In the adventurous pioneering days, there was a satisfying challenge, not quite so demanding as competing in the great town-to-town races or the Grands Prix, but more strenuous than the excellent MCC long-distance trials — trying to beat the London-Monte Carlo record. It offered good publicity for the cars used and was a decent feather in the caps of successful drivers.
On the roads as they were before 1915 this was a tough task, and though such attempts were not exactly encouraged, official observers were carried to confirm that the time taken was acceptably accurate. It seems that Charles Jarrott started the ball, or the cars, rolling when he proposed to drive from the Automobile Club in Piccadilly to Monte Carlo in one of the then-new 40hp 7-litre Crossleys in two days, over roads described as ‘in very bad condition’. The time was to include the Channel crossing and getting through Customs. The famous British racing driver set out in April 1906 and took 37H hours, averaging nearly 25mph for the 771mile Boulogne-Monte Carlo section.
The challenge was on! The Hon Charles Rolls immediately accepted it and drove a 1906 TT Rolls-Royce back from Monte to England in 37hr 281/2min. In France, Rolls had been considerably quicker than Jarrott, including getting lost and having a puncture, but he lost 3hr 11min waiting for the steamer, so beat the Crossley by a mere 1Hmin. HR Pope was off next, in the 7H-litre Itala he had driven in the Targa Florio. This was, like the other cars, a four-seater, fully laden. The time was 36hr 5min in spite of much tyre trouble. In 1907, Arthur Earp tried with a six-cylinder Iris, but snow on a pass and lamp failure meant a night in the car, which ruined his attempt. Jarrott then tried again, with a 6.7litre 30/40 Crossley and three passengers and got the time down to 35hr 20min. This SF Edge could not endure, so he sent E A Paul off in a big Napier touring car which, in bad weather but on durable tyres, clocked 33hr 34min.
But you should never reckon without Mercedes! In May 1907 AG Brown’s 6785cc Mercedes 45 knocked 4hr 14min off the record, in spite of observing the speed limit in Cannes.
The French authorities objected to such runs, but Pope, in a 45hp Itala, had a go from Monte Carlo and made London in 29hr 16min, in spite of hitting an errant cart, apparently observing English speed limits and losing two hours in fog. These exploits then seem to have rested until 1913, when James Radley in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost bettered the record by 3hr 12min with a time of 26hr 4min, delayed by shut level crossings but aided by the AA holding a ship for the sea crossing, when the RAC had refused help.
After the war these publicity dashes were replaced by efforts to beat the renowned Blue Train from the Riviera to its London terminus. In 1930 Dudley Noble beat it by 20min, driving a 16hp Rover Light Six saloon, but only as far as Calais, an average of 48mph in spite of some delay due to fog. However, that year Woolf Bamato went all the way, in his 6H-litre Bentley Gurney Nutting two-door coupe complete with cocktail cabinet, and was in his London house some time before the train pulled into Waterloo station, having beaten it by four hours.
In the same year a private owner, Mr E J P Eugster, took his turn after a golfing holiday. With a friend, he left St Raphael in his Alvis Silver Eagle tourer just after the Blue Train steamed out, in the dark cold night. Soon they were cruising at 55-60mph towards Brignoles. Aix-en-Provence was made on schedule. Ten minutes were gained by Avignon where they changed drivers. Then came rain, the Alvis sliding a little at speed, so the hour’s advantage they had hoped to gain by Lyons was reduced to a 10-minute deficit.
Difficulties finding petrol followed, as well as level crossing delays and slower roads. But five hours later the Alvis was at Avalon where the shivering crew poured in lots of petrol. Dawn at Sens, and with the speedo showing 70, the dirty car speeds on. Fontainebleau by 7am; 300 miles to go. A crossing shut for 20 minutes, another stop for fuel, then the Alvis goes at top speed to Calais, and they are three hours ahead of the famous train. Even amateurs could do it.
But The Autocarhoped “others will not start a series of such runs now that it has been proved that a car can beat the train.” A slightly topical note?