Guinness in the drink

How a top-line racer came to grief during the 1913 French Grand Prix

Motoring around on what we used to call The Continent – you know, as in “Fog in Channel, Continent cut off” – my Irascible of Camberley photographer pal Geoff Goddard and
I often took time out to view roadside historic sites. It didn’t matter whether its connections might have been Napoleonic, or Great War, or Second World War but the most common of them were motor racing sites where something momentous had once occurred. 

Now back in 1913, just over a year before something really noisy engulfed western Europe, the Grand Prix de l’ACF was run on a 19.65-mile triangle of public roads just outside the northern French city of Amiens. The course was much shorter and simpler than its predecessors selected by the great French club – 47 miles per lap at Dieppe and, before that, 64 miles round, just east of Le Mans. While the first Grands Prix, of 1906-08, then 1912, had all been run on anti-clockwise courses, the 1913 Amiens event was to lap clockwise. 

The pits and grandstands were built just outside the city, close by the Longeau hairpin that turned the cars away from the buildings and south-eastward on an enormously long straight, undulating and rising slightly to reach a crossroads, at which the course turned 90-right. A short section then descended towards the village of Moreuil, where the course swung hard right again and into the return leg. The roadway there was narrow with plenty of deceptive bends. Eventually a tight left-right Ess was encountered, where the road swerved beneath a railway
line between Fouencamps and Boves, then back towards Longeau with its
pits and grandstands.

One awed reporter wrote of the course, “What a sight for the Gods of Automobilism to see the meteoric Boillot hurtle by on his great Peugeot at over 100mph! Here it was that the car seemed to spring into one’s view, shriek past with loud-barking exhaust and a dazzling vision of dithering wheels, instantly to lose itself in the haze of tree tops on the thin film of road in the distance.” Yes, well, calm down George…

Teams were entered from Peugeot, Delage and Schneider of France, Mathis and Opel of Germany, Itala from Italy and Sunbeam of Wolverhampton. The regulations allowed 20 litres of fuel per 100km (14.12mpg) and a weight range of 800–1100kg (1763–2425lb) dry. 

The GP Sunbeams had the smallest engines in the race, peaking at 2600rpm (which converted to 108mph on the long swoop from Domart). They were also quite rare in racing history since they were GP cars equipped with radiator blinds to ensure optimum engine temperatures.

Sunbeam’s drivers were the Italo-Welshman Dario Resta, the upper-crusty Kenelm Lee Guinness (of not only black-stuff fame but also – later – KLG spark plugs) and the Frenchmen Jean Chassagne and Gustave Caillois. Club officials supplied each team with a painstakingly measured finite amount of fuel of various French brands – most recipients chose to strain their ration very carefully.

Start time was literally an eye-opener – 5am. It was in fact postponed 30 minutes due to fog. Peugeot’s 1912 Grand Prix winner Georges Boillot led on time after a blazing first lap, some drivers less used to the course still groping their way through the fog-filled dips. After 11 laps Sunbeams were running 4-5-6 – but Resta’s reserve oil tank sprang a leak.

Albert Guyot’s Delage led at 15 laps from the Peugeots of Boillot and Jules Goux, but three tyres blew in quick succession, and as he swept into the pit lane for fresh his mechanic, Semos, jumped out prematurely, stumbled, and Guyot promptly ran him over. Grumbling, Guyot had the unfortunate fellow change a wheel before lifting him back into the cockpit, and pressing on…

Boillot forged ahead, and despite dramatic stops for water, and to fix a burst radiator hose, he managed to win for the second consecutive year, despite his car’s ignition control shearing off and leaving the system fully advanced. Chassagne’s Sunbeam finished third
and Resta’s sixth.

On his 16th lap Lee Guinness suffered a front tyre blow-out at speed in Boves village. He nearly caught the Sunbeam but it reputedly clipped the roadside fencing, was snagged and rolled. Guinness and his mechanic, Cook, were thrown out, luckily escaping severe injury, while their car tumbled down into the River Avre.

Guinness would still be driving for Sunbeam 11 years later, when he crashed during practice for the San Sebastian GP in Spain. His mechanic was killed and he suffered personality-changing head injuries that led to his early death, 80 years ago, in April 1937. He was only 49. That day we were at Boves – the scene of his Amiens escape – we looked down into the meandering river and paid tribute.