VETERAN TO CLASSIC - The Circuit Des Routes Pavées

Of all the world’s motor races, the Circuit des Routes Pavées, an invention of the French, enthusiastic over all forms of motor racing, is perhaps the least well-known, the least recognised. The British dismissed it contemptuously at the time as “The Bad Roads Race” — as if any but the mad folk across the Channel would want to curb the delights of racing by deliberately running cars over poor road surfaces. . .

Yet, on contemplation, there was Gallic logic behind this race, which ran for seven years. In the same year as it was instituted, the French had held the first 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans, which has become a world-famous classic but which in the beginning was conceived, by motoring journalist Charles Faroux and George Durand, as a test and demonstration of fully-equipped touring cars. By running a great part of the race after dark the efficiency or otherwise of the cars’ electrical equipment, the headlamps in particular, would be tested, as would the weather protection by insisting on some laps being covered with the cars’ hoods up. Apart from the lamps, the electric starters would be tested by insisting that, after a pit-stop, engines were recommenced with them, and horns had also to be useable. Any tools or spares that the long race might necessitate had to be carried on the competing cars, on which only two people could work, should this become necessary. The entry was of touring-type cars, with proper seats, four on those over 1100cc, mudguards and running boards, as well as the workable hoods. At least 30 similar cars had to be in existence by race-date and ballast had to be carried equivalent to a full complement of passengers. Normal petrol had to be used and refuelling stops were at specified intervals, to eliminate cars heavy on fuel. Thus the regulations for the first of the great Le Mans 24-hour races, run then over normal roads.

It all changed after the war, as it had gradually up to that time, and now the Le Mans marathon is something very different from that which Charles Faroux had thought up in 1923. But, coming back to the “Bad Roads Race”, surely if Le Mans was an attempt to test most of a fast touring car’s qualities, why not, logically, and the French are above all logical, go further and incorporate a test of the springing of the motor-cars taking part? This was not the intention at Le Mans, where the drivers were intended to go sufficiently quickly to put a premium on good acceleration, cornering and braking. Which, logically again, would necessitate them going faster than they might, or could, over roads rougher than the normal ones in the Sarthe. This was duly achieved, the 3-litre Chenard-Walcker that won the first Le Mans race averaging 57.2 mph for 1373 miles, including all pitstops for replenishment and driver changeovers. The reliability factor had been indeed truly catered for, because the race in those days was really a three-year event, so that the victor of the Rudge Whitworth Triennial Cup had to produce a car capable of winning a 72-hour marathon — which was achieved by Sénèchal and Loqueheux with an 1100cc Chenard-Walcker, which, under the less-logical rules, had not taken part in the two previous races! As for a test of brakes, did not the victorious 1923 Chenard-Walckers have front-wheel brakes (actually a three-brake system, FWB and transmission with Hallot servo), causing Bentley to go to 4WBs for their Duff and Clement win in 1924?

Looked at thus, was a race to see how cars would stand up to rough roads all that illogical? Especially remembering the poor state of war-torn highways in France, which lasted for a considerable time after the Armistice with Germany had been signed. Hence the Circuit des Routes Pavées. It was run, for all seven years, over a triangle of suitably cobbled roads at Pont à Marcq, Lille, near the Belgian border in Northern France. The distance was 250 miles, with minimum average speeds set for the various engine-size classes.

