City to city, dust to dust

The 1903 Paris-Madrid became infamous as 'the race of death' and it was the final nail in the coffin of city-to-city races . The contrasting fortunes of two British entrants are uncovered by Graham Skillen

The 1903 Paris-Madrid provided a bloody conclusion to an era of road races that had begun in 1894. These long-distance, city-to-city encounters excited huge interest – and triggered a rapid rise in vehicle speeds. This latter factor was controlled in the large towns on route – entrants were obliged to stop at 'in' and 'out' controls, and be marshalled between them by a man on a push-bike – inevitably, however, many of the minor villages were taken full tilt. Then, as now, the policing of a route hundreds of miles long was impossible, and educating bystanders to the perils of rapidly moving traffic was difficult. Throw into this mix wayward farmyard animals and household pets – most of whom were unlikely to survive their first encounter with a car – poor road surfaces and, depending on the weather, mud or dust, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Paris-Madrid was that disaster.

William John Nixon, a cousin of my grandmother, was 27 when he agreed to act as the riding mechanic on the Wolseley car owned by Mr CE Allan, a director of Belfast shipbuilders Workman & Clarke, and driven by Leslie Porter.

Luke Terence [Terry] Delaney was born in Plymouth, but hailed from London. His mother had been widowed when he was just six, and had brought him and his brother up in straitened circumstances, sewing for a living. Terry entered journalism and was in his early twenties when he formed a connection with the de Dietrich car company at Luneville in Lorraine. This resulted in the firm asking him to drive in the forthcoming Paris-Madrid, along with several other Englishmen – Lionel Stead, Lorraine Barrow and Charles Jarrott – who formed a very strong component in a substantial works entry.

The stories of how the day went for Nixon and Delaney are indicative of the very thin line that the early pioneers had to tread: they share many similarities, but ended very differently. Nixon became one of the many casualties that caused motor racing to be changed forever; Delaney crashed, too, but escaped with his life.

The road surface was dry and the dust dreadful. Jarrott, who was first to take the start, said in his book Ten Years of Motoring that the two worst problems of early motoring were tyres and dust. Combined with the drainage channels running across the road and the potholes, the lack of a sealed surface produced a kind of hell on Earth, particularly at speed or when following another car. Overtaking was particularly perilous, as you can imagine. Delaney explained that the first you saw of the competing car in front was a great cloud in the distance, into which you had to blindly plunge.

The trend of increasing speed had caused the organisers to introduce a weight limit – 1000kg for the Large cars — but this didn't work as intended. True, there were classes for Light cars, Voiturettes and Motorcycles, too — the organisers emphasising the team element of each with reliability and regularity awards — but inevitably the race was judged by the public on a first-past-the-post basis, notwithstanding the staggered starts. This need for speed within the weight limit caused a decrease in chassis and body weight so as to permit an increase in engine capacity. Structural strength, therefore, was close to the limit. The lightness of chassis meant that torsional stiffness was not high, which meant that breakages were frequent (many cars were chain-driven because this accommodated any flexing more conveniently). The concept of bucketing along an unmade road at 80mph in a two-ton car on fragile wooden wheels, while unable to see properly, seems incomprehensible today. It even caused qualms at the time.

The night before the race Barrow proclaimed, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Nixon was equally fatalistic. He travelled to Wolseley's Adderley Park factory in Birmingham with a one-way ticket in his pocket. By way of explanation he said, "We will win the race or give a good account of ourselves. If we do not do either, I may be carried back. I am only taking a single ticket, for one can never tell what may happen."

The start, which was at Versailles to avoid a lengthy 'control' through Paris, was delayed by 15 minutes when the early starters complained that it wasn't light enough. They had a point — it was 3.45am! Although this time seems preposterous there was logic to it. There were approximately 220 entries, who were to be flagged away at one-minute intervals, and the fast, early starters could reasonably expect to reach Bordeaux's overnight halt, 312 miles away, shortly after noon — eight or nine hours ahead of the slow, late starters. However, thanks to the daybreak start, all should at least arrive in daylight. There were drawbacks to this schedule, too. Whatever your start time the arrangements virtually guaranteed a disturbed, shortened night's rest and fatigue accelerated by lack of sleep must have played a part in the events that followed.

To understand fully the events of May 24, 1903, one needs to look at the map. Louis Renault, who generally set the pace, reached Chartres at 4.41am, Tours at 7.05am, Poitiers at 8.35am and Bordeaux at 12.14pm. In contrast the Wolseleys were delayed by overly hot bearings. Herbert Austin, the 'works' driver, arrived at Tours very late but pressed on to Coulie-Verac, 213 miles from Paris, where he was stopped "through a cross-head pin firing and breaking the connecting rod". The car of Cummings/Girling ended its day with a serious accident, hitting a wall while avoiding a child, and that of Harvey Foster retired after it had run over a cyclist.

The omens, had they known, were not good for Porter and Nixon, who were making their way down "long avenues of trees, top-heavy with foliage, and gaunt in their very nakedness of trunk; a long, never-ending white ribbon, stretching away to the horizon; the holding of a bullet directed to that spot on the skyline where earth and heaven meet, fleeting glimpses of towns and dense masses of people."

Their first near-miss came just 24 miles from Paris, at Coignieres. Terry, on a 60hp Mercedes, attempted to pass on Porter's left, the two cars running side by side at full speed. The Wolseley veered towards the other car, causing Terry to strike the pavement, burst a tyre and skid, the fuel tank being dislodged and fractured. The Mercedes was destroyed by fire, fortunately without injury to Terry or his mechanic. Contemporary French press describe the driver as being transfixed in his seat amid the fire, Porter driving through sheets of flame, and so on. One presumes that the incident was exciting enough without these obvious dramatisations. Whether Porter had to stop given the seriousness of the crash is not known, but the certainty is that, instead of leaving Chartres control at around 6.30am, one hour after starting, he probably didn't leave until around 11.30am. This put him among the slowest vehicles of the race.

