France's second best racing driver

Leonce Girardot had a habit of coming second. Did he lack the ultimate talent or was it just all bad luck? By Bill Boddy

When the great sport of motor racing commenced, just before the turn of the century, there was no question of following the profession of racing driver; this has not been established. There existed then only the pioneers, those who elected to drive racing motors over the dusty tree-lined, narrow roads in contests of remarkable length. They did this because their links with the new horseless carriages, barely out of the chrysalis stage, led, if they were sufficiently brave and inclined, to exciting associations with great racing cars built by rival makers soon after the car's birth.

Surprisingly, the organisations which gave birth to the races in these pioneer days settled for those vast distances, true tests of the new-found transport and decided upon to prove its efficiency to the public - cars as fast as trains and able to sustain the pace over equally long distances. So those who elected to climb into lofty driving seats were to the layman as gods, men who took unbelievable risks, did rapid repairs to ailing machinery, and tore deflated tyres off the wheel-rims with their bare hands.

No tame cycle-track races, these astonishing town-to-town tests of speedy endurance. The very first motor race in 1895 was from Paris to Bordeaux and back, a matter of 732 miles, and the next, in 1896, covered 1077 miles. The newspapers loved it, particularly after the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race of 1903 was stopped by Government decree at Bordeaux because so many accidents, some fatal, had occurred as onlookers crowded the speeding cars. The authorities insisted those which had arrived be towed to the rail-head behind horses. Fleet Street dubbed it the "Race of Death"...

From these formative years great names soon emerged, some with nicknames to suit. Thus, Thery "The Chronometer" for his consistent driving, Jenatzy "The Red Devil", for the colour of his beard and his devilish drives for Mercedes, and Girardot "The Eternal Second". Was he so often second because of bad luck or because his skills did not match those of the men who heat him?

Leonce Girardot had commenced this new adventure in 1897 with a 6hp Panhard, which he drove for the 107 miles of the Paris-Dieppe race. He did not do well but the next year he won the Paris-Boulogne from Levegh's Mors at 33.5mph. Then came Girardot's first second-placing, in the more arduous 901 miles of the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris contest. After missing several races he drove a new 8hp four-cylinder Panhards with a steering-wheel instead of a tiller in the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race. The moustachioed Girardot, who might have been someone's favourite uncle, made very good use of his improved racing car. Almost unbelievably, the race was nearly halted before it started, by a 'difficult' police engineer who tried to enforce an obsolete law and cause abandonment, even to posting a half-squadron of the 23rd Hussars and two cannon at the starting point. But the racing cars were moved unseen to Villiers and their petrol supplies brought to them under cover of darkness, in a horse-drawn cart...

The 48 starters were dispatched at half-minute intervals, Charron's 8hp Panhard first, followed by that of Hourgieres. The pace was hot, Charron averaging 32mph for the first 40 miles, with Hourgieres only a second in arrears. But at the Chateau d' Ardenne control, in fine rain, Girardot was just two minutes behind. At the end of the second day, during which a Peugeot skidded into a canal, (its drenched driver proceeding by train in a borrowed too-small child's suit) much tyre trouble, and Hourgieres failing to make up a 15-hour delay after repairing a seized engine, Girardot was well placed. On the sixth and final day, he finished second, 0.3mph slower than Charron's average of 26.9mph. It was a great drive, for Charron, ex-French champion racing cyclist, highly strung, dare-devil and dashing, was regarded as being with out equal save Levegh "The Invincible". Girardot had also been second to a Peugeot of twice his power in a short race at Nice.

By 1899 Girardot had a more powerful 12hp Panhard for the Paris-Bordeaux challenge, in which these cars filled the first five places, Girardot third, at 28mph, to the 29.9mph and 29.6mph averages of Charron and de Knyff. This was a sort of build-up to the 1350-mile Tour de France, and guess who was second again...

Only the calm de Knyff possessed the stamina for such a speed marathon to beat him, with a 16hp Panhard against Girardot's 12hp. Charron left first on the only other 16hp Panhard, but was to experience leaking water-pipes and two broken springs. Over the four-mile Col De La Moreno both these fast Panhards clocked 15 minutes. On the fifth day Charron retired and Girardot moved up. Charron's problem was no forward speeds and after a 25-mile drive in reverse to Alencon for new parts, the trouble returned... So Girardot was second, once more.

Later that year it was a close-run thing for his usual place in the Paris-Ostend race; he tied for a win as the unstable short-wheelbase cars raced in dust and torrential rain. The 12hp Panhard finished wheel-to-wheel with Levegh's bigger Mors. The "Eternal Second" then beat two 16hp Mors in the Paris-Boulogne event... 1900 opened with Charron crashing seriously in the circuit Du Sud Ouest, in which Girardot in his out-dated Panhard was fifth. By now racing cars were getting bigger and faster but one should bear in mind that lady passengers of the less-likely winners were weighed on a station slot machine before the Pans-Boulogne in 1899.

In 1901 Girardot got his 24hp Panhard, and in the GP de Pau was second to Farman's sister car, the only finishers in their class. By March, Girardot had a fearsome 40hp Panhard, but Fournier's Mors Sixty had the pace to beat five of them in the Paris-Bordeaux.

Back on form in the 1901 Paris to Berlin race, Girardot fended off de Knyff but their Panhard Fortys were no match for Fournier and the 60hp Mors, who won at 44.1mph. Girardot was second, at 41.3mph, just 1mph faster than de Knyff.

Although Girardot was not such a frequent competitor as most of the top drivers of his era, I think the point has been made. He built a 60hp CGV (for Charron, Girardot and Voight) in 1902 in an attempt to combat the big Mors and, after the fateful Paris-Madrid affair stopped town-to-town contests, he was second in the Circuit des Ardennes only to a monster 70hp Panhard.

His career, however, was shortly to end. Driving a CGV that packed a 12.8-litre engine into a car weighing only 1000kg, he had a bad crash in the French Gordon Bennett Eliminating Trials at Auvergne, when his unwieldy racer shed both front tyres as it came down the straight. He and his mechanic were flung off the CGV as it overturned and both were injured. Enough was enough, and Girardot turned to making GEM vehicles. The 'Eternal Second' lived until 1922, so saw the great growth of the motor world.