On the trail of tragedy

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Is this where motor racing’s first fatality occurred, during a French road race 115 years ago?

Motoring through France recently, my wife and I stopped in Périgueux, where I recalled a local landmark in motor sporting history. The first two participants to be killed in a racing accident fell during the Course du Périgueux on May Day, 1898.

Local enthusiasts had organised the 90-mile event, anti-clockwise on a public road circuit out via Mussidan to Bergerac, then back through Le Bugue. The entry comprised 10 cars and eight motorcycles. But within minutes of the first car being flagged away at 8am, word arrived of a terrible accident…

It happened near Marsac-sur-l’Isle, a village on the Périgueux to Mussidan road. A glance at the map found Marsac, on the modern D6089. I also recalled a photo of the aftermath, with the two cars involved lying in a roadside field down a shallow embankment to the right of the road. To the left a steep, densely wooded bluff soared from the verge. So all we had to do was locate a corresponding stretch, allowing for change over 115 years. When I explained my masterplan, Mrs Nye’s reaction started with something like “We are meant to be on ***** holiday!”

In his seminal 1909 book A Record of Motor Racing 1894-1908, Gerald Rose described how: “The officials hurried to the scene of the disaster… finding two cars in the field bordering the road, one battered but upright, and the other on its side. Of the four occupants, only one was unhurt, and the others appeared to be in the last extremity…

“M de Montariol, the only one to escape unhurt, started on his light Parisienne (Benz) car one minute in front of the Marquis de Montaignac, who was driving one of the big and heavy Landry et Beyroux vehicles. On his more powerful car the latter soon caught up M de Montariol, who drew aside on being warned to let the faster car pass. As M de Montaignac passed his friend he turned and waved his hand; with the reversible lever-steering of those days the least inattention was fatal, and the heavy Landry et Beyroux swerved across to the right and collided with the front of the Parisienne, jerking the steering wheels of the latter round and