Races for pure road cars predate the more famous Le Mans and Spa 24-hour endurance events, as Bill Boddy reminds us
The first touring car grand prix was held in 1922, one year before Le Mans founded its classic roundthe-clock sportscar contest. It was not a race to be underestimated, as it was organised by the world authority for motor racing and record-breaking, the Automobile Club de France, which was responsible for the great French Grands Prix of 1906 onwards. These touring car contests were not the dull events that their title might suggest, because competitors drove what were really sportscars, some being special ones built for these races.
The touring car events used the same circuits over which the ACF would also run its grands prix, so the pioneering event of 1922 was staged on the Strasbourg course. Here the 499-mile grand prix itself had just been fought out on the Saturday, resulting in a victory for Felice Nazzaro in a 2-litre Fiat after beating the Bugatti opposition. The ‘touring’ cars were set to cover just under 444 miles, the race held on the Sunday.
Little wonder this follow-up was held, because much money had been spent on a 481-yard-long grandstand. It was the best in Europe, with the President’s stand in the middle, a press stand beside it and a promenade below, on this 8.5-mile circuit 12 miles from Molsheim. Special trains served car-less spectators.
The rules were devastatingly drastic. A fuel consumption of 16.6mpg was imposed, the driver had to be alone, with no help with any repairs, a mere drop of water added to a radiator implied disqualification, and minimum weight was 27cwt 621b, so the cars as raced weighed some two tons, to the discomfort of tyres and brakes. Their bodies had to be four-seaters with ballast representing three passengers, and tails no longer than 31in.
Gabriel Voisin saw publicity for his production cars in this, and put in two months of workshop preparation and a month’s on-road testing of his team. His cars had Knight double-sleeve-valve engines with dual ignition, drysump lubrication (tank behind dash) and a Solex carburettor. The drivers were Rougier, veteran Arthur Duray, Gaudermann and Piccioni.
The rivals were the Peugeots; ace driver Andre Boillot was now in charge of the racing department, and put in Artault and Pean as drivers of his other two Peugeots. Knight sleeve-valve engines were again used, with Zenith carburation, and both had 895×135 tyres.
There were 11 starters: four Voisins, three Peugeots, three Bignans and a Martinet, which were filled up with fuel, guarded overnight, and pushed out at 6.30am.
It went well for Voisin. The drivers had to jump in and get going on the starters. Duray was away first but was going so slowly he baulked a Bigrtan. Boillot was last and soon three Voisins were leading until Andre and Pean replaced Duray’s Voisin. Martinet’s car, of his own construction, caught fire on the first lap; but he ran it through some railings into a field, out of the way. Some 26 gallons of petrol fed the flames for half-an-hour.
Each driver had a fuel gauge on the rear-mounted official fuel tank, so by turning round they could see the level, but Boillot’s was inaccurate and caused him worry — he had a mere 3/10th of a gallon left at the finish — and Pean’s Peugeot ran out of petrol due to a leak.
Thus they finished, Rougier winning at 66.9mph, heading a Voisin 1-2-3. Not a bad pace, as drivers tended to coast at times; the sports-type Voisins were said to be capable of at least 80mph. I wonder how many cars this success sold for the marque?
Although ‘Papa’ Voisin did not support the Grand Prix de Tourisme which the ACF organised in 1923, manufacturer interest was strong. The race was at Tours, again as a support event to the French GP. The rules were more or less as they were in ’22, but the classes were for two-, fourand five-seater cars, with differing consumption, weight, and ballast figures for each and race distances of 184, 241 and 311 miles. I shudder for the scrutineers and race officials!
Despite this, the smallest class had five Aries, three Salmsons, two Mathis and a Sénéchal; the middle category had three of the new 15hp sleevevalve Peugeots against two Aries; and the five-seater class was headed by the Boillot Peugeot trio and a lone Aries. As before, all French cars.
This race took place on the Sunday, the day before that historic French GP, in which Segrave’s Sunbeam scored Britain’s first GP win.
