A race to the sky - in the name of publicity

How do you promote your new garage dedicated to the wealthiest people in Paris? Simple: rope in the era's leading drivers to tackle a hillclimb in the world's first multi-storey car park

Words: Joe Saward. in the good old days of motor racing they used to have grands prix for all kinds of things. The opening of the Montlhery race track in 1924 was celebrated by a Grand Prix de l'Ouverture, and each year the Paris Automobile

Salon boasted a Grand Prix du Salon. The tradition continued until after World War II when France's first autoroute opened at St Cloud in 1946 and a race was held in celebration. But probably the strangest event of all in that era was at the opening of the Banville Garage in Paris.

The Banville was the world's first multi-storey car park. But it was no ordinary garage. It was the 1920s and the generation which had survived World War I wanted to live life to the full. Everything seemed to be changing. Flying had arrived and automobile ownership was growing, social conventions were breaking down and fashion was the thing. And with the new golden age came new ideas and new architecture. It was in this environment that a group of wealthy Frenchmen, several of whom had been fighter pilots in the war, got together with the idea of building a garage where the wealthy could park their exquisite luxury cars. Shares were sold and enough money was raised for land to be bought and for the construction of the Banville Garage (the name chosen because it was located at the end of the Rue Theodore de Banville in the 17th arrondissement of Paris).

There were two floors beneath the ground and five floors above, linked by a curling ramp. Each car had its own cage (which was rented from the corporation). On the ground floor was a large exhibition hall and showroom, where the latest luxury cars were sold, and downstairs was a service department. The sixth floor of the Banville Garage was what made it extraordinary because, in addition to an outdoor putting green, there were three indoor tennis courts, a gymnasium — and a restaurant. Plans for a swimming pool were abandoned because of the costs involved.

When it opened in 1927 the Banville needed publicity. The company was fortunate that Robert Benoist, who was to become 'the 1927 world champion' (in fact the title did not yet formally exist) with a series of dominant performances for Delage, was involved with the project. At the end of the year, he even went to work there. Louis Delage had run into financial trouble and had to close his competition department. None of the other big car companies were going racing, leaving Benoist without a drive. Banville Garage was not quite grand prix racing but Benoist had little choice and he became the sales manager.

Early in 1927 though, Benoist and another of the Banville gang, Christian Dauvergne, had come up with an unusual plan to get publicity — holding a hillclimb inside the garage. In total the elegant sweeping ramps were 600m in length from the ground to the roof. Benoist and Dauvergne drummed up 15 cars to take part. A section of the track ran across the roof and to protect the drivers it was decided that there would be walls of sandbags.

The cars involved were all sporting models and were driven by some of the big names of the day, friends of Benoist and Dauvergne. We will never know who won the Banville hillclimb because times were not recorded — to prevent the competitive urges of those involved getting the better of them. It was a long drop from the roof to the street below.

The plan was a great success and the Banville Garage flourished, surviving the Great Depression and the war despite the fact that the Germans requisitioned 26 luxury cars as Paris was falling to the Allies in 1944, and then the Resistance took a further 43! For a while the Americans set up a typing pool in the exhibition hall but in 1946 Banville went back to its old business. Success brought expansion. The company bought a string of garages around France, but eventually, in 1986, the Banville company fell victim to a buyout. The new owners discovered how to make more money from the site: the Banville was closed and rebuilt as an office block.