Corniche, which, further inland still, climbs to La Turbie, passes behind Monte Carlo and only regains the coast at Mentone. Just beyond La Turbie, however, a secondary road turns off the Grand Corniche and zig-zags steeply down to Monte Carlo in a manner admittedly much more suitable for tourists than for nineteenth century racing cars.

Today, therefore, avoiding the built-up areas of the Lower Corniche, one would presumably take the middle road from Nice to Monte Carlo. Such, moreover, was apparently the common form in 1908; but the Middle Corniche is a comparatively modern road, and one must presumably conclude that in 1897, if it existed at all, it was not in a condition to recommend itself to the organisers of Marseilles-Nice-Monte Carlo. Thus it came about that Nice-La Turbie, the scene in later years of the famous La Turbie Hill-Climb, formed the last stage of the race. The Grand Corniche Road has been a celebrated thoroughfare since it was described by William Brockedon in his Illustrations of the Passes of the Alps in 1829. Its predecessor, the Via Aurelia, is said to have been the earliest passage of the Alps frequented by the Romans. Earlier still, it figured in legend as the route by which Hercules penetrated into Italy. But the modern road is the legacy of Napoleon. He ordered its construction in 1802, and by 1806 his ? engineers, Teulere, Auzillion and Fevre had completed it. From Nice it sets off northwards, with a gradient of up to 1 in 8, and after a couple of miles, still climbing hard, it swings eastwards round the observatory on Mont Gros, and returns south again to the Col des Quatre Chemins. There is only the slightest drop from this first summit, and then the road starts Climbing again, although with a somewhat easier gradient, up to the Col d’Eze and then on to the highest point, where the altitude is 541 metres (1,775 ft.). The distance to this point is some 14 kilometres, and the climb of 590 metres has thus been effected with an average gradient of only about 1 in 30; but in order to achieve it the road winds continuously in true mountain style, especially in the early stages, where many of the corners are Very sharp. From the highest point there is a gentle drop of about 200 feet to the village of La Turbie, in earlier days Trophaea, the spot, where Augustus erected his Trophy. to mark the conquest of the Ligurians and the limits of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. ,

The total distance from Nice to La Turbie is 18 kilometres, but the distance over which cars were timed in different years seems to have varied somewhat. As far as the last stage of the 1897 race is concerned, Gerald Rose gives it as 10.5 miles, which is a shade over 17 kilometres, and apparently a little longer than the distance usually used in later years. The cars had arrived in Nice at the end of the second stage of the race on January 30th, and the climb up to La Turbie was reserved for the next day, the last of the race. All the way from Marseilles, the event had been notable for the prowess of the de Dion Bouton steamers, the one driven by the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat being in the lead, while Andre Michelin’s had made the best time from Frejus. The mountain roads suited the powerful steamers, although, in the words of the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat, the leading driver’s brother, ” without facing certain death, one dared not let the heavy vehicle coast on any of the heaviest downgrades.”

The long climb up to La Turbie promised to suit them just as well, and their sponsors were not destined to be disappointed. Michelin’s steam brake, driven by Pary, made the climb in 31 min. 50 sec., and de Chasseloup-Laubat was only six minutes slower, in 87 min. 55 sec. The fastest of the petrol ears was Lernaitre’s Peugeot, which, while only admitting to 6-h.p., had the inestimable advantage of weighing no more than 650 kilos., compared with 2,000 kilos.

and upwards, in the case of the de Dion steamers, and which climbed in 52 min. 55 sec. Rene de Knyff’s Panhard et Levassor, also nominally 6-h.p., weighed 1,000 kilos., a fact which demonstrated the virtues of the Peugeot system of’ tubular frame construction, with wire wheels. De Knyff’s time was 56 min. 20 sec., which, however, was a good deal faster than that of de Salmard’s 5-11.p. Benz, which took 1 hr. 45 min. 9 sec. over the (had).

