In 1936, the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France is to be a race for touring cars. It can only be a rather minor feature of anything but a very mediocre season of motor racing; and yet this was once not just a motor race, but the motor race. It is not just the oldest race; it is the lineal descendant ‘of the first motor race of all, when forty years ago, Levassor drove to Bordeaux and arrived first back in Paris. It was once so much the greatest motor race, that the names of Szisz, Nazzaro, Lautenschlager and Boillot must survive so long as the automobile has a historian. What then was the Grand Prix like in the days of its glory?
The metamorphosis which the Grand Prix is about to undergo is designed to increase the possibility of a French victory. The same motive was responsible for its origin. By clever diplomacy, the French Automobile Club . succeeded in founding it in order to replace the Gordon Bennett Cup race, hitherto the great event of the year. The rules for the latter stipulated that each competing country should be represented by three cars ; and France, which then possessed by far the most important motor industry in the world, felt this to be unfair. In the Grand Prix each manufacturer, originally, was to be limited to three cars, and as many manufacturers as liked could send teams.
The first race was run on June 26th and 27th, 1906, over a circuit near Le Mans which measured just over 64 miles in length. This had to be covered six times on each day, and the total length of the race was thus almost exactly 770 miles. The formula under which it was run was a maximum weight limit of 1,000 kilos. or 331 per cent, more than that allowed to the Grand Prix cars of 1935.
The French industry responded well to the opportunity presented to it of competing en masse, and teams were entered by Richard-Brasier, Renault,. ClementBayard, Hotchkiss, Panhard et Levassor, Darracq, De Dietrich, Gobron-Brillie, Vulpes and Gregoire. England, disgusted at the chicanery which had put an end to the Gordon Bennett race, was conspicuous by her absence, but Italy sent three Itala and three F.I.A.T. cars and Germany a team of Mercedes. Gabriel, winner of Paris-Madrid, was the first to be sent off at 6 o’clock on that 26th June on his De Dietrich. Even as early as this, it was blazingly hot. Gabriel broke a radius rod on the first lap and it was Lancia, on an Italian F.I.A.T., the second man to start, who was first back at the Tribunes. But it was Baras, on a Richard-Brasier, the marque which had won the last two Gordon Bennett races, who made the fastest time, and at the end of the second lap, he was still in the lead. But the terrific heat was playing havoc with tyres, and it was soon apparent that Louis Renault’s enterprise in fitting his cars with detachable rims would be rewarded. At the end of the third lap, Szisz and his Renault were in the lead, and there they stayed until the end of the race which
was won at 63 m.p.h. Of the thirty-two starters, eleven finished.
The winning Renault had a 4-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of 165 x 150 mm. (12,827 c.c.) and was not apparently unduly handicapped by a 3-speed gearbox, a feature which had always characterised the marque. The next year, 1907, the race was moved to Dieppe, and was run on a single day over a distance of 477 miles. Moreover, the weight limit was now abandoned and instead, fuel consumption was limited to about 9.4 m.p.g. Encouraged by the success of 1906, French entries were again numerous and included
teams from Renault, Brasier, De
Dietrich, Darracq, Clement-Bayard, Motobloc, Corre and Panhard et Levassor, with a Porthos and the famous old Gobron-Brillie. This year, however, the race was more international. Italy again sent a F.I.A.T. team and Germany some Mercedes; Belgium was represented by three Germains and Switzerland by a Dufaux. England recovered from her distaste for the Grand Prix and sent three Weigel cars with 8-cylinder engines, while the United States were represented by a weird and wonderful Christie car with a 20-litre 4-cylinder V engine and frontwheel drive. The F.I.A.T. cars had been entered at the last moment at double fees, but they soon proved themselves extremely fast. On the first lap Wagner’s car was in the lead and held it for three laps until he retired. Then ensued a terrific duel between his team-mate, Lancia, and Duray on a De Dietrich, which only ended with their both retiring and leaving the race to Nazzaro on the third F.I.A.T., which averaged 70.5 m.p.h. The winning car did not differ materially from its predecessors under the limited weight rules, and a fuel limit did not result in the use of a long-stroke engine, the dimensions. being 185 x 150 mm. (15,274 c.c.) At the time, in fact, it was generally considered that the power of an engine depended almost exclusively on its bore,. the possible revolutions varying inversely with the stroke. For 1908, therefore, the A.C.F. decided to give up both the’ weight-limit and the fuel-limit and adopt a limited bore rule (for 4-cylinder engines) of 155 mm. This change, however, did. not by any means put off entrants. TheFrench industry, anxious to avenge tile defeat of 1907, was represented by Renault, Lorraine-Dietrich, Motobloe, Brasier, Porthos, Bayard-Clement, Mors. and Panhard et Levassor. But the foreign attack was more formidable than ever. F.I.A.T., victorious in 1907, was now supported by Itala, and Mercedes,
the traditional champion of Germany, by both Benz and Opel. There were again. some Belgian Germains, and England sent not only Weigels (4-cylindered this time), but also some Austins (with six cylinders, just to show that our designers were not hidebound). Finally there was an American Thomas of conventional design when compared with the Christie.
