Street theatre

A grand prix track was a tricky thing to fit into the principality of Monaco, but Antony Noghes’s drive made it happen, and in 1929 the most glamorous motor race in the world was born Words: Mark Hughes

A magician by the name of Antony Noghes once conjured a race track from the thin air of dreams and punctured pride. It was a trick that astonished the racing world, for he was limited by a tiny piece of real estate, hemmed in on one side by the unyielding nation of France and on the other by the indifferent depths of the Mediterranean: the principality of Monaco, nestled between two cliff tops. How could racing cars be expected to perform on the ledges of a cliff, through markets or along a small harbour front in the most densely populated square mile on earth? It was a ludicrous idea in 1929 when Bugattis were just 124cm wide and 130bhp strong. Yet Noghes’ dream still lives today when Fl cars are 180cm wide, six times as powerful and capable of lapping the track in half the time. In many ways Monaco the nation is a preposterous notion, a fairytale carved out of the hard rock and clung on to tenaciously by its ruling family for centuries. The story of its grand prix is very much in keeping with that tradition.

Noghes’ family were proud Monegasques. In the early 17th century Monaco was under the protection of Spain and accordingly a Spanish garrison was established there. A direct ancestor of Antony Noghes was commander of that garrison. The Noghes were therefore part of the very fabric of their country and had been close to the ruling Grimaldi family for 300 years. Antony was a civil servant, in charge of cigarette distribution in the principality, but the family had amassed their fortune in many ways through the centuries.

As had the state. Initially deriving its income from the harbour, from very early in its existence Monaco also sought to encourage the wealthy to its region by way of zero taxation. It was naturally highly successful in its quest, becoming packed with a rich population. But until the reign of Monaco’s Prince Charles III in the mid-19th century, it was a relatively genteel place. Olive and lemon groves dominated the land not taken up by villas as British and Russian nobility enjoyed the favourable winter climate. But Charles wanted something a bit more dynamic and income-generating, particularly as he had been forced to sell off the surrounding towns of Menton and Roquebrune to France in exchange for cash and French recognition of Monaco’s independence (the Grimaldis having adopted a policy of alliance with France which kicked out the Spanish from the garrison).

So Charles devised Monaco’s casino. With space so limited, its building involved cutting a tunnel through the rock to preserve the route along the coast. A railway was built into the town, with the station exiting virtually at the casino doors. With its fairytale setting, Monaco’s casino quickly became the most famous such establishment in the world, its success enhanced massively by Charles decreeing that the hugely popular game of roulette — which had recently been banned in France — would be permitted here.

Now wealthy clients began arriving in their droves, and were no longer limited to nobility. Clinging hard to their foothold on the cliffs, the Grimaldi family adapted Monaco to a new era, and it flourished as never before. Soon, the casino was generating as much as 90 per cent of Monaco’s income.

In the process it became a somewhat less gentle place. Somerset Maugham described it as: “a sunny place for shady people.” Industrialists, financiers, sportsmen, painters, poets and criminals rubbed shoulders around the roulette wheel and card tables, welcome as long as they had money to spend and a set of clothes that passed muster with the door staff.

The Hotel de Paris was built to accommodate the wealthy gamblers from across the square. In its cellar was a kilometre of wine racks, stocked with a quarter of a million bottles.

The motor car emerged in the late 19th century initially as a novelty for the wealthy, and was therefore soon dotted around the principality, even if the early examples did struggle to make it up the hill cut into the cliffside linking the harbour to the square. In 1890 a club was established for local car and motorcycle owners, the Sport Velocipedique Monegasque. Its founder was Alexandre Noghes, Antony’s father.

As the industry developed, swish cars began to replace horse and carriage at the doors of the casino and hotels. Chauffeurs waited in Rolls Royces, Packards, Hispanos and Isottas, ready to whisk their employers back to Nice, Paris or Milan.

Anxious always to attract yet more wealthy tourism, a yachting regatta and exhibition, established around the harbour area in 1904, was hugely successful in its aim and became an annual event. Along much the same lines, Antony Noghes and Gabriel Vialon of the Velocipedique club devised the Monte Carlo Rally, first held in 1911. From starting points all around Europe, competitors drove to the principality in January, thus advertising the mild winter climate there after they had battled the elements elsewhere. Naturally, such events received enthusiastic backing from the Monaco royals.

The rally became an increasingly prestigious annual event, and the old Velocipedique Monegasque transformed into the Automobile Club de Monaco. Alexandre Noghes remained the president but a sporting arm was created with son Antony at the helm. With its prestige on the international sporting scene in the ascendant, in 1928 the Commission Sportive of the AC de Monaco club applied to the Paris-based international governing body to be upgraded from a regional French club to a national sporting authority with its own voting rights. The application was rejected, much to the pique of the club and the particular embarrassment of Antony Noghes. The governing body somewhat sniffily told the club that to qualify it must host an international event on its own territory. The rally — with most of its duration on the way to, rather than within, Monaco — wasn’t deemed to meet these criteria. Given that its own territory occupied a meagre 482 acres of already densely built-up land, a line seemed to have been drawn under the club’s aspirations. But Antony, now in his late 30s and a succesful man, wasn’t going to take this lying down. Enlisting the backing of ruler Prince Louis II, he announced that there would indeed be an international race on home soil within the next 12 months. He’d made the announcement, but had no idea of how he was going to make it come true.

Earlier in the decade purpose-built circuits had begun to appear all around Europe, moving the sport away from the street or mountain courses previously favoured. It made for easier policing, better safety and, probably most significantly of all, allowed the circuit owners to charge spectators a fee.

