Early hill-climbs



1. CHANTELOUP, 1898-1900

THE history of Motor racing on the grand scale, the tales of the town-to-town races, of the Gordon Bennett contests, of the Grands Prix, the Targa Florio and the Tourist Trophy—these have been told in more or less detail by various writers and at various epochs. The picture which they present of racing over more than half a century is so full that the canvas is almost overcrowded, and room on it can scarcely be found for the side-shows to the main drama—those contests over shorter distances which nevertheless are not without their interest. A racing car, it has been sagely remarked, should be so designed that it falls to pieces immediately after crossing the finishing line; but in actual practice if it is sucessfully to cover several hundred miles in a long-distance race, it may be capable of as many thousand without major attention. Where, on the other hand, the competition is over only a few miles, perhaps only a few yards, the designer’s problem is radically different; and the sprint race, especially the sprint hill-climb, has inevitably tended to develop a different type of car from the Grand Prix racer. A less practical type, without question; but a type which none the less is not without its special interest, and which hitherto, perltaps, has not received its due measure of historical attention.

The credit for the invention of the idea of a sprint hill-climb must go, it would seem, to M. Paul Meyan, of La France Automobile, and the place that he hit upon for the first event of a long series was Chanteloup, a village about 20 miles from the centre of Paris. The neighbourhood was already well known to automobilists, for the competitors in the Concours du Petit Journal had passed close by it in the course of their historic journey to Rouen in 1894. On that occasion, it may be remembered, they had avoided the main road from St. Germain to Mantes, which in later years had a magnificent surface, but which in the nineteenth century was doubtless pave, and had gone round instead by Poissy and Meulan. Between these two places they had followed the road which keeps to the bank of the Seine (and on which, incidentally, there was still pave in quite recent times, and pretty bad pave at that); but if they had borne right just after crossing the river at Poissy, thay would have had to have climbed the Chanteloup hill. It was just this that, on November 27th, 1898, M. Paul Meyan invited the speed-kings of the automobile world to do.

A worse course for a sprint hill-climb it would really be rather hard to imagine. Starting from the level crossing about 2 1/2 miles from Poissy, the road climbs gently at first, then more steeply, until, plumb in the middle of the village, it takes a couple of awkward bends on a gradient most accurately described at the time as “106 millimetres per metre,” which, being interpreted, is a little more than one in ten. The total length of the course was 1,820 metres, or say 1,987 yards, and the average gradient about one in twenty. As early as 1900, it is recorded, there were “danger boards inviting cyclists to walk down the hill and another board at the bottom ordering automobilists to proceed at a walking pace.” In a good many eases, no doubt, the “orders “of authority were reinforced by the refusal of the automobiles themselves to go any faster. Small wonder that the villagers of Chatueloup, used to such conditions, should have looked with a somewhat jaundiced eye at upwards of fifty motor cars attempting to race round the awkward bends by the church, and on a Sunday at that.

As it matter of fact, the climb was a bit of an undertaking for the motor car of 1898. It combined, in fact, an opportunity for making fastest time of the day with the sort of ordeal represented at, the present time by one of the test hills in the Land’s End. “Altogether forty-seven got through successfully out of fifty-four,” reported the Autocar, “a percentage which must be looked upon as entirely satisfactory. What,” adds the same commentator nervously, “would have been the percentage say a twelvemonth ago?” 

But if all but seven of the starters could manage one in ten successfully, the majority of them were unlikely to tackle it very fast. The 8-h.p. Panhard et Levassor with which Charron won the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race, the classic event of 1898, had an engine with a bore and stroke of 80 by 120 mm, (2,402 c.c.), which ran at about 800 r.p.m. and probably did not develop much more than its nominal power. Against this, it weighed 850 kgs., or say 17 cwt., which must have meant abouy a ton with the crew on board. This obviously was hardly an ideal mount for a sprint hillclimb; all that could he done was to fit special sprockets to reduce the gear ratio and let it plod its way up the hill.

The event, in fact, ought to have been a gift for a powerful steamer, which could go extremely fast, until something broke, and which did not mind hills in the least, although it might, admittedly, have had some trouble with the “awkward windings.” But the day of the De Dion Bouton steamers was over, and that of the Serpollets was yet to come. In these circumstances it was not steam but electricity which scooped the plate.