The race was again run at Dieppe over the same course and for the same distance as in 1907. From the first, it was a disaster from the French point of view, for foreign cars held the lead throughout, first Salzer’s Mercedes, then Nazzaro’s F.I.A.T., Wagner’s F.I.A.T., Hemery’s Benz and finally the winner, Lautenschlager’s Mercedes, which averaged 69 m.p.h. This car had one of the longest strokes in the race, 170 mm. A German Benz was second, a German Benz third, a German Mercedes fifth, a German Opel sixth, and a German Benz seventh. A defeat so crushing was altogether too much for the French. Rather than risk its repetition, .manufacturers simply refused to enter for the Grand Prix in 1909. In consequence, the race was not held, and in 1910 and 1911 it proved impossible GRAND PRIX—continued to revive it. Motor racing in France went on only in the shape of voiturette races which no one regarded very seriously. Yet, in them, Sizaire-Naudin, Peugeot, Delage and others were developing a new tradition of light, volumetrically efficient cars. In 1912, the process had progressed so far that the A.C.F. felt able to turn its Grand Prix for unlimited cars into the Coupe des Voiturettes race for 3-litre light cars. It seemed at first a risky proceeding. Of the old French champions, only LorraineDietrich entered some 15-litre racers. Peugeot and Rolland-Pilain, it is true, had built Grand Prix cars, but under the influence of their voiturette experience, their engines were only of 7,600 c.c. and
6,274 c.c. against the 14-litres boasted by the Italian Fiats. Even Belgium was represented by a 9-litre Excelsior.
The Coupe des Voiturettes was better supported. Peugeot, although concentrating on the Grand Prix, was represented by a Lion-Peugeot 3-litre racer, and other French entrants included SizaireN audin, Alcyon, Gregoire, Schneider, Vinot and tote (with a couple of twostrokes). The names of these manufacturers, one may notice, were unknown to the days of the old Grand Prix (and too many of them are again unknown to-day). Germany (Strasbourg was German then) was represented by a single Mathis of only 1,843 c.c., but the English contingent was in force with Sunbeam, ArrolJohnston, Calthorpe, Singer and Vauxhall. The race was again run at Dieppe and was a two-day affair. The Fiats were tremendously fast, but they were terrifically heavy and suffered from tyre troubles. The Lorraine-Diet Ochs were definitely not successful, and it was left to Georges Boillot with his Peugeot—almost a light car—to win the Grand Prix by thirteen minutes from Louis Wagner on the first of the Fiats. But the knell of the old order was sounded even more decisively by the 3-litre Sunbeams which were not only first, second and third in the Coupe des Voiturettes, but third, fourth and fifth in the Grand Prix. It was probably the greatest British victory ever recorded
on the continent and certainly the greatest triumph ever scored by the light car. The race, at any rate, was undoubtedly a success, and the A.C.F. was encouraged to go on with the Grand Prix in 1913 by the fact that a French car had won it in 1912, while an English car had won the light-car race (hitherto the chief event of the year). This time the race was moved, at last, to Amiens, and run over a 19mile course for a total distance of 570 miles. This time also the A.C.F. revived the fuel-consumption limit, which was fixed at 14 miles to the gallon (compared with 94 in 1907). Not one of the oldtime French champions now supported the race, and indeed France only had three teams to represent her—all drawn
from the ranks of the vOiturette racers— Peugeot, Delage and Schneider, all with 5 to 6-litre long-stroke engines. Sunbeam, encouraged by the success of 1912, was represented by some 44-litre 6cylinder editions of the Voiturette Cup racers. Germany sent some 5-litre Opels with a Mathis which, in deference to the fact that this was not a voiturette race, had an engine of 2,154 c.c. The Belgian Excelsiors were again present, with 6litre engines this time. Last, but not least, Itala followed the Fiats of 1912 to prove that Italy had forgotten nothing of the high, unwieldy racers of 1908, and only learnt to reduce the engine size to eight litres—with a big bore.