But now the sport was changing again. By the late 1920s the car manufacturers had withdrawn from a sport that had become too costly. It opened up grand prix racing to independents, with companies like Bugatti and Maserati providing the hardware. The scene changed from the technical intensity of the car manufacturers with their employed drivers, to one of wealthy privateers. The social scene surrounding the sport became more moneyed elite than technical. The idea of a race at Monaco was therefore very much of the time.

Not only that, but there was an explosion of minor events around continental Europe as the independents sought a way of subsidising their activities through prize money. These lesser events were invariably contested around the old-style street and mountain courses. Towns would benefit from the crowds that would gather for the events and would therefore pay good money for the drawing power of big-name drivers. Other small-time races and hill climbs were springing up in towns throughout the Cote d’Azur that were vying with Monaco for the wealthy tourist trade. A street race was the obvious solution for Noghes’ dilemma. But where?

After repeatedly wandering the principality’s streets, he hit upon the only circuit that was feasible — as he later recounted. “This skirted the port, passing along the quay and the Boulevard Albert Premier, climbed the hill of Monte Carlo, then passed round the Place du Casino, took the downhill zigzag near Monte Carlo Station to get back approximately to sea level and from there, along the Boulevard Louis II and the Tir aux Pigeons tunnel, the course came back to the port quayside. Today, the roads comprising this circuit look as though they were made for the purpose.”

Rene Dreyfus, then just starting to make a name for himself, recalled in his autobiography My Two Lives: “There were grands prix all over Europe and [Noghes] saw no reason why his ‘country’ shouldn’t have one too. That there really wasn’t an awful lot of room in the tiny principality of Monaco for such an event didn’t concern Antony in the slightest. After all, the city did have streets and the race could be run on them. “When he suggested this to the officials of the [non-sporting arm of the] Automobile Club de Monaco, their initial reply [was unfavourable] but he convinced them.” He then convinced the sport’s governing body too. His task in this was eased by a powerful ally: Louis Chiron. The Monegasque native, whose father was maitre d’ in the Hotel de Paris, was already a successful grand prix driver with the factory Bugatti team. Chiron’s reputation eased Noghes’ path through the governing body’s Parisian corridors of power. The circuit was granted a licence for a race to be held on the April 14, 1929. 

As the weekend approached, the roads were fenced off and big boards and hoardings blocked the view to outsiders without a residence or a ticket. The tram service around the streets was suspended, though the racers would have to contend with the tramlines. A stall was set up outside the casino where bets on the race’s outcome could be placed. Posters for the event, some drawn by Noghes himself — he was an accomplished illustrator — were placed all round the surrounding area. Frogmen were commissioned to stand by around the harbour for the weekend. The harbour-master found himself busy making room for yet more yachts — though they had to be moved well back from the harbour sides. The race was by invitation only. Doubtless aided by Chiron’s campaigning on Noghes’ behalf, the response was good, though not overwhelming. There was no entry from the Maserati team, for instance, nor from the two leading Alfa privateers Achille Varzi and Gastone Brilli-Peri. But the French contingent was very well represented. Marcel Lehoux, ‘Williams’ (William Grover-Williams), and Philippe Etancelin were already well-established front-rank Bugatti privateers. Mario Lepori, the veteran Victor Rigal, and Christian Dauvergne had finished one-two-three in their Bugattis at the Grand Prix d’Antibes two weeks earlier. From Austria came an entry for Hans Stuck’s Austro-Daimler and from Germany a semi-works Mercedes SSK for Rudolf Caracciola. Although Rudi had performed miracles with this powerful but huge brute on several occasions, his chances around the tight confines of Monte Carlo were expected to be slim.

Grover-Williams, the former chauffeur of artist William Orpen — famous for his portraits of society figures — was already familiar with Monaco. As was the other driver racing under a pseudonym: Bugatti driver ‘Georges Philippe’ was in fact the Baron de Rothschild.

Ironically the only native Monegasque driver could not be present. Louis Chiron was committed to the clashing Indianapolis 500 for his American sponsor Freddy Hoffman. But Chiron’s protégé Dreyfus was there — his Bugatti T37A one of the five entries in the voiturette class (for cars up to 1500cc). He hadn’t initially been invited, but with a good run of success in nearby minor races and some campaigning on his behalf from Bugatti’s Ernest Friederich, Dreyfus got his entry.

Not all the residents opted to stay around to spectate, as related by Dreyfus: “Monaco was a favourite winter resort for the monied elite, the older members of which came to have their tea on the terrace, and a little peace and quiet. Their tranquillity had been rather rudely disrupted when the Grand Prix came to town — with pre-race practice scheduled for 5.30am. After a couple of mornings of that, a good many hotel suites became suddenly vacant — which was convenient because this made rooms available for the people who were arriving in Monte Carlo specifically for the race.”

As was the custom at the time, the grid was chosen by ballot. Etancelin’s Bugatti T35C (supercharged 2-litre) drew pole on the three by three line-up, with Williams 35B (supercharged 2.3-litre) in the middle of the second row. Stuck had crashed his Austro-Daimler in practice and was a nonstarter, while Caracciola began way back, 15th of the 16 starters. But once the race was underway the progress of the white Mercedes was astonishing. While Williams soon established a place at the front, Caracciola came storming through in the 7.1-litre supercharged monster. Twice he hustled the big car into the lead but each time was thwarted by extra pit stops to replace shredded tyres. Grover-Williams wound up a comfortable winner, over a minute ahead of the Bugatti T35C of Georges Bouriano, with Caracciola third. Dreyfus won the voiturette class with fifth overall.

The event was adjudged a great success. Cars could race along a track consisting of a cliff precipice and a harbour front after all, people would flock to see them and the Automobile Club de Monaco would get its seat on the international governing body. Monaco had pulled it off again.