Back To The Cyclecar
At Taggs Island in the Thames on October 16th, A.C. Cars Ltd. entertained the Press…
(Continued from the June issue.)
“The start of Paris — Madrid — it is a wonderful picture. Up at the line the busy officials sending off the cars one after the other, the general hubbub cut by the level voice of the timekeeper counting off the remaining seconds to the driver, who leans over to catch the words. Behind him engines running, cutting in and out with a penetrating stutter, covering the surroundings with blue smoke, more felt than seen in the half-light of the dawn. Mechanics look over their cars hurriedly, seeing that everything is in its proper place; drivers, nervous and preoccupied . . . on their cars waiting — waiting as the moment comes nearer and nearer for them to shoot away on their long journey . . . while slowly the grey dawn brightens into the clear sunlight of a May morning. Everywhere else the world is awakening . . . people are rising for a Sunday of rest But this will be no day of rest on the old high-road from Paris to Bordeaux. From the palaces of Versailles to the spires of Chartres, from the grey roofs of Tours to the winding roads of Libourne, all is tension excitement, strain. . . .
“Truly an imposing opening to the last act of the great drama of inter-country road-racing.”
The scene, you will remember, is the road, still pavé until recent years, which leads out of Versailles on to Route Nationale 10, the date is May 24th, 1903, and the words are those of Gerald Rose. It is packed with memories, this stretch of pavé road, from that day in 1899 when M. Pierre Giffard sent off 65 motor cars and bicycles in a massed start on this same race to Bordeaux, to that day in 1901 when the police tried to stop it taking place at all by suddenly demanding of the pilots of the giant racers of the day their certificates of capacity to drive a car and an idiotic cyclist dropped his Chinese lantern into a pool of petrol which Fournier had just emptied from his 60-h.p. Mors. It is a piece of road pregnant with memories of starting, and it is time that we, too, were away.
Four kilometres from Versailles the pavé ends nowadays at St. Cyr, and N.10 forks away to the left. Here it was that in 1903 Jarrott nearly missed the turn on his big De Dietrich and positively shaved the kerbstone as he swung round at 80 m.p.h. From there to Rambouillet it is a fine road all the way, and both De Knyff on his 80-h.p. Panhard and Louis Renault on his 30-h.p. light car sped past Jarrott, who was suffering from a slipping clutch. For all that there were doubtful French fares in Rambouillet when De Knyff was held up there for a time with ignition trouble, and it was learnt that Werner, on the new 90-h.p. Mercédès, had covered the first 17 1/2 miles in 17 minutes.
On from Rambouillet the road is picturesque and hilly till it drops down to the valley of the Eure at Maintenon and then runs across the plain to Chartres. Beyond the town there is a nasty double bend in the village of Thivars, and then the road runs straight as a die beside the railway for a dozen miles to Bonneval.
It was here that the wondering timekeepers in 1903 clocked Louis Renault, who by now was leading the procession, at nearly 90 m.p.h. over a measured stretch, and it was at the level-crossing at the end of it that Leslie Porter, less fortunate than the ultimate winner of the light-car class, tried to take the gentle left-hand bend too fast on his 45-h.p. Wolseley, and crashed into a house.
Through Bonneval and on to Chateaudun the road is hillier after a fine straight stretch at first, but at the end of the stage Levegh on his 60-h.p. Mors of 1901 was still maintaining the lead which he had established at Chartres, with Girardot still running “the eternal second” on his Panhard, while Fournier, on another Mors, had passed Girardot’s team-mate Voigt, and S. F. Edge’s giant Napier, the sole British entrant for the Gordon-Bennett Cup, which had been lying fifth at Chartres, was beginning to drop back. Through Chateaudun to Cloyes and on to Vendome, the road runs through the lovely forest of Freteval, invisible on these old racing days for the clouds of stifling dust thrown up by the tearing monsters. Charron, the ultimate winner, had been lying second at Vendome in 1899 on his 12-h.p. Panhard, but in 1901, in the days when the makers bad got a 40-h.p. engine into a chassis of the same weight, he was forced to retire there with valve trouble.
From Vendome onwards there is a wonderful straight stretch of 20 kilometres to Chateaurenault, and in 1899 Giraud, driving his fantastic-looking Amédée Bollée racer, with its boat-shaped body pointed front and rear, its horizontal engine and belt drive, determined to make the most of it. His was probably the fastest car in the race and had been leading as it passed through Chartres, only to lose ground by the time Vendome was reached to Leys, Charron and De Knyff on their Panhards. Along this straight stretch he whacked his racer up to the then unheard of speed of over 40 m.p.h., when suddenly it bit a hump-backed bridge, burst a tyre, smashed the wheel and turned over in the ditch on top of the intrepid automobilist. Giraud survived; but there was no more 40 m.p.h. for him that day and he was rescued from beneath the wreckage of his racer to be taken more sedately in a donkey-cart to St.-Amand-de-Vendôme, which lies just off the road to the left.
