The Automobile Club of France
As is well known the first recognised competitive event for motor vehicles was held in 1894, organised by the then newly-formed Automobile Club of France. Not only was it the first motoring competition but the ACF was the first motor club to be formed, the Count de Dion, Baron Zuylen de Nyevelt and Paul Meyan who founded it, were obviously far-seeing and believed in the future of the motor vehicle, whether powered by steam, electricity or petrol, but it is doubtful whether they visualised how the motor car would develop or how motoring competitions would spread. The ACF organised the first Grand Prix in 1906 and for many years the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, loosely referred to by the English as the French Grand Prix, was the premier event in the sporting calendar. The ACF celebrates its 80th anniversary next year and they are planning a Motoring Week in celebration.
In the early nineteen-sixties there was internal unrest in French sporting circles, many young people feeling that the ACF was losing touch with the modern racing world and its spread of activity from the rich gentleman’s hobby to the business activity of the garage mechanic. A blood-less revolution took place and by 1968 the new power, who called themselves the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile, had control of all sporting activity in France and representation on the International controlling board, and the ACF retired with dignity to their traditional headquarters in Paris. The FFSA organised the First Grand Prix of France in 1968, the Grand Prix of the ACF being ended with the 1967 race, having run almost continually since 1906.
For the anniversary motoring week in 1974 the ACF are presenting a Trophy to the winner of the Grand Prix of France, organised by the FFSA at Dijon. They intend to organise a race at Dijon before the Grand Prix for what they term “strictly production-run GT cars” and a parade of old Grand Prix cars that actually won the Grand Prix of the ACF, between 1906-1967, while in Paris there will be an exhibition of prestigious veteran cars to commemorate the beginning of motoring and motoring clubs. In an attempt to look forward as well as back, a run from Paris to Dijon is being organised for cars with non-polluting engines, to set the scene for the next motoring era.
Somehow I get an uneasy feeling that motoring and motoring competitions started off on the wrong foot in 1894 and the time is fast approaching to face up to this fact, and try and start all over again. I wonder if the ACF feel the same way.
There would seem to be opportunities for making money from motor racing in France, for new circuits keep springing up, and they can’t all be the result of philanthropy. The most recent is near Arras, not far from the English Channel and shortly after it was opened the FFSA announced that they were not going to recognise any more new circuits in France unless they were at least 200 kilometres from the nearest existing circuit, which seems a reasonable idea. At one time almost every town in France closed its public roads once a year for a motor-cycle race or a motor-car race, and in the “good old days” many towns had both types of racing on the same weekend. Such places as Pau, Bordeaux, Angouleme, Albi, Aix-le-Bains, Avignon, Nancy, Perpignan, La Baule, Caen, Sable d’Olonne, Nimes, Nice, Marseilles. St. Gaudens, Rouen and many more, held annual race meetings through the streets of the town, or just outside, and in many places you can still find signs of these events.
As the population grew and “public opinion” (whatever that might be) outlawed the racing on the streets, these annual events began to die, but the motor clubs did not die, nor did the enthusiasm of the organisers, so it is not surprising that we are now in the era of “autodromes” springing up all over France. Closing the streets and organising an annual race was one thing, raising the money to buy land and build an “autodrome” is another thing altogether and takes time, which is why we are only just beginning to get over this change-over period in France. There are now Autodromes at Magny-Cours, Albi, Arras, Dijon, Le Mans, Annemasse, Castellet, with road circuits surviving at Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand, Pau and La Chatre, and it looks as though every town in France will soon be wanting an Autodrome. The oldest of them all at Montlhéry still survives, it being recognised as the Autodrome of Paris.
French Grand Prix 1974
Now that it has officially been announced that the Grand Prix of France for 1974 will be held on the Autodrome of Dijon-Prenois, it is time for all interested parties to think about the circuit now, and not let another Zolder debacle take place. The Dijon Autodrome is not a bad little track, but it is nowhere near finished by Grand Prix standards, so let us hope the GPDA do something NOW and not have to go on strike again. While Denis Hulme and his men mean well they are poorly organised and rather irresponsible in some ways.
Not long ago they were ticking away about a French circuit and its condition and said to one of their members “You went and looked at it last winter, it was all right then, wasn’t it?” After some discussion it transpired that when he visited the circuit to inspect it the whole countryside was covered in snow! And he had not been back. On another occasion a driver who doesn’t go fast enough to have an accident or need stringent safety measures, was sent to inspect a circuit on behalf of the GPDA “because he lived nearest to it”. It’s no wonder that you hear people in the big business empires who are sponsoring the good living in Grand Prix racing, bemoaning the way our sport is conducted as being amateurish.—D.S.J.