Life and death on the open road

Motor racing began with almost unbelievably epic events, often over hundreds of miles of unsurfaced roads. Bill Boddy reminds us of these pioneer feats of town-to-town endurance

I find it almost impossible to contemplate those great open-road town-to-town races of the early 1900s. Ordinary motor cars were primitive, scarcely in wide ownership, and were at first almost universally disliked, especially by horse owners. Yet these races, for cars of ever increasing power and pace, were set off over rough, terribly dusty roads, between cities or sometimes from country to country. The distances were enormous, far too long to be more than minimally guarded. The intrepid pioneer racing drivers had to contend with all this plus the dangers of cattle, horses, sheep and other animals, and, more seriously, pedestrians who had never before seen, and had no idea of the speeds of, the approaching cars.

Yet it happened, after a trial rather than a race, in 1894, over a mere 78 miles from Paris to Rouen. The organisers, the daily newspaper Le Petit Journal, used a selection of routes to try to minimise objections, and received 120 entries. But as these included vehicles propelled by hydraulics, levers, pedals, passenger weight, electricity and compressed air, it was not surprising that only 19 started; 17 finished, the slowest at 6.1mph. Count de Dion was fastest on his steam-carriage, averaging 11.6mph for nearly seven hours. He was followed by two Peugeot petrol cars, the fastest averaging 11.5mph. Those who had no objection to the new mode of transport threw flowers and fruit at the drivers, and school children were lined up to watch this unique, and now historic, event.

The following year, in June, the first real race was organised by the same newspaper. Count de Dion felt that the race distance should be 7-800 miles, but Le Petit Joumal said that would encourage sheer speed, of 15 or even 20mph. This might result in an accident with severe political consequences, whereas in a race of nearer 80 miles out and back, reliability as well as pace would be required; and anyway, the first prize was to go to a car with more than two seats, not to an outright racing car. The newspaper lost, and the course chosen was Paris to Bordeaux and back —732 miles! It had almost 70,000 francs prize money. Out of 32 starters, 15 petrol cars, six steamers, and a Jeantaud electric finished.

In fact, most of the faster cars retired early. Emile Levassor led on a Panhard-Levassor with the new two-cylinder Phenix engine of 4bhp at 800rpm. This driver, whose name should be among those of the aces, drove through the night on oil lamps to arrive at Russec at 3.30am following the 12.05pm start, found his reserve driver was in bed, and continued immediately, arriving at Bordeaux at 10.40am. After signing in, he turned round and drove off to Paris, refusing a co-driver, stopping every 100km for water, etc.

Levassor on his crude, tiller-steered Panhard was welcomed by an enormous crowd at the finish at Porte Malliot, having averaged 15mph over two days on his solo drive. Three Peugeots followed, but the spectators had to wait six hours and more to see them. As the Panhard was a two-seater, Levassor was placed second. But what an epic drive; it was 109 years ago, remember.

History suggests it was the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race which proved that, for cars, petrol was superior to steam. It also saw the advent of the pneumatic tyre as an alternative to steel and solid rubber ones, but Michelin’s heavy Serpollet steamer was too much for his new tyre and more development was required.

By 1896, road racing was well-established and included the 1062.5-mile Paris-Marseilles-Paris contest. This was not quite as severe as it sounded, because it was spread over 11 days: Paris-Auxerre, Auxerre-Dijon, Dijon-Lyons, Lyons-Avignon and Avignon-Paris. Thirty-two started, the crowds huge. Mayard’s 8hp four-cylinder Panhard, built for the purpose, had an enclosed back axle and gearbox to exclude the dust. Tube ignition was almost universal, the burners frequently blowing out on the 6hp flat-twin rear-engined Peugeots. Tyres, steering and ignition were well tested and Mayard, another great pioneer driver, won on the bigger of the two Panhards at 15.7mph, total driving time 67hr 42min 58sec. Merkel’s Panhard was second (15.5mph), a Panhard 1-2-3 being spoiled by the very gallant, hard-pedalling Viet riding a 3.5hp De Dion tricycle (third at 14.9mph).