In spite of this success for the steam brake, MM. de Dion and Bouton were already inclining more and more to the light petrol engine, and after 1897 the steamers were seen no more. They had, in the earlier part of their existence, given an infinity of trouble ; but, “in spite of all that,” says the Marquis de Chasseloup-Laubat, who had had his fair share of their initial idiosyncrasies, “this carriage is a good vehicle.” According to Mr. Gerald Rose, ” it had a de DionBouton type boiler, weighing 250 kilogrammes, fitted with superheater. The engine was a two-cylinder compound Woolf machine, cylinders opposed, steamjacketed lx.p. 75 mm. bore, L.P. 115 mm. ‘bore, stroke of both 90 ram, crankthrows at 180 deg., giving 11-h.p. at 800 r.p.m. Weight of engine 153 kilogrammes.”

So much for the steam engine proper. What, in the light of later events, is almost more interesting is his description of the transmission system. “The drive was direct through a two-speed gear On the differential shaft which was in one with the engine shaft. From the differential, the drive went to the hubs of the back wheels by two shafts provided with universal joints. The spindles were hollow, and the shafts carrying the engagement plates passed through the centre, the drive thus being taken up on the outside.” Now this, in essentials, is obviously the so-called “de Dion drive,” used on the steam brake from 1895 and on de Dion petrol cars until about 1912, when it was abandoned as a mere mechanical curiosity until revived in the 1930’s to solve the suspension problems of racing cars which threatened to become too fast to hold on the road. In the meantime, in January, 1897, a steamer thus equipped made fastest time in the first climb from Nice up to La Turbie. All the competitors got ‘safely down the winding road from La Turbie to Monte Carlo, with the exception of Bruninghaus, whose Panhard’s brakes, • in the words of Gerald Rose, “gave way just at the foot of the steep descent, almost in front of the Casino. His car ran away, and dashing into the Café de Paris, sheared clean through a cast-iron pillar without in the least damaging the car—which speaks volumes for OA solidity of the Panhard of those early days.” However satisfied its rankers may have been with this demonstration, the proprietors of the Café de Paris were presumably leas pleased with the poor advertisement for their pillar, and it is perhaps hardly surprising that in 1898 the race which started at Marseilles went no further than Nice. No racing cars, therefore, made the ascent to La Turbie ; but the climb had made so fine a finale to the race Of the year before that in 1899, in emulation of the example set at Chanteloup the autumn before, the La Turbie hill

climb was organised as a separate event. It took place on March 24th, and this time the distance is given as 16 kilo

grammes 100 metres, as against 17 kilogrammes in 1897. The times, therefore, are not directly comparable, but as Lemaitre on a 20-h.p. Peugeot of the type which was to appear later in the year at Chantefoup, clocked 24 ann. 2$ sec., it is clear that he was considerably faster than the 1897 steamers, even if he did have to cover some 800 yards less.

By 1900 speed had advanced still further. The distance was now 17 kilometres again, and yet, on March 00th, Levegh on a 24-1i.p. Mors, of the type which was to make fastest time that year at GailIon, got up in 19 min. 2 See. On the other hand, Batter, driving one of those awkward Cannstatt Daimler racers with which. Baron Henri de Rothschild distinguished himself at Chanteloup, crashed into the rocks at the first sharp corner and was killed, his companion Braun saving himself from the same fate by jumping dear just in time.

Itwas soon fairly clear, in fact, to the designers of Cannstatt that their racing car was a death-trap, and during the winter of 1900-1901 they went. home and thought hard about improving it. In the first place the very name of the car was changed. With the first year of the new century, for the nineteenth, at least according to contemporaries, lasted on until the end of 1900, the name of Ifaitnler died at Cannstatt, and the Mercedes was born. And it proved to be ti transformation in more than name. Of the old Cannstatt racer, the One good feature. the honeycomb radiator, was retained ; but whereas the Daimler had been short, high and unstable, the Mercedes was long, low and more readily controllable than any other racing car of the day. ‘171te dimensions of the engine were altered front 106 by 136 mm. to 116 by 140 ram., and contemporaries saw with wonderment that for the first time in motoring history the inlet as well as the exhaust valves were mechanically operated. Instead of an engine which would only run efficiently at a more or less constant speed, the German designers had produced one which appeared to competent observers to be as flexible as a steam-engine.