A field of 21 was towed, three in one go, into starting order by a Renault caterpillar vehicle, reminiscent of wartime tanks. Typically French was the 8am ‘off’, when the band was drowned by the Gaumont loudspeaker announcing the drivers, veteran Louis Wagner (Aries) among them. Weak mixtures delayed many at the start, two Aries losing 6min.
Those who could get close to the cars ready for the start, officials strictly observing them to see that no extra petrol, oil or grease was added, might have noticed that the Mathis driven by Lahms, Meyer and Bocchi had, in addition to the gauges behind them, little vertical petrol gauges protruding from the scuttles, which ingeniously showed lap-by-lap consumption, including the increased amount they would use on the warming-up lap.
The Peugeots were prototypes of a new model about to make its debut at the Paris Salon, but with the compression ratio raised to 7:1 for the race. A lever cut off air to the special Solex carb when the cars were coasting.
As a race it may not have been that exciting, but it gave useful publicity to the makers of the cars entered and showed considerable engineering experience. The Peugeots won the big-car class, finishing side-by-side, with Boillot as team manager half-a-length in front of the other Peugeots driven by the Morillons. This practice is now often objected to but adopted as emphasis of victory by Talbot-Darracq and Bentley in the ’20s, by Mercedes at Aintree in 1955, and by Ferrari within recent memory. The winner had averaged 51.94mph.
Peugeot also dominated the fourseater class with another 1-2-3 finish, headed by Cabaillot at 42.5mph. Lahms took the small car class at a notable 50.8mph, with a race mpg of 47.1, from another Mathis and a Salmson. The Mathis was the forerunner of a future sportscar, with its chain-driven overhead camshaft, its ball-bearing crankshaft and coil ignition. Perhaps lady spectators saw these as cars as possible neat and convenient town runabouts…
Many of the cars ran dry just before the finish, to the disgust of drivers such as the veteran Wagner and Sénéchal, who used the starter to get home.
Perhaps the convincing Peugeot performance caused those sportsmen who had seen Segrave win the grand prix, and may later have enjoyed the autumn racing at Brooklands, to make for the Peugeot stand at Olympia’s motor show!
The GP de Tourisme was held in 1924 over the great Lyon circuit, a day before the Grand Prix d’Europe (the ACF’s French GP) was won by Campari’s Alfa Romeo. The strict rules and the classes remained, but it took on a more destructive form, because prior to the race there was an eighthour qualifying test which began at midnight, when the drivers plunged from the brightly lit pits into darkness; it would be five hours before the sun rose. This ingenious trial of lighting equipment resulted in only five of the cars actually qualifying for the race.
Voisin had built aeroplane-like 3.8-litre cars with a ‘fuselage’ of steel, wood and duralumin, which was very light. The ballast rules nullified the advantage, but this novelty provoked a remarkable response. The monocoque construction placed the floor lower than would be the case with conventional side-members, and the other entrants got together and protested to the race organisers. When this was rejected they tried to get the press, and anyone who would listen, on their side. Voisin had entered cars in all three classes, but none finished and so the matter faded away. The Mathis had light bodies of about 7cwt, but the regulations upped this to 27.5cwt The disc wheels were faired in and the cowl over the front axle held the horns and a tyre pump friction-driven from the nose of the crankshaft At Tours, the compression was 8:1 but power was cut down by 30 percent, yet these Mathis were timed at 64mph. A scuttle flap gave quick access to the dashboard wiring, and springs and shock absorbers were faired-in over. The spare wheels were laid flat within the pointed tail with a compressed-air bottle adjacent
Peugeot entered normal-bodied cars with the usual 3.8-litre sleevevalve engines, but with enlarged inlet and exhaust ports, and dry-sump lubrication from a tank within the chassis. For daylight, the headlamps could be enclosed within the scuttle.
The La Buire had a nicely finished fabric saloon body of sporting lines; Cottin et Desgouttes was content with conventional four-seater open bodies with racing tails.
For the initial night race there was dancing and a cinema show to occupy bored spectators, but it was stem work for the drivers, who found it hard to maintain the required minimum speeds, at which some had jeered. Several cars ran out of petrol, including a Peugeot after a pipe broke; not knowing this, the driver pumped the tank dry.