The events that followed have been recorded in a hundred different ways, but the consensus is that Porter crashed at a level-crossing north of Bonneval, at 11.45am. Poor Nixon was thrown against the crossing-keeper's house and killed, a collapsing wheel causing the car to roll on top of him and burst into flames.

It must be assumed that Porter's statement to the French authorities, reported in the Northern Whig of May 29, 1903, is likely to be closest to the truth. It read: "The accident was due to the carelessness of those in charge of the arrangements for keeping the course. At dangerous turns a man with a blue flag should have been stationed, with another man carrying a yellow flag 200 metres from the point of danger. When my car reached a point 300 metres from the spot where the road turns to cross the railway line neither blue nor yellow flag was to be seen. The men had, I am told, gone quietly off to déjeuner

"I turned my machine towards a ploughed field, as the only alternative to dashing against the side of the cottage of the railway crossing-keeper. Unhappily, the back part of the car did not clear the wall, but dashed against it, Nixon and I being hurled out of the machine. Nixon struck the wall, rebounded and fell underneath the car, which had by this time caught fire. These are the true facts of this lamentable affair.

Crossing 86 on the Paris-Tours line, about a mile north of Bonneval, no longer exists — it has been replaced by a bridge a little further south, the TGV racing along a nearby line. However, in an oasis between today's N10 and an industrial estate, it is possible to see the site of the crossing much as it was 100 years ago. It is typical in having a sharp left (in the direction of Porter's travel) onto it and an immediate sharp right off it, a layout beloved of railway engineers of the day. The cottage faces you as you start the right turn. As any archaeologist will tell you, the sign of an old fire is a pinkish discolouration in earth or stone — and the bottom corner of the building nearest to the crossing is pink rather than the ancient grey rendering found elsewhere. The building looks neither damaged nor repaired (Porter doesn't say the car hit the building), so maybe this evidence dates to that fateful day.

Porter was blamed by the judicial authorities. The Car of June 3, 1903, reported that the local powers-that-be "expressed the opinion that the custodians [i.e. marshals] were justified in leaving their posts in that they regarded the race as over, and that having been detained so long broken down, Mr Porter should no longer have regarded himself as in the running, nor continued to travel at racing speed". Presumably the authorities had made no provision for clearing stages for re-use by normal traffic. Frankly, however, Porter was entitled to continue racing because a finish could have meant a useful team result — he wasn't to know of the other Wolseleys' earlier failures.

But Wolseley cannot be freed from blame. Porter himself had supervised the completion of his car, its 'preliminary spin' being the run to Newhaven to board the steamer to Dieppe. This apparent lack of endurance testing was a fatal flaw in preparation— especially as Wolseley knew that its wooden wheels were unsafe under high cornering loads. A close examination of the photograph of Austin's car at the start clearly shows a modification to its wheels: additional wire bracing. This, though, was not fitted to the team's other cars.

Delaney's race, which had begun at 4.50am, some 40min before Porter and Nixon, went rather better – although it, too, involved running off the road. His accident happened quite close to Bordeaux, on a twisty section near Liboume, the car turning over on top of a heap of stones, probably having run wide at a corner. To the astonishment of the bystanders, who were expecting to find two mangled corpses, Delaney crawled out from underneath, rescued his camera and photographed the wreckage. Sang froid non pareil. It can be seen from the photograph that the left-front rim became completely detached, and that wheel was the cause of the crash.

In similar vein, and also aboard a de Dietrich Jarrott's mechanic Cecil Bianchi reported at a control near Bordeaux that their front wheels were coming to pieces. Because Jenatzy was on their tail they pressed on, awaiting a wheel breakage at any moment on the twisty final run. Their bravery paid off, Jarrott being classified third when the race was brought to a premature halt at Bordeaux; but others had not been so lucky...

The public was aghast at the tales of devastation, even though these were oft exaggerated – some of the 'fatalities' recovered. But a death count of seven, including two bystanders, was still too much. Fast cars with big engines in flimsy chassis which provided no protection for their occupants. High speeds in untested designs that could not accommodate the loads encountered. The consequences for motor racing were inevitable: there would be no more untamed city-to-city races.

Nixon was buried in Bonneval itself. Although his grave no longer exists, the notification of his death was found in local official ledgers. He was the first Briton to die in a motor race. (Although based in Britain, Count Eliot Zborowski, who was killed on April 1, 1903, at La Turbie hill-climb, near Nice, was an American national.)

Nixon, however, was not the only Brit to be claimed by the Paris-Madrid. "For tomorrow we die" Barrow was fatally injured on the same day Nixon died, but survived three weeks before succumbing. His accident happened close to Bordeaux. If he had been keeping close to Jarrott's times, having started two minutes after him, this would have meant the earliest the crash could have happened was around 12.15pm, after the recorded time for Nixon's accident.

As well as the human cost, the young British motor industry suffered badly that day. Of its five cars entered – the four Wolseleys and a Napier driven by Mark Mayhew – none finished, the Napier also crashing out.

Delaney went on to build an empire. His overseas associations resulted in him building Delauney-Belleville cars from 1910, and shortly thereafter he began to manufacture radiators. His company then became world renowned for its steam boilers and it supplied the Royal Navy. The Gallay part of his firm came from Switzerland, where government regulations required specialist lamps to be fitted to all cars using the roads. He later became joint managing director of Lea-Francis, beginning an association with the Coventry marque which continues to this day thanks to his son Tom, the world's oldest racing driver at 92.