“Paris — Bordeaux! The very name conjures up old memories, grim and fierce, and thrilling fights amongst those whose names are now almost forgotten, but who, on the old Paris — Bordeaux road, struggled in years past for the title of ‘King of the Road.’
“It all began in the days before motors were thought of and when the cycle held its own as the most rapid form of road vehicle. . . . Their course was fleet and the pace was fierce, but it was all on the same old fascinating road, and, as a grand finale, Paris to Bordeaux was the first and, as it eventually turned out, the last stage of the last great inter-country race from Paris to Madrid.”
Thus Charles Jarrott. And extraordinarily well, really, in those few sentences does he conjure up the almost legendary fame of the heroic days of motor-racing. And yet, curiously enough, there is in them a strange, and doubtlessly entirely unconscious, misrepresentation. The first and last stage of Paris — Madrid was run, like the cycle races of yore, from Paris (or rather from Versailles) to Bordeaux; but for nearly half the distance it was run over a totally different road.
Not that there was anything peculiar about the road taken by the competitors in that ill-fated race of 1903: they simply followed Route Nationale 10, which is the direct road from Paris to Bordeaux. What, on the face of it, is difficult to understand is why the original cyclists went so improbable a way. From Versailles, instead of striking south-west along N10 towards Bordeaux, they seem to have taken the road due south to Limours, which was, I believe, elevated about fifteen years ago to the status of a Route Nationale, but which used to be known as simple Chemin de Grande Communication 6. It is a picturesque but hilly, winding road if you want one; and from Limours you have to pick your way across country by Dourdan on to G.C71 and N191 to Etampes and the Orléans road, N20. From Orléans you run along N152 in the valley of the Loire, as if to see the Chateaux, by Blois to Tours, where at last you get on to the Bordeaux road, 237 kilometres by the direct route from Paris.
Probably this strange détour was all done to avoid the pave, for C. N. and A. M. Williamson, who unquestionably knew their French roads, make one of their characters in “The Lightning Conductor,” published in 1902, describe the direct route to Orléans by Etampes as “practically impassable for automobiles” on this account. Major Stevens admittedly still makes it in his “Motor Routes of France” of 1909; but, as against this, “Les Grandes Itineraires du Baron Pierre de Crawhez,” of about the same date, says of the direct Bordeaux road that the “itinerary is easy to follow and the road admirable.” Was this because the pave had been improved or merely because the Baron on his 80-h.p. Panhard et Levassor had run fourth among the heavy cars in the first stage of Paris — Madrid?
At any rate, five motor races in all were run from Paris to Bordeaux. In 1895, when the return journey was also made, and 1898, both on the “old” road; and in 1899, 1901 and 1903, the last of which should have been the first stage of Paris — Madrid, by the direct route. Therefore, as it is my intention, at the risk of inducing nostalgia for the roads of France as I have known them, and of suffering vain regrets for the roads of France as Levassor and De Knyff, Charron and Fournier, Gabriel and Louis Renault knew them, to make an imaginary journey from Paris to Bordeaux, marking the places which are famous for the happenings of half a century ago, it is necessary for me, as it will be seen, to make two journeys from Paris as far as Tours, one by the old road, the other by the new.
The start, then, is at the Place de l’Etoile and the date is June 11th, 1895. Half Paris, those who are interested and those who are merely curious, have assembled at the Arc de Triomphe to witness the departure of the voitures automobiles on their long journey. The Michelin’s Peugeot named “l’Eclair” has already been in trouble in the Avenue MacMahon, not as usual because its owners would insist that it was possible to use pneumatic tyres on a car, but simply on account of water in the carburetter. The crowd was derisory. “They’re trying to go to Bordeaux and they can’t even get up to the Arc de Triomphe,” remarked someone caustically. But they got there eventually.
The Bois de Boulogne being considered, like Hyde Park, too elegant for the smelly autocars, we must follow the rest of the competitors down the Avenue de la Grande Armée and then over the bumpy pave to cross the river at Suresnes. Climbing the hill on the other side, No. 16 Peugeot, driven by Koechlin, stuck, but got going again, which was just as well as it eventually finished third. So we can get on to the Place d’Armes outside Louis XIV’s great pretentious palace at Versailles.
Too literal translation of foreign languages is, I have always thought, rather a cheap manner of producing a humorous effect. In this instance, however, I can be spared any accusation of indulging in it, for the following quotation from Le Velo is taken word for word from “Notes on Motor Carriages,” published in 1896, by John Henry Knight, who was probably the first Englishman to build a petrol-driven motor-car and whose book was certainly not meant to be funny.
“At Versailles there was considerable excitement. All the cafés had been crowded; voitures automobiles, other than those contesting, were there in considerable numbers, and were going on the road to carry provisions for those engaged in the contest.
“Upon the Place d’Armes, a tent with flags and the insignia of the Touring Club of France is arranged for the control. In this tent are those members of the committee who are appointed to superintend the start.
“Each carriage as it arrives is placed in position. At 11.45 only nineteen out of the twenty-five carriages are in their places, besides the two bicycles automobiles.
“The crowd at this time has increased; those in charge have difficulty in preserving order; fortunately no accident happened.
“It is exactly 12.5 when the order is given to start.”
