A Clip From the Past

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ANOTHER French Grand Prix is due to be run off on July 25th at Paul Ricard which prompts a memory of the first of the series, held at Le Mans seventy-six long years ago, on June 26th / 27th, 1906. As the date implies, this was a gruelling two-day contest, over a distance of 769 miles, or 1,238 kilometers. Just think of it — the dusty roads, the frequent burst tyres which the drivers and their riding mechanics had to hack off the wheels with sharp knives and their bare hands. Passing was difficult, with the speed of the cars closely matched. Loose stones would fly up and smash a driver’s goggles and parts of the public-road course, constructed of wooden planking, were especially hazardous.

The eyes of Europe were on this splendid contest, for which Renault entered three 13-litre racers, scarcely more than bare chassis equipped with bucket seats, each car weighing-out at around 1,000 kg. The nominated drivers were a Hungarian with the splendid name of Szisz, the ex-Darracq driver Edmond, and Richez. When the long battle ended, Szisz was the victor, his red 90 h.p. Renault having averaged 62.88 m.p.h., and been comfortably in front at the conclusion of each day’s racing. Over the two days he had been in the driving seat for something like 12 hours. The 33 year-old Szisz and his Renault had vanquished even the great Felice Nazzaro and his Fiat. The other two Renaults dropped out due to accidents, which were no fault of the machinery.

What became of the victorious Renault? After the dust had settled on that hot summer day in France, a determined Englishman was among those who sought to buy Szisz’s winning car. But Renault knew it needed a check-over, after not only winning the Grand Prix but having been used as the training car for the team. One of the lesser-stressed racers was substituted. But when the new owner Iearned of this he took it back, demanding the actual winner No. 3A. His demand was complied with. Alas, going to the Dieppe GP two years later, the proud new owner, Hall Watt, took the Renault out after dinner and, trying to keep up with one of the racing Weigels that was practising, hit a tree and was killed. Maybe the solid back axle, which even Szisz had grown to respect, caught him out on a curve.

For two years the Renault lay under wraps, after which it was sold by auction. In 1923 Francois Szisz, who was still racing, tried to find the old car that had brought him fame and fortune. But it had vanished, along with its team-mates. However, Renault had built a number of small-scale replicas of the 1906 GP winner, with about half the engine size. One of these is being restored in England and should soon re-appear in vintage-car events. — W.B.