Chateaurenault to Tours is a fine stretch of 29 kilometres, and just before the end of it, Werner on his 90-h.p. Mercédès, who had been coming up well since before Chateaudun, got past Jarrott in 1903 and entered the control at Tours with only Louis Renault in front of him. Tours lies on the south bank of the Loire, on the north bank of the Cher, and I suppose it was somewhere where the houses end by the bridge over the latter that the cars were dispatched from the control. The road there climbs steeply up out of the valley underneath a railway bridge, takes a right-angle turn to the right where it meets the road from Vierzon and then turns sharp left again to regain its line towards Montbazon. Great things had been expected of the Mercédès, but, says Jarrett, “a gasp went out from the crowd as they saw the manner in which [Werner’s] car rushed up the winding road out of Tours.” Five kilometres further on, while travelling at top speed, the Mercédès back axle broke and Jarrott, driving in its dust, just missed the fragments of the wrecked machine. Werner, completely unhurt, was engaged in lighting a cigarette.
But the two routes have joined up now, and these long straight stretches after Tours are fraught with memories not alone of the monsters of 1903 doing 90 m.p.h., but of Levassor. in 1895, grasping the tiller of his “Number 5” and peering into the gathering gloom of the summer evening, Illumined only by his flickering oil lamps. Passing through Tours at a quarter to nine in the evening, he was at Poitiers at a quarter to one on the morning of June 12th, pushing on, always steadily to the south-west. Just short of Châtellerault, 34 kilometres further back, Levegh retired in 1901 with gearbox trouble and Fournier on the second Mors took the lead, to hold it to the end, while about the same distance beyond Poitiers, the big Napier retired near Couhé-Vérac with its clutch worn out.
Between Couhé-Vérac and Ruffec N.10 is a fast road, but it is a treacherous road for all that, with a gentle left-hand bend beyond Chaunay and a similar bend to the right in the Forêt de Ruffec. But Marcel Renault was going great guns along it in 1903, and having started Number 63, was overhauling Théry, one of his most formidable opponents in the light-car class, who had started fourth on his 30-h.p. Decauville. Renault, the winner of Paris – Vienna the year before, and no novice at the game, decided that he could get by, his car lurched into the drain at the side of the road, swung round twice and overturned on top of the unfortunate driver, who died shortly afterwards. All unconscious of the tragedy, his brother Louis was still fleeting onwards to Bordeaux.
Eight years before, Levassor, travelling at nearer 9 than 90 m.p.h., was still pegging away on his Number 5 in the pale dawn of a summer morning. His regularity had been marvellous, so wonderful In fact, that when he reached Ruffec at 3.30 a.m. he was far ahead of schedule, and the man who might have shared with him the glory of winning the first motor race was still in bed. Levassor had been at the tiller for the best part of a day and a night, but Doriot’s Peugeot was hard on his heels, and rather than waste time while his reserve driver was roused, he carried on, with the sun coming up over Vieux Ruffec away to his left, on through Mansle to Angoulême. The 43 kilometres took him exactly two hours.
But others were not so lucky. Shortly after leaving Ruffec, at about 7 o’clock in the morning, the second Panhard, Number 6, ran over a dog and smashed a wheel. By a miracle the high, short-wheelbase car of 1895 did not turn over, but it was out of the race for all that. A little further on, near to Angoulême but at some point not exactly determinable now, Emile Mors, on the 5-h.p. car of his own construction, collided with a cart in 1898 and broke his collarbone, thus putting out of the race the car which had been lying third at Tours and was the Panhard’s most formidable opponent. The carters of Angoulême, in fact, were a menace to early motor manufacturers, for it was not far from the same spot that Georges Richard, on his 12-h.p. Richard-Brasier voiturette, tried conclusions with one in 1903 and had to retire just when he looked a likely winner of his class. And it was at the entrance to Angoulême itself that occurred one of the worst tragedies of Paris-Madrid. A child ran out in front of one of the competing cars — opinions seem to differ as to which one, but I think myself it was a Brouhot. A soldier made a dash to save the child, the driver swerved to avoid them and ended up by killing the child, the soldier and two other spectators.
“The road after Angoulême,” says Jarrott, in his description of Paris – Madrid, “is a series of twists and turns, corners and angles, and it was on this portion of the road that most of the unfortunate accidents in the race took place.” As a matter of fact, for the first 40 kilometres, as far as Chevanceaux, it is a good, fast road, and I suspect was so in 1903, with the exception of the hill out of Pétignac, where the road bends sharp right, left, right and left again, all within the space of 100 yards or so. This spot saw the downfall of Jenatzy, “the Red Devil,” on his 90-h.p. Mercédès, but, strange to relate, it was not because be failed to make one of the bends, but because he got a fly in his carburetter!