Ferenc Szisz, who had won the first French GP 18 years before, had his engine seize. Voisin engineer Lefevre’s starter failed and he was unable to remove the third bolt holding it and so could not install a replacement. Gabriel (Aries), who had been in at the dawn of racing, had a 30 per cent miscalculation in the petrol needed. A Sénéchal burst a tyre and was delayed by a mild accident, and Sénéchal himself had one of his ballast bags drop out, losing him 3-4st of sand, so he was disqualified. Others stopped to replace lamp bulbs. In the end the only clean runs were by the two Cottin et Desgouttes, a Georges Irat, a La Buire and a Steyr.
The race had 30 starters and was almost a proper one, fuel conservation being largely neglected. At the off Bocchi, his starter on strike, made a bump start after pushing the Mathis to a downslope. As the laps unfolded a Steyr overturned and a La Buire clutch gave up in right front of the main grandstand.
A ding-dong duel ensued between the Peugeot of Dauvergue and Gaudermann’s Voisin until the latter burst a tyre. Boillot had a wire wheel break up, damaging a brake drum; he continued for a time using only three brakes, but was too slow and retired. His disappointment, however, was dispelled when Peugeot won outright, at 56.75mph, from a pair of Voisins, the bonnet of the winning car never opened. The little Mathis registered a 1-2-3; this was a very praiseworthy result even though there were no other starters in their class, for they had driven decently quickly, their leader, Lahm, averaging 47.29mph. Cottin et Desgouttes took another 1-2-3 in the middle class, led by Lachamey at 55.80mph.
This race moved to the Montlhery circuit in 1925, and class divisions changed from minimum weight and seating categories to 1.5-litre, 3-litre and 5-litre classes, but with passenger accommodation for two, four or six occupants respectively. The class minimum fuel allowances were 12.8, 15.7 and 24.8mpg for race distances of 652, 621 and 590 miles. Again, only one driver was permitted and he had to accomplish any work needed, but no restrictions were placed on the mechanical specification, so that a Darracq competed with a dynamo substituted for the supercharger as there was night racing, and the grand prix Bugattis were road equipped.
Boillot had now decided to use closed, streamlined Weymann bodywork. Ugly but effective, these LHD cars had the 18hp sleeve-valve engine modified as in 1924. Mathis, too, went for elaborate streamlining of its open bodies using enclosed back wheels, accessible by detachable panels, on a crab-tracked chassis. This was the Paris Autodrome’s first road race over the combined banking and 14.5-mile road circuit. It brought in entries of three Peugeots and three Steyrs in the big-car class, three Cottin et Desgouttes for the middle group, Diatto having withdrawn at the last moment, and five Bugattis, three Darracqs, three Mathis and two EHPs in the 1.5-litre section.
To preserve petrol, Boillot was lapping at just over 52mph. Wagner’s Peugeot was out in the first hour, and Ivanowski’s Mathis developed leaking water pipes, which he tore up his gloves to caulk, replenishing the rod with water, Cola and coffee carried on the car, to no lasting avail.
Bourlier’s ‘racing’ Bugatti went out with steering failure, but Boillot managed to lead from Vizcaya’s eightcylinder GP Bugatti, which stopped with water leaks. Not very exciting for the 59 in the massive grandstand! Boillot was their hero after driving for 12.5 hours, one lap extra to make sure of his win, at 53.3mph from a Steyr and Louis Rigal’s Peugeot. The Cottins were 1-2-3 in their class (winner Lachamey, 53.21mph); of the ‘racers’, the Bugattis of Costantini, Vizcaya, Foresti and Goux defeated Ludo’s Darracq. Vizcaya only managed 52.24mph.
Occasional further ‘touring car’ races were held after this, but the only important pre-WWII one was the 1935 Mame Touring Car GP, at Reims, which was won by Pennt’s Delahaye.
Since then it has more usually been sportscar and racing car events which have dominated the motorsport field, but we should remember the sizeable contribution to road car development of these early touring car challenges.
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