The propaganda war to replace petrol — in 1902: Doug Nye

The establishment did not want unrestrained racing on public roads but the 1902 Circuit du Nord race was seen as the ideal way to promote alcohol fuel over oil

Today, the thorny question of fossil-fuel replacement is justifiably at the forefront of our thoughts. By 1901 a number of competitions and trials had already been held with the object in mind of promoting alcohol fuel as an alternative power source.

Pioneer racing historian Gerald Rose wrote in 1909 about earlier efforts on the continent to promote alcohol fuel “…before a not very appreciative public”. He wrote: “Alcohol being a product of France, it was quite in keeping with the desire of the French Government for the encouragement of a great and growing national industry that the Minister of Agriculture, M. Jean Dupuy, should have created a Commission charged with the duty of discovering the best means by which the relative advantages of alcohol over petrol could be brought to the notice of automobilists”.

Since the Minister of the Interior had just banned the enthusiastic and dynamic Automobile Club de Nice’s planned 500-mile road race from Nice to Abbazia (now Opatija in Western Croatia) it was ironic that the Commission recommended an alcohol-fuelled road race as the best way of promoting the alternative fuel.

Nice-Abbazia should have been run in April 1902, but the French Government was already twitchy about the hazards of racing on public roads. The Nice Club decided that seeking permission was not worth the trouble, so they opted to neutralise the opening section on French soil, before letting the entry rip through Italian and Austrian territory. However, the Austrian Government then “intimated that it preferred not to be asked for its sanction”, and so its roads were similarly neutralised.

This still left a sizeable racing mileage possible through Italy. The enthusiastic Prince Strozzi wangled ‘apparent’ permission from the national and local authorities involved. Even then, the route kept changing. Finally, with many competitors gathering to prepare for the start, it proved to be they themselves who hammered the final nail into the 1902 Nice-Abbazia race’s coffin. Gerald Rose: “By practising over the route at reckless speeds they so terrified the inhabitants that the Italian Minister of the Interior stepped in and definitely forbade the race, giving as the official reason that his permission had never been asked…”.

Even then, 120 years ago, the European political establishment really did not want unrestrained racing on public roads. But with the worthy notion raised of a race to promote home-grown (literally) alcohol fuel over imported oil-derived petrol, the French Minister of Agriculture leaned on the French Minister of the Interior to do a screeching U-turn and authorise a race to be organised by the Government itself.

“On the approach to Paris, Jarrott and Marcellin were wheel to wheel”

After much foot-shuffling, no doubt largely inventing a fig-leaf explanation to hide obvious embarrassment, the organisation began of the ‘Concours du Ministre’. The event date was set for May 15-16, 1902, and the selected first-day course covered 238 miles, from Champigny in Paris north-east through Châlons-sur-Marne, Saint-Quentin and Bapaume to Arras. Day two would then see a further 299 miles from Arras, through Saint- Omer, Dieppe and Mantes to finish in Paris’s Saint-Germain. Covering his own back (of course) the Minister of the Interior set the condition that leave should be obtained from every mayor along the way.

As negotiation and organisation proceeded, the event became known as the ‘Circuit du Nord’ and three classes were included – for industrial, tourist and then high-speed vehicles… the real racers. This was to be the first great race run under the ACF’s new maximum weight limit – no more than 1000kg. The assumption was that a bigger and more powerful engine meant extra weight, so limiting weight would restrict power, and road speed. In fact such cars as the big 40hp Panhards proved to deliver the same nominal horsepower as those run in the 1901 Paris- Berlin classic, but being some 300kg lighter were far easier to handle.

Fifty-six high-speed class starters were eventually flagged away onto rainswept roads. Incessant downpours stalled a number of competitors, driver Teste crashed on wet pavé and lost second place to Briton Charles Jarrott, while Maurice Farman led in a Panhard. When rain affected the ignition in Jarrott’s Panhard he was displaced by Marcellin’s light Darracq.

Thirty-five survivors restarted on day two. The rain only eased on the approach to Paris with Jarrott and Marcellin racing wheel to wheel. But on the dry finish straight the cars became enveloped in dust, Jarrott tore into the finish control at Saint- Germain and, unsighted, clipped the Commissaire of Police. Of the 21 finishers, Maurice Farman won by over an hour from Jarrott and Marcellin. The Heavy Car class saw four Serpollet steam cars finish 3-4-5-6, but their drivers bleated like fury over alcohol fuel compared to the petrol they normally fed their burners, claiming it cut their cars’ performance by almost 20%. The internal-combustion brigade similarly disliked alcohol, and immediately post-finish made quite a show of re-filling their cars’ tanks with petrol. As an alternative-fuel promotion the race failed.

So, for another 120 years and more, the international oil companies could relax…

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s