The race started in a fog and the Peugeots and Delages soon showed themselves the fastest cars, with the Sunbeams very little slower. In the end, Boillot again proved the winner at 72,2 m.p.h., with another Peugeot second, a Sunbeam third and a Delage fourth. These two races, of 1912 and 1913, proved but the prologue to the climax of the pre-war Grands Prix. In 1914, Lyons was made the venue of the race, which was run over 20 laps of a 234-miles circuit—a total distance of 466 miles. The rules were again changed, this time in favour of a capacity limit of 44 litres. By now, all Europe had re-awakened to the fact of the revival of Grand Prix racing. The French champions were again Peugeot, Delage and Schneider,
with an Aida team in. addition. England, sent Sunbeam and Vauxhall ; Italy, some very different Fiats from those of 1912,, a team of Nazzaros and an AquilaItaliana ; Belgium, some Nagauts ; Switzerland, Piccard-Pictets; Germany, Opels,. and, harking back to old times, no fewer than five Mercedes.
It is perhaps worth while to turn aside at this point briefly to describe the racing. car of 1914. Of the starters in the Grand Prix all, including the Sunbeams, had 4-cylinder engines, except the 6-cylin
der Aquila-Italiana. Most of the engines. had four overhead valves per cylinder, operated by an overhead camshaft, in Peugeot’s case by two overhead cam
shafts. Delage not only had two overhead camshafts, but closed . the valves. mechanically. In after years, there grew up a legend that, unnoticed at the time, Mercedes used a supercharger, but this I cannot believe. Engines in the race reached between 3,000 and 4,000 r.p.m., with a gear ratio on direct drive of about 3 to 1. Delage and Schneider used a geared-up fifth speed, the Aquila-Italiana, and the Piccard-Pictets (which had sleeve-valve engines) had direct drive on
the third, out of four speeds. Most important of all, Peugeot, Delage, Fiat and Piccard-Pictet, to their lasting credit, had front-wheel brakes.
The race was run on 4th July, 1914, and the competitors were sent off in pairs. Boillot, on the Peugeot, did a good first lap, but when thd times went up it was. Seiler on a Mercedes who led He held the lead for five laps and went out on the fifth with a connecting-rod through the crankcase. Boillot took his place and, driving each round as if it were the last, held the lead for lap after lap. Behind. him three Mercedes closed up inexorably. By the eighteenth lap the Peugeot, hard pressed, had last a little speed and lost the lead to Lautenschlager, the 1908winner. When he left for his last lap, I3oillot was still second, but he never finished. Perhaps if he could not win it was better so, for it was the last race he ever drove in. Three Mercedes finished’ first, second and third on 4th July, 1914. The Grand Prix had reached its climax of drama.
Writing shortly after the race, a contributor to one of our contemporaries remarked : ” The French Grand Prix race of 1915—which will, in all likelihood, be for 3-litre cars . . . .—will be even a. bigger international competition than, that of last week. Some of the oldest. firms in the industry will re-enter the racing arena.”
Alas it was not to be. The French. Grand Prix race of 1936 will be for touring cars.