The second day had been run in ferocious storms; a Bollée that had collided with a fallen tree was so bent that its steering-column sloped forwards instead of backwards, and Delahaye had to cut up another tree before he could proceed. Levassor had hit a dog when leading by four hours; the Panhard overturned and the occupants were flung off, but only bruised. His co-driver took over and finished 0.1mph behind Viet. Bulls charged two cars and two vehicles collided with carts. Thus was pioneer racing!

Things were now in full spate, with Panhard and Peugeot racing for publicity as well as research, and De Dion tricycles having proved their practicality. 1897 saw the Paris-Dieppe with two Panhards beating a Peugeot, in the two-seater class, Count de Dion’s steam four-seater the outright winner, at 24.6mph for the 106.2 miles. Paris-Trouville, 1077-miles, saw a Panhard win from a Peugeot, at 25.2mph, outpaced by a Bollée in the ‘Cycles’ class at 28.2mph.

Speeds were increasing. In Marseilles-Nice-La Turbie, the famous hill included, the Count de Chasseloup-Laubat’s de Dion steamed away from a Peugeot and four Panhards, doing 149 miles at 19.2mph. Crowds were getting ever more prolific, difficult for the soldiers to control, and carts and animals still used the roads with the racers. It was an age of fearless driving, Thibault’s Panhard, for instance, rolling over in the La Turbie race due to reckless cornering, the very short wheelbases of around 6.5 feet making many of the cars difficult to control. In towns, cyclists led the racers through from the time controls, which was just as well, because very large numbers of curious onlookers came to see the new automobiles.

The great driver of the time was undoubtedly Levassor. He died in 1897, as a result of his accident in the previous year’s Paris-Marseilles race. Public subscription enabled a magnificent monument to him to be erected at Porte Maillot where he had finished his stupendous run from Paris to Bordeaux back in 1895; it was unveiled in 1907.

Next came a two-stager from Versailles to Bordeaux, with a stop at Tours. It was organised by Le Velo, with the ACF’s help, and was won by popular René de Knyff on a 6hp Panhard, at 22.1mph, from Fernand Charron’s sister car, Panhards 1-2-3.

The first international race took place in 1898, from Paris to Amsterdam, a distance of 889 miles. The great race was highly dramatic. Since 1893, France had introduced drivers’ licences and what equated to an MoT certificate, but most of the 69 entrants hadn’t had their cars examined. The Prefect of Police informed the ACF that all the racing cars were to be submitted to this and the drivers checked. The ACF had to ring or telegraph all involved. Monsieur Bonnet, the police engineer, began to operate under this obsolete by-law at 6pm on the evening before the start, but left for dinner at 6.15, not returning until 8.15. The drivers rebelled. Bochet called out the infantry to impound the cars, half a squadron of the Second Hussars posting two guns ready to fire on any car which tried to pass them.

M Bochet’s plans were defeated by moving the start to Villiers, outside his territory. During the night the racing cars were taken over the border, by train or towed by horses. However, their petrol supplies had been overlooked. Brave Amédée Bollée undertook to collect them in a horse-drawn cart, and the race was on! Racing cars were now becoming more powerful. Starting at 8.37am, Charron’s 8hp Panhard averaged 32mph, with another of these Panhards second.

The following year saw an orgy of road races, mostly over what were then regarded as moderate distances. An exception was the five-stage Tour de France, using a circular 1350-mile route. De Knyff won on a 16hp Panhard (39.2mph) from Leonce Girardot’s 12hp Panhard.

The Paris-Trouville event included an ingenious handicap involving many forms of transport. The victorious 16hp Mors averaged 35.2mph, the fastest motorcycle 32.5mph, the best bicyclist 19.4mph, a horse and rider 8.5mph, and the pedestrians’ class-winner 4.9mph.

During 1900, circuit races were beginning to be held, presumably because so much interest was being exhibited in the great races that if simple grandstands and access bridges could be built, a charge could be collected from spectators. Thus the Circuit de Sud Ouest (209.5 miles) was won by De Knyff’s Panhard, 43.8mph. But long town-to-town races continued in spite of increasing public resentment. Racing nearly ended after two cars collided in an inside passing move at a corner and ran into the spectators in the Paris-Roubaix race, injuring several, including the wife of the Deputy for the Department of the Seine. Le Velo, the organiser, would be proceeded against, all racing banned in that area, and all the competitors fined. It blew over, perhaps because the forthcoming Gordon Bennett race was too important to abandon; Charron and Girardot (36.8mph) scored for Panhard. The other great 1900 event was Paris-Toulouse-Paris (837 miles), which great Levegh’s 24hp Mors coped with at 40.2mph, ahead of a trio of Panhards of like-rated power.