The winner was a Georges Irat driven by Rost, which averaged 49.13 mph, or 8 mph lower than the winner’s speed at Le Mans, confirming my afore-mentioned point. The placemen were Foresti (Aries) and Gaudermann (Voisin). By 1924 more interest was being taken in this unusual race. The same eight-mile lap of the granite-sett circuit was used. The French love motor racing, so the straights were lined with spectators but in the towns the course seems to have been rather casually marshalled. There were now 42 starters. For 100 miles Lagache’s straight-eight 4-litre Chenard-Walcker led. Then the rough road theme took its toll, a universal joint breaking. The driver got a new one from his pit, only to find that the bolts were too bent for him to fit it. Sénèchal’s 3-litre Chenard then took the lead. George Heath, son of the Birmingham motor agent, had a tyre burst on the first lap and overturned, without harm to the occupants. Louis Coatalen had been writing learned papers about suspension problems and had sent another 1½-litre Darracq, with the same rare (for the sports car), twin-cam engine. Driven by Jack Scales, it went so well that it was second to the Chenard, winning its class, at 51.7 mph to Sénèchal’s 54.4 mph. The winning Chenard, with lath-and-canvas 4-seater body, had to do 193 miles, the smaller cars lesser distances. Although low-pressure tyres were available, most drivers thought them dangerous at 60 mph and used the older type, but two out of eight cars finished on the new tyres. Third place went to Pisard’s Chenard-Walcker, after the big Aries had lost compression. Class winners were Riva’s Lancia Lambda, a La Licorne, an 1100cc 4-seater Aries and an 1100cc 2-seater Sénèchal. The race must have suited the Lancia Lambdas, announced the year before, with their i f s.

Although such sliding-pillar suspension had been used prior to the war by Morgan and Sizaire-Naudin, Lancia was the first to realise that i f s requires a stiff chassis frame, achieved by the welded-steel monocoque of the Lambda; its front suspension, perfected we are told after 14 drawings by Battista Falchetto had been submitted to Vincenzo Lancia, was sophisticated, with internal oil-damping and rebound coil springs, although careless dismantling could be dangerous, when the main coil Spring shot upwards. (I was very pleased With the old Lambda I used during WW2 for visiting RAF aerodromes on MAP duties, its ball-gate central gear-change on a European car as advanced in vintage times as its i f s.) In the race, Gaudermann’s Lambda was second in the 2-litre class to Riva, and the British Hartford Company gained publicity, as all except the Lancias used their shock-absorbers. The day before, Sénèchal’s 750cc Chenard-Walckerbuilt Sénèchal had won the small-car race from two Peugeots and the motorcycles.

Back to its former distance for 1925 and confined to production cars, the “Bad Roads Race” was won by Rost’s Georges Ira on h p tyres, from an Aries and a Belgian Excelsior; in later times the winning marque used sophisticated rubber suspension. Fastest lap was made by the Excelsior, at 58.7 mph and Rost averaged 53.7 mph. The Hon Victor Bruce had run his AC in 1924 (fourth in class, behind two Bugattis) but this time he non-started. In 1926, with the distance up to 315 miles, positions were reversed, Caerels’ Excelsior winning, at 55.6 mph, from an Aries and Georges Irat. The winner was on Engelbert tyres, the Aries on Dunlops.

For the next three years the race was a six-hour grind. Many of the cars had been reported as badly wracked about in 1926, but 29 entries came in for the 1927 race. Rost went furthest, 306.8 miles, at just over 51 mph, in a 2-litre Georges Irat, Rossi’s similar car second, Laly won the 3-litre class with a very “Le Mans-looking” Aries (290 miles) and the Franchomme Cup for the handicap winner went to Doré (1½-litre two-seater La Licorne). But there was a bit of a fuss when a Lombard was said to have passed him!

The cars still carried road equipment. By 1928 Alfa Romeo felt their cars tough enough to join in and Boris Ivanowski won in the Spa 24-hour race 1½-litre s/c car, at 59.86 mph, from an Omega Six and a Lancia on handicap. The Alfa Romeo had had a great battle with a 2.3 Bugatti but in the final hour the latter had a brake seize which took time to release. Previous to this the French car had set a lap-record of 68.28 mph over the terrible roads, from which the onlookers were kept back by seemingly miles of palings. Two other Bugattis were class winners and of the 35 starters, 13 found the conditions too much for them.

The last year of this tough struggle saw Alfa Romeos first and second, driven by Zehender and Rigal, an Omega Six of former Hispano Suiza driver Boriven third. It was by now almost a normal race, the winning Alfa averaging 65.35 mph over the rough. That was it, and as far as I know the idea has not been revived since. I wonder how many Parisiens, when going to the Salon in the 1920s to choose a new car, cast their minds back to how their favoured makes had performed in the Circuit des Routes Pavées? W B