100 years of the Tour de France

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The automotive marathon has a stop-go past, but has settles into a new historic format. John Davenport hitched a centenary lift.

When all the celebrations have died down and the years of the new Millennium start to tick by, the world of motoring will be inundated with centenaries of one kind or another. But one historic event, at least, has managed to observe its centenary before the Millennium even commences. This is the Tour Auto, the current event that treads in the footsteps of events dating back to the first Tour de France Automobile in 1899.

The Tour has always been an event on a large scale. That is as true today as it was for the first challenge, though the entry in those days was somewhat more modest than the 240 cars which congregated in Paris this April to run in the Centenary Tour Auto. Incidentally, in a manner symptomatic of the latter part of the 20th century, the name of the event has been shortened to Tour Auto as a result of a court action to prevent confusion with a similar event for men on bicycles.

The fast Tour de France in July 1899 had just 19 cars at the start, with four voiturettes and 25 motorcycles in addition. The regulations had been published in April and a contemporary pundit said that this gave the competitors plenty of time in which to acquaint themselves with the new rules. Current administrators of our sport seem to follow the same line, especially in GT and touring car racing. The most important new feature of the regulations was that each night the cars were to be shut up in a closed paddock after arrival. Then the driver would be given one hour in which to assess what repairs were needed but not to effect them. In the morning, the park would be opened one hour before the time of departure of the first car and work could be carried out from that moment. The regulations even covered the eventuality that a competitor might not arrive until after the first car had left. In this case he could claim two hours to work on his car before being required to leave on the next leg.

The route did indeed represent a tour of France. From the start at Champigny just outside Paris, the first leg went to Nancy, the second to Aix-les-Bains and thence on the third leg to Vichy. The route then led through the Massif Central to Perigueux and then the fifth leg went north to Nantes on the Atlantic coast, the sixth to Caborg near Rouen and the seventh back to the finish in Paris. The total distance was 1378 miles, of which 1350 miles were competitive racing miles.

The cars taking part were mainly Panhards, Bollees and Mors with singleton entries from Georges Richard on a car of his own make and Dr Lehwess with a Vallee. Lehwgs did not reach Nancy. The Panhards, of which there were eight, looked the most conventional and workmanlike but the most attractive were undoubtedly the Bollees with their long wheelbase, low slung suspension and streamlined torpedo bodies.

From the start, however, it was a Panhard driven by the Chevalier Rene de Knyff who dominated the event. He was fastest on every stage and came back to Paris having averaged 30.2mph for the 1350 miles. His driving times on the longer sections were round about eight hours a day. When one considers that he was stuck up in a open car driving on unmade roads and that he and his mechanic were often tending to their car at Sam before setting off on their day’s work, the feat becomes quite remarkable.

Equally remarkable was the performance of Camille Jenatzy. The Mors that he was driving was not at all well behaved and he did not help matters by smashing a wheel on the approach to Vichy. He regularly finished legs 20 to 40 hours behind the leader. Towards the end, he began to catch up and finally, by driving right through the last night he reached the finish just four hours after the leader. His average speed for the racing distance was a mere 8.1mph. He was the last of the nine finishers.

It would be nice to say that this first event was so well received that it promptly became an annual event. It did not, and the reason is that at that time the motor car and where it could be used were evolving very quickly. Organising an event required a certain amount of financial backing, usually from a newspaper, the only plaything of media barons at the time, and the free use of the public roads. At the turn of the century, road races sprang up like mushrooms but with the fatalities on the Paris to Madrid in 1903, the authorities moved to impose restrictions, and in some cases a total ban. But the sport did survive, and so did the Tour de France.

The Tour de France Automobile was organised another three times before the First World War, in 1912, 1913 and in 1914. After the war, it was revived in 1922 and 10 events were held under that title until the last in 1931. During that time, the Tour was going through growing pains and gradually evolving the mixture of race circuits and hillclimbs linked by road sections that were to become its hallmark in the post-Second World War period. It still had classes for cars of all kinds, motorcycles and, uniquely in 1931, it even had a class for light aeroplanes.

The Tour then lapsed for 20 years until the Automobile Club of Nice revived it in 1951. They kept the format of long events that visited circuits for full-scale race meetings and the rest of the time looked like a rally with road sections and hill climbs. They dropped the motorcycles and aeroplanes but kept the doors open to cars of all types, so that these early post-war events saw Citroen 2CVs competing against Jaguars and Ferraris.

By the early 1960s, the Tour de France was a simply amazing event rivalling the present-day two-wheeled marathon. It lasted for 10 days and had an entry of several hundred cars. Its route had burst out from France and visited, from time to time, circuits such as Spa, the Ntirburgring, and Monza. The grids were full of Ferraris, Cobras, Porsches, Alfas, Mercedes, Jaguars, Lancias, Fords, Renaults, Citroens, Minis, BMWs, Healeys, Simcas and Oscas. And they were driven by stars like Lucien Bianchi, Willy Mairesse, Bernard Consten, Maurice Trintignant, Bob Bondurant, Harry Schell, the Marquis de Portago, Sir Gawaine Baillie, Timo Makinen, Paddy Hopkirk, Jack Sears, Henri Oreiller, Jo Schlesser, Henry Greder, Vic Elford, Gerard Larrousse, Rauno Aaltonen, Bernard Darniche, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Patrick Depailler.