The International theme was well exploited in 1901 when they raced from Paris to Berlin, 687 miles in three stages, which the brilliant Henry Fournier won at 44.1mph, only just disposing of two of the older-type Panhards of Girardot and de Knyff, but Panhards had five consecutive places after Brescia’s Mors which finished fourth. British driver Charles Jarrott finished on a 40hp Panhard which George Du Cros of Panhard’s let him borrow, as Jarrott was agent for these cars in London; it was painted green to offset its racing number 13.

Circuit races were more prevalent in 1902. On the Circuit du Nord (lap distance 53 miles, total 537 miles), Maurice Farman (Panhard, 44.8mph) won from four Serpollets, Du Cros going with Jarrott on a 40hp for the ride, as W O Bentley did with Birkin in the 1929 TT In the Circuit des Ardennes (318.2 miles), Jarrott on a 70hp Panhard at 54.0mph, won from Gabriel’s Mors and Vanderbilt’s Mors.

The big race was Paris-Vienna, 615.4 miles including the dangerous Arlburg Pass, in three stages, in which the Farman brothers, Henry and Maurice, sandwiched Elliot Zborowski’s delayed Mercedes, winning speed 38.4mph. Marcel Renault on a 16hp Renault gained much acclaim for being 0.5mph faster in the Light Car class than the big Panhard. The cars were now becoming very fast, Foumier’s Gobron-Brillié averaging 71mph on one section. Wooden chassis were still used but the fearsome Panhard-Levassor 70s had transverse front springs, to save weight, not cost, or to spare the chassis stresses from the engine, as an expert explained. Mass starts had been used in two races, though thought to be dangerous; the occasional racing collision, as now, occurred. Timing even in those times was to 1/5th of a second. I am not sure that I believe that the dust could be so bad that drivers only saw some corners by looking at the tops of the trees.

Town-to-town and country-to-country racing sadly came to an end in 1903. The impressive Paris-Madrid race had received 275 entries, equal to 135 miles of spread-out cars. But it became a disaster. The cars were very fast, of which almost all of those people using the roads they raced over were unaware. Conditions of intense rivalry or inexperience resulted in terrible accidents to the onlookers — estimated at 3 million in total — and to drivers and mechanics, apart from spectators killed. Horrified Government officials stopped the “race of death” at Bordeaux, insisting that the racing cars be towed behind horses to the railway station, for return to Paris.

Gabriel had driven splendidly that far in a streamlined 70hp Mors over the 342 desperate miles, at 65.3mph. The number of cars he had to overtake from his 82nd starting position has been justifiably praised, although it was not the number of those who left ahead of him, as Kent Karslake explained in Motor Sport. He estimated that 40-60 were still racing by the time the flying Gabriel caught up with them. Nevertheless, his drive belongs to history! Salleron’s Mors 70 was second, Jarrott third, in a heavier, less powerful De Dietrich.

Lorraine Barrow, who had said jokingly the night before, “Drink up and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, swerved to avoid a dog and went into a tree at 80mph, killing his mechanic and fatally injuring himself. Louis Renault, whose 30hp Renault was leading, was timed at nearly 90mph, unaware that his brother Marcel had hit a drain while overtaking a slower car, his Renault overturning, and had died soon afterwards. Louis withdrew when told. Stead had been duelling with Salleron for 150 miles when they collided. Stead was badly hurt Delaney’s De Dietrich overturned. Porter’s Wolseley went into a wall and the mechanic was killed. A Napier hit a tree. Tourand ran into a group of spectators, killing his mechanic and a soldier. Many others crashed. And so it went on, and on. The total number of killed and injured may never be fully assessed.

It altered the world of racing, to the regret of one famous driver who saw circuit racing, compared to town-to-town events, as putting a premium on daring driving made possible by knowledge of the course over which drivers can practise before the race, compared to hundreds of miles of narrow roads, with corners, turns, maybe mountain passes, in which to test one’s racing capabilities.

Remember for a moment those heroic drivers who raced over the never ending road, towards the far horizon.