But beyond Chevanceaux Jarrott’s strictures about the road are doubtless fully justified. Not that the modern motorist who follows N.10 by Montlieu and St.-André-de-Cubzac would necessarily think so, because he is off the route of the old Paris-Bordeaux road which in 1903 still went by Montguyon and Libourne, a town which had had to be avoided in 1899 because the mayor suffered from “autophobia.” And this road is just as Jarrott describes the last stage of Paris – Bordeaux.. Not that he himself seems to have paid undue attention to its characteristics. Just as they were leaving Angoulême, his mechanic, Bianchi, had told him with horror that the front wheels were threatening to come to pieces, the spokes having got loose in the hub. But Jenatzy was just behind him (he was not to know about that carburetter fly at Pétignac) and he dashed off, wheels or no wheels. Over that last hundred kilometres he somehow averaged over 60 m.p.h., and arrived at Bordeaux a quarter of an hour after Louis Renault, having reduced the latter’s lead by twenty minutes.
But the others, especially the other Englishmen, were not so fortunate. Just beyond Montguyon, where a side road goes off to the village of St.-Pierre-du-Palais, Stead, on his 45-h.p. De Dietrich, while trying to pass Salleron, who finally finished third on his 70-h.p. Mors, turned over on a heap of stones and was badly injured. Near Libourne the steering-gear of Mayhew’s Napier broke and the car collided with a tree; and a little further on Lorraine Barrow in, perhaps, a typically English attempt to avoid running over a dog, met the same end, with fatal results for both driver and mechanic.
The accidents of Paris-Madrid are legion, the exact locale of them are not, in many cases, recorded. Tragedy was piled so thick on tragedy that the French Government lost its head. In spite of the fact that Gabriel, on his 70-h.p. Mors, starting 168th, had come all through the blinding dust of those in front of him to finish first at 65.3 m.p.h., the authorities would not even allow the racing cars to leave Bordeaux under their own power. Ignominiously they were towed to the station by horses, and returned to Paris by train.
They said, indeed, that it was the end of motor racing. But, of course, it was only the end of a chapter: circuit racing was about to take the place of the great town-to-town events. And in order to complete our circuit we must return to 1895 and Levassor, whom we left passing through Angoulême at half-past five on the morning of June 12th. Here, then, is le Velo, quoted by J. H. Knight: —
“The turning place at Bordeaux. The town presented all day an animated appearance, chiefly on the road where the automobiles were expected. The pavements were black with people. . . . At 10.30 a.m. M. Levassor arrived at the turning point, the Café Anglais de Bordeaux, steering his Number 5, which had been called the record coach of automobilism. It is a phantom carriage. It reached Bordeaux in twenty-two hours and a few minutes.
“. . . , The stop is made for the judges to certify the arrival of the carriage, a bystander offers M. Levassor a glass of champagne which he drinks without quitting his seat; and at 10.40, eight minutes after his arrival, M. Levassor starts for Paris amid the acclamations of an enthusiastic crowd.”
Eight minutes rest, and Emile Levassor had started back on that long road to Paris. Every hundred kilometres he stopped for water and supplies, but all that June 12th he pegged away, back towards Paris. Darkness came on and still he kept going. “M. Levassor,” according to J. H. Knight, “stated that he lost considerable time by having to slow down during the night owing to the difficulty in keeping his lamps burning, the vibration at that high speed causing one to become unsoldered.” His 4-h.p. racer was, in fact, geared to give 18 1/2 m.p.h. on the top speed. The welcome dawn at last, and at 4.30 a.m. on June 13th Levassor was back at Blois, although “he said he ran with prudence, never exceeding thirty-eight kilometres per hour down hill.” At half-past nine he was at Etampes, and then history must turn the page of le Velo, of the following day. “M. Levassor has actually, arrived,” in the words of Mr. Knight’s translation, “yesterday, June 13th, at fifty-seven minutes past noon at the Porte Maillot, after having driven a carriage ‘à deux places,’ and without help, the whole way from Paris to Bordeaux and back, one thousand two hundred kilometres, in about forty-eight hours. A few minutes before one, those at the Porte Maillot saw a cloud of dust approaching, and at noon fifty-seven minutes thirty seconds M. Levassor stopped his carriage at the winning post . . . [and] alighted in the midst of cheering.”
Among those there to greet him was the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat, returned from Vouvray, presumably by the train, and his description of the occasion, as recorded by A. B. Filson Young, is as follows: “He did not appear to be overfatigued; he wrote his signature at the finish with a firm hand; we lunched together at the ‘Porte Maillot,’ he was quite calm; he took with great relish a cup of bouillon, a couple of poached eggs, and two glasses of champagne; but he said that racing at night was dangerous, adding that having won, he had the right to say such a race was not to be run another time at night.”
And still he sits in effigy at the Porte Maillot (or did until Hitler and his enemies started knocking everything about), grasping the tiller of Number 5 and peering before him as his “phantom carriage” covers the long road from Paris to Bordeaux.
At Taggs Island in the Thames on October 16th, A.C. Cars Ltd. entertained the Press…
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