The new $5-hip. Mercedes was entered for the Grand Prix de Pau in February, 1901. and proved a bitter disappointment. ” The car came by rail from Cannstatt to Paris,” says Gerald Rose, ” and during its trial trips in the neighbourhood it stripped gears and seized bearings in the most unsatisfactory way. It was sent on by rail to Pan, . . . but at the start the clutch refused to hold, and the speed lever jammed, so that a few yards from the start the car abandoned the race.” The French manufacturers, some of whom had been inclined to panic at the appearance of this revolutionary German car, began again to pluck up courage. But their complacency was shortlived. On March 25th, little more than a month after the Pau deb:tele, the new Mercedes started in the Nice-Sidon-Nice race, and Werner, driving Baron Henri de Rothschild’s car, proceeded to come home an easy winner front Degrais’ Rooltet Schneider. Teething troubles

were evidently already a thing of the past. Then on March 29th Caine the La Turbie hill-climb, and once more the Mercedes were to prove themselves the fastest of the competing cars. In comparing the 1901 results with those that went before,

however, an element of uncertainty again creeps in with regard to the distance over which the times were taken. The Aulocar, rather curiously, remarks : “The climax came in the Nice-La Turbie race, when there was SOMC really marvellous driving on the steep winding gradient or a distance there and back of fifteen and a-half kilometres.” (my italics.) Now there seems not. the slightest reason to Suppose that in reality the racers came back to Nice, and the reporter steins to have become confused because he realised, as he makes Clear elsewhere, that the competitors went first up hill and then down. This being the case, is his distance of 151 kilometres to be relied upon ? If so, and if the competitors covered some of the down-hill part of the road at the La Turbie end, the rediwt ion in the total distance must have been achieved at the expense of some of the most difficult clintbing at the start from Nice, and in this ease the times cannot be in any way compared with those of 1900. Subject to this uncertainty, NVerner’s time of 18 min. 6.8 see. beat Levegh’s record by rather less than a minute, rather a small margin even for the full distance. In spite of its advanced Mechanical features, the 3541.p. Mercedes of 1901 was easily outpaced by the Mors and Panhards in the Paris-Berlin race, but when the new 40-it.p. model appeared at Nice in 1902 it caused almost more sensation than had its predecessor. .The dimensions of the engine had been increased to 120 by 130 mm., and its silence and flexibility appeared more marked than ever. ” The first thing that strikes one,” declared The Atdocar reporter, ” is their wonderfully quiet running. When the vehicle is standing, a rapid rhythmical beat is only just audible, scarcely more than a low hum, and there is absolutely no vibration. It is generally supposed that the motor is then turning at not more than 150 revolutions a minute, but Herr Daimler assured us that it was still running at 500 revolutions, and one explanation of this quietness is the method of synchronising, as it were, the exhaust with the admission, both of which are operated mechanically, and in this way, at whatever rate the motor may be running, the exhaust is always rapidly cleared at the precise inoment the charge is being drawn in. The motor is regulated by the well-known :Mercedes tubular regulator, with ports. forimmimig part of the carburetter, and the running of the engine can be varied instantly front 500 to 1,200 revolutions by means of a small lever on the dashboard moving on a toothed sector. The four cylinders are in line and the Motor develops 40 nominal h.p…. The weight of the Motor is said to be only 407 lb. Owing to the great elasticity of the engine, it is rarely necessary to use the change speed gear, and the vehicle can be slowed down to a crawl with the highest gear in mesh,

while speeds can be changed with perfect ease and silence without throwing out the motor. . . The wheelbase is exactly eight feet.” Owing to the last Minute prohibition of the Nice-Abba.zzia race, there was no long-distance event at the Nice meeting in 1902, and racing was confined to the speed trials on the Promenade des Anglais and the La Turbie The former, according to the containporary Autocar, were “historical for the wonderful performance of M. Serpollet

with his 20-1t.p. racing car of the shoe pattern,” alias ” The Whale,” which was to figure later in the year at Gaillon.