The electric car with which Jenatzy made fastest time of the day was not, presumably, La Jamais Coniente, which did not appear until the following spring, when it captured the flying kilometre record at 65.75 m.p.h. and held it for three years. Presumably, however, it was the car with which he recorded exactly 50 m.p.h. in January, 1899, only to be beaten in March by Count de Chasseloup-Laubat’s Jeanteaud, which did 57.6 m.p.h. In any case, at Chanteloup he covered the 1,820 metres in 3 minutes 52 seconds, which gives an average speed of some 18 m.p.h. and indicates that either the gradient or the corners slowed him down quite a lot.

Runner-up was a representative of petrol, but a machine about as far removed front what was then regarded as a normal motor car as it was possible to imagine. The standard Leon Bollee voiturette with its horizontal single-cylinder engine slung alongside its three-wheeled chassis was a terrifying vehicle enough, but for the hill-climb Jamin appeared with a modified version, having two cylinders instead of one and developing 8 h.p. In spite of what amounted to an additional engine it probably weighed only about half as much as the contemporary 8-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, with the result that it only took 10 seconds longer to scamper up the hill than had Jenatzy’s electric projectile.

The difficulty with the Leon Bollee voiturette, from the organisers’ point of view, was that no one ever knew what class it properly belonged to; on this occasion, at any rate, it did not rank as a “petroleum carriage,” as we are told that the fastest of these was an 8-h.p. Amedee Bollee driven by Giraud, which took 4 minutes 36.4 seconds for the climb. This was one of those remarkable racing monsters that had so terrified M. Bochet, the engineer to the Prefect of Police, that he had called out half a squadron of hussars in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race. They had shown themselves perhaps the fastest cars in the race, but, I must say it is surprising that one of them should thus have shone in a hill-climb. They were said to be heavier than the contemporary Panhard, so that the engine, which was a horizontal two-cylinder with a bore and stroke of 110 by 160 mm. (3,038 c.c.) must have had a notable punch, especially as it had to deliver it through a long belt to a countershaft behind the back wheels, to which the drive was transmitted by longitudinal shafts with a bevel gear at either end, the forward one meshing with an internally toothed pinion on the driving wheel. They were fitted with flat-topped boat bodies, ending fore and aft in is vertical knife-edged prow and stern, and were built so high that a photograph of Ginutd standing beside his racier shows that the deck was just level with his shoulder. Of course, more thm half of Giraud protruded above that when he was driving the monster, and one would have thought that those “windings” by Chanteloup church would have proved worse than just “awkward.” For all that the intrepid Giraud succeeded in covering the 1.820 metres in 6 seconds less than Charron, whose 8-h.p. Panhard et. Levassor was the runner-up among the “petroleum carriages.”

This first event at Chanteloup was so successful that there were twice as many entries when the experiment was repeated on November 12th, 1899. Besides, the hill was so conveniently near to Paris that “so great was the crowd … that the few gendarmes present were utterly unable to keep the course clear . . . when everyone was rushing over the road in order to get as good a view of the trials as possible.” The enthusiasm of the spectators, however, did not extend to the locals. In their view the proper speed at which to ascend their hill was at walking pace, and when over a hundred automobiles arrived in order to try to dash up it a great deal faster, they  showed what they thought of autocars; by pelting them with stones and stretching ropes across the road when they caught them singly.”

In spite of these hazards, the trials proceeded more or less successfully. “M. Jenatzy had intended to run his Jamais Contente, with which he hoped to do something like 60 kilometres per hour, but he found it necessary to change the wheels in order to take the corners at this speed (whatever that may mean) and unfortunately the car was not ready. He therefore ran an ordinary type with extra batteries, the whole weighing upwards of two and a half tons, and there is no doubt that he would have done something sensational if he had not been stopped half way up by a vehicle which barred the road.” As it was, he “started well and flew up the gradient until he was stopped . . . and quite a minute was lost until he could get a clear road.” What even now is not clear is whether the “vehicle” that baulked him belonged to another competitor, contained some of those people who were “rushing over the road in order to get as good a view of the trials as possible,” or whether it was just a Chanteloup farm-cart playing its part as a local obstruction. In any case, Jenatzy clocked 3 minutes 10.4 seconds, which was 42 seconds faster than his time in 1898, but not fast enough to give him f.t.d. Indeed, what really was “sensational” on this occasion was the performance of the motor-cyclists, some of them “even rattling up to the top at a speed that was not much less than that which would have been done on the flat.” The fastest of them was Beconnais, who came up on his Phebus quadricycle in 3 minutes 7.4 seconds, thus showing the advantages of not weighing two and a half tons.