These were the heady days of the Tour de France Automobile. It did suffer a setback when it lost a major sponsor after the 1964 event and thus did not run between 1965 and 1968. But thanks largely to the efforts of Bernard Consten, four times winner of the Touring category in his Jaguar 3.8 and once in an Alfa Romeo, the event was revived in 1969 and for six years it flourished in all its former glory. It was won by Porsche, Matra-Simca (twice), Ferrari, Lancia and LiOer. The sight of sports-prototypes mixing in with the touring cars and more normal GTs created enormous public interest.

However, by the early 1970s, there were difficulties in running what were in effect pure racing cars on the public road. When this was combined with the oil crisis and the natural inclination of sponsors to gravitate towards easily televised events held solely on racetracks, the Grand Tour once more became diminished. By 1975, it had evolved into an ordinary rally which was welcomed into the European Rally Championship. It survived in this form until 1986 largely thanks to the inclusion of Group B super cars but, when they too were banned, the Tour de France Automobile dropped from the calendar.

Subsequently, starting in 1992, it has been the subject of a very successful revival by a company run by Patrick Peter and his wife, Sylviane. In this incarnation, it runs as an event solely for classic or historic cars built before1981 but of a model or type that competed in the original Tour de France between 1951 and 1973.

On the face of it, it may not sound as if it would be a particularly attractive proposition, but the contrary is happily true. Peter had to turn down over 200 applicants who wanted to take part in the 1999 Tour Auto. And what was left made a pretty heady mixture. The secret of approaching the Tour Auto is to realise that it requires a complete suspension of normal belief. Walking the paths of the Trocadero Gardens before the start are famous drivers from past Tours Henry Greder, Henri Pescarolo, Jean Ragnotti, Bernard Darniche with other rallying and racing names such as Stirling Moss, Clay Reggazoni, Bobby Rahal, and Win Percy. And then there are literally hundreds of drivers whose love affair with the event is the important thing.

The cars on the 1999 Tour were mind-blowing and covered a broad spectrum. Many were the actual machines which competed in their day and had a long and proud history. Nicolaus Springer had the ex-Vic Elford/Claude Ballot-Lena Ferrari 365 GTB/4 while Rupert Beckwith-Smith was at the wheel of the ex-Le Mans Scuderia Filipinetti Chevrolet Corvette. Darniche had a genuine ex-works Group 4 1800cc Alpine A110, Bagnotti drove his ex-factory R5 Maxi Turbo as course car and for the same task Pescarolo had a Matra MS 650. Then there were just ordinary supercars. Six Ford GT40s were entered, of which the most reliable proved to be that of David McErlain who brought his through to finish second on scratch.

For many the main attraction of the Tour Auto is the competition. Enter the competition section and abide by all the safety and licensing requirements of a normal international event and in return, you participate in real races and speed hillclimbs. On the other hand, if you have a nice car and like driving it, then you do the regularity section which, apart from requiring the crew to wear a crash helmets while attempting the circuit regularities, does not ask for roll cages, fireproof overalls and the rest of the paraphernalia.

The regularity section is also an excellent opportunity for newcomers. Young Max Aitken took his recently acquired Lancia Fulvia Coupe and finished the six-clay event yearning to do more. His father, Maxwell Beaverbrook, was less lucky, non-starting his Ford Galaxie when the engine had a cam-follower pick up on the eve of the start. Life was even more cruel to Hartmuth Ibing who got right through to Paul Ricard only to have the clutch on his Ferrari 250 LM disintegrate.

The most remarkable performance of the lot was that of Stephen Curtis and Flavien Marcais driving a Fraser Nash 421 Le Mans Replica. In an exploit reminiscent of the Chevalier de Knyff, they drove this open car with such verve that after four major races and six tests it was just ten minutes behind the winning Ford Shelby Mustang GT 350 of the Hugenholtz brothers, Hans and Laurence. On handicap, however, the Fraser Nash deservedly topped the bill ahead of a Lotus Elite and Morgan Plus 4. They deserved that for their performance at the Nurburgring Nordschliefe test alone where, on a cold morning with sleet on the ground, they were tenth fastest in what was easily the oldest car in the competition section and their time was only 23 seconds slower than the Hugenholtz Mustang.

The original Tour de France and the Tour Auto revival actually have a lot in common. Both are events conceived on a greater scale than their contemporaries. Both have that element of racing that has always been a part of the Tour ethos. And they have a spirit of the freedom to travel and the enjoyment of driving that you just do not get when you lap a circuit 350 times in 24 hours or cover 236 miles of forest tracks in three days. And the food is better too!

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