On this occasion, ” he pulverised all previous records by covering the flying kilometre at the phenomenal rate of seventy-five miles an hour.” There were high hopes, too, that up La ‘Cathie the steamer:3 would emulate the performance, in relation to their internal combustion rivals, of the the Dion brakes of 1897. This time the distance is given as 9.6 miles, which is rtear enough 15i kilometres, and the times, it would thus seem, are directly comparable with those for 1901. On this occasion, however, there was an unusual hazard in the shape of a fog on the top of the mountain, which was so thiek that the officials at the finish telephoned to the start in an endeavour to have the racing postponed, a suggestion which was blithely ignored by their confreres down in Nice, where it was quite clear. ” The Serpollets,” it was dramatically reported by an observer at La Turbie, ” flew past the control with the flames roaring out of the top of the boiler,” but for all that the best time achieved by the steamers was 19 min. 16 see., and even Werner on the new Mercedes could not do as well as the year before, as he took 18 min. 80 see. Lemaitre, also on a Mercedes, who came neat, ” declared that he had had to finish on the Second speed,” in spite of which he beat Werner by five seconds. It was left to Stead, on yet another Mercedes, however, to make fastest time, in 16 Mill. 37 see., “though he declared that he would never risk his life in such conditions again. At one moment a wheel actually left the road, and hung over the precipice, and it was only by a sudden turn of the steering wheel that a catastrophe was avoided.” Good as was Stead’s performance, it is, indeed, probable that given more propitious conditions the 40-1x.p. Mercedes of 1902 would have done even better, for in the Paris-Vienna race it was to prove itself at least the equal of the big French ears, and quite the best model that had yet come out of Cannstatt. By 1903. however, it had an even better successor, in the shape of the ” Sixty,” which can at least lay claim to being the best car that Mercedes ever built, having due regard to the period at which it was designed. The stroke of 150 mm. was the same as in the ” Forty,” but the bore was increased from 120 MM. to 140 mut., and, even more important, the inlet valve, instead of being symmetrically arranged with the exhaust valve in s T-head, was now annular and in the cylinder head itself, where it was operated by a push-rod and rocker. Although the dimensions were moderate compared Continued on page 8811 EA !ILI’ 1.1.1,-(7,11W3S coatimml from page 615

V ith those of tile lOtli.eroporary French racing ears. the It11-11.1i. Mereede:s was to prove itself every bit as fast as any of Haan.

Several of tile new ears appeared at Nice for the 1003 iiteeting. and they were the firsi to run ii) the climb up to La Twine. This time the distance is given as 11:62 miles or IS kilometres 500, but although ill this l’eSilea COIlditiOlis Welt the same as in 1902, they were totally different in that instead of being in a lOg, La Turhic was bathed in glorious Sit nshine. NVertier, on Haron Ileuri de ItotItseltild’s big red ” Sixty ” ran first., roared up the hill, •’ swung riamil towards tlw emit rot anti ilaSh,.(1 1J:1St , the rar zigzagging in an alarming iimniter. Ills time was 14 min. -15.8 sec. and already Stead’s record had been handsontely beaten. Ife WaS f0110-Wed by !Beton:VH.111s. on a sister car, who broke HOS newlY established reeord by elot•king 14 min. 26.8 see., then by Gasteaux, who broke a chain, and then

by ( Zhorowski. Zltorowski, it was said, hurl heett l’ellderCti very’ nervous by a prophecy that Ite would be killed on It Tarhic• If so, he gave little evidence of it. •’ Shirting front the gasworks at Nice.recanted The Autocar, ” Count. Zborowski got his car going at full speed by the time in had reaehed the bottom of the mountain. At. the first turning tlw road has a width of 22 or 23 feet. with Hie rocks rising up perpendieularly on the right . To tlw liSt011iShIllellt Of erg ierivoved at ito

itioltilists. Contd. Zborowski came along iii I u. middle of the road on the fourth speed gear, so 1 hat the car must have been travelling al the rate Of itt least 60 miles an hour.” At the last minute. it seems, he made a desperab. ‘Abu-1 to get round the corner, but II aear was travelling much too fast, and was dashed against the rocks a few pails from the spot where the Nice Automobile Club had erected a plaque to commemorate the death of Bauer three years before. Count Zborowski was killed on the spot, and his companion, Baron dc Pallandt, less. fortunate than Braun who had jumped clear before the earlier accident, was badly injured. After this fatality all racing was stopped, and l.a Turbic was declared to be too dangerous ever to be run again. The record of 14 min. 20.8 sec. remained with Mereeeh‘s and lberonyn it is.