The fastest of the petrol cars proper was a Peugeot driven by Doriot, which got up in just over 4 minutes, thus comfortably beating Baron de Turekheim’s De Dietrich, which was built, on the Amedee BolIee principle, and Georges Richard’s car of his own construction. The Peugeot still had the traditional horizontal engine at the back, but it was presumably of the new and powerful type which had appeared during the year. This had a two-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of 140 by 190 mm. (5,850 c.c.) which developed 20 h.p., or two and a half times the power of the 1898 Panhard et Levassor, while the weight at 1,200 kgs. was less than 50 per cent. greater. The day of high power-weight ratios in petrol cars was fast approaching.

By this time an alternative course for a hill-climb had been discovered at Gaillon, and after the somewhat lake-warm, or, if you prefer it, over-hot, reception which the autoutobilists had received in the village in 1899, it was proposed, the next year, “to leave Chanteloup to its splendid isolation.” The Mayor, however, on being apprised of this proposal, was horrified; admittedly there were some among the inhabitants who did not appreciate the evil-smelling, noisy racers skidding round the corners by the church, but the crowd of people who came to drive them, tinker with them or just to watch them was unquestionably a source of considerable profit to his bourg. He therefore “promised to do everything to facilitate the trials by organising a service of firemen to keep order”—firemen being, presumably, more effective in this role than the gendarmes of the year before—”and placing buglers at the corners to warn those above of the approach of an autocar”—though how a mere bugle made itself heard above the hearty exhaust note of an approaching racer is obscure. In any case, his provisions were so effective that “the trials on Sunday [November 4th, 1900] went off very successfully and automoliilists were received with not even so notch as a rotten egg.”

By this time Camille Jenatzy had forsaken his electric car for a Belgian Bolide racer, and he made no prominent appearance at Chanteloup. In his absence the sensation of the meeting was provided by “Dr. Pascal,” alias Baron Henri de Rothschild, on his 24-h.p. Cannstatt Daimler racing car. A more unsuitable car for the course could not, on the whole, be well imagined. Although it was the direct ancestor of the Mercedes, it showed as yet practically no sign, except a honeycomb radiator, of what was to come. Its weight was about the same as that of the 1899 Peugeot, and its four-cylinder engine, with a bore and stroke of 106 by 156 mm., had a slightly smaller capacity. The inlet valves were still automatic, and its nominal 24-h.p. was probably a fairly accutate rating. But, apart from all this, its wheelbase was too short, its centre of gravity was too high, and it had already proved itself a pretty lethal weapon before it gave place, the next year, to the first Mercedes. Nevertheless, as this heavy red-painted German car rushed up the hill, “it gave a striking impression of power and speed”; and, as events were to prove, the impression was not, a false one.

Leon Serpollet, having, in common with all the other exponents of steam, suffered disaster in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race of 1895, had thereupon retired in despair to make steam trains. Encouraged by the supply of capital which was provided by the American enthusiast Gardner, however, he had just returned to automobilism, and at last a couple of steamers appeared at Chanteloup. Serpollet himself was to show their capabilities a few months later in the flying kilometre tests on the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, but for the moment, even in a hill-climb, steam had to yield second place to the internal combustion engine. At Chanteloup the fastest Gardner-Serpollet took 4 minutes 32.4 seconds to cover the 1,820 metres; while the Cannstatt Daimler roared up in 3 minutes 45.8 seconds. This was not so fast as Jenatzy’s record of the year before, but it was fast enough for fastest time of the day.

Indeed a good many of the competitors were a great deal slower. “In only a few cases was it necessary to push the vehicles around the awkward turnings,” it was remarked, “but it must be confessed that some of them, took an unconscionable long time to reach the top.” Indeed, in spite of all that the Mayor could do with his firemen and his buglers, in spite of the fact that, under his influence, the inhabitants regarded the automobilists with nothing worse than silent distaste, Chanteloup as a hill-climbing venue obviously had very real disadvantages. The place was too populous to be pleasant, the road was too awkward for high speed and no longer sufficiently difficult to be any real test of hill-climbing. The great days of speed hill-climbs in France were only just beginning, but the scene was now to shift from that historic gradient on which M. Paul Meyan’s idea had first been given a practical trial.