The first car away was the Peugeot No. 15, driven by Rigoulot, the company’s chief engineer, and we can follow him in imagination threading his way through Bue and chugging up the hill beyond the village. In imagination, too, we can picture the cars going out in 1898 for the massed start of the “Criterium des Entraineurs,” in single file, all passing strictly forbidden, with De Knyff at their head, followed by Charron and Girardot, on their 6-h.p. Panhard et Levassors, painted blue, white and red respectively. See them halt at the top, and hear the two blasts of a whistle, one blown as a warning, the second as a signal for the cars to leap away on their long journey to Bordeaux.
Not far down the road to Chateaufort and the De Dion Bouton steam brake of 1895, driven by the Comte de Chasseloup Laubat, has passed Rigottlot’s Peugeot, and at Limours, 22 kilometres from the start, is still holding the lead, with Amédée Bollée the Elder, captain of a crew of seven on board his veteran steam omnibus, lying second. Even the petrol cars, which with their little 3 or 4-h.p. engines could ill afford it, were loaded up in many cases with a plethora of passengers. And at this stage most of them were thoroughly enjoying the novel experience. A reporter from Le Journal had managed to get on board the Wincke and Delmer No. 37 and was ecstatic about it.
“Our carriage,” he writes, “is the most elegant, and at the same time the most comfortable, of them all; but without delay I must introduce to you the crew. On the box, grasping the tiller in a manner fit to inspire in us every confidence, is Frédéric, an expert mechanician, and his assistant, a good Belgian named Léopold, after his King; in the carriage, standing upright on the front seat like the captain of a ship on the bridge, is Paul Thuillier, the well-known cyclist, who has been over this road several times before, on his bicycle, and knows every rut in it. Thuillier is our pilot, and also a pleasant companion, full of wit and back-chat. And, finally, as passengers, there is young Arthur Wincke, the son of the maker, and me, just a tourist.”
Five people, in other words, on board the wretched little Wincke and Delmer!
From Limours the road climbs up the hill to the crossroads by Le Cormier, where, if you are going to Etampes, you turn left on to the hilly road to Dourdan. The mildest of these gradients reduced the petrol cars to a crawl. but the big steamers could take them in their stride. The Bollée, particularly, was going famously. Authorities seem to differ as to whether the omnibus was ” l’Obéissante,” built in 1873, which celebrated her fiftieth birthday by a trip round the road-racing circuit at Le Mans, or “la Nouvelle,” of 1880 vintage. Personally, I favour the latter; but in any case, pride on the hilly road from Limours went before a most unfortunate fall.
“Up to a certain point,” writes Léon Bollée, second son of the “captain,” who was a member of the crew, “we could well hope for success, but, noticing that our left-hand connecting-rod was overheating, the washer having been taken up too much, we had to stop for ten minutes to let it cool off enough for us to go on to our water relay at Angervilliers.
“While we were taking on water, my father, with the idea of cooling down the connecting-rod more thoroughly, put a pad of damp rags on it, and, unfortunately, when we had finished our replenishment stop, this pad was forgotten. As soon as the engine started the rag got caught in the gears operating the slide-valve and broke the cast-iron support of the bearing of the intermediate shaft between the crankshaft and the slide-valve, which set up such a strain that one of our connecting-rods was bent.”
This, one might have thought, was enough to put even an omnibus out of a race. But not a bit of it. The Bollée family got down to effecting repairs — the first of many required on that memorable voyage — but repairs which were so well carried out that, in spite of all its stops, the speedy steamer duly finished the race within the stipulated time, at an average speed of 6 m.p.h.!
Up and down the hills to Dourdan and on to Etampes, the luckier De Dion Bouton steamers were easily making the running. But once at Etampes, the competitors were on the fine road to Orléans and across the flat plain of La Beauce the petrol cars began to make up lost ground.
Panhard et Levassor had established their first depot at Orléans, Peugeot 31 kilometres further on along the valley of the Loire at Blois. Here each driver was to be relieved by a man who had accompanied him from Paris, and here there appeared M. Peugeot, who had come by train to see how they were getting on. The steamers were still in the lead, but replenishing a steamer with fuel and water is no light task, and M. Peugeot, on his arrival, was not a little amused to find that M. le Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat had called in to his assistance as boiler-fillers six of the local firemen, in full uniform, and only too glad to perform this little service for the nobility!
Alas! however, even the services of the fire brigade were in vain. From Blois Route Nationale 152, one of the most delightful in France, runs along by the very banks of the Loire, past Amboise towards Tours. But the Comte de Chasseloup-Laubat’s steam “dog-cart” (as it is usually called in the French accounts) was fated never to reach that day what thinks itself the most French of French cities. Just outside Vouvray something went seriously wrong with the cardan shaft, and in spite of all that M. Bouton could do to repair it, No. 3 was out of the race. Nevertheless, there may have been compensations; the day was drawing to a close, and the Michelin Guide says, laconically, of Vouvray: “Speciality — Wines.”
Jeanteaud, on the only electric vehicle taking part in the race, had had trouble with an axle near Orléans, and with the De Dion steamer out of it, Levassor, driving with the utmost regularity on No. 5, was in the lead When he passed through Tours at a quarter to nine that evening. But he was now on the direct road to Bordeaux, and it behoves us to retrace our steps to Versailles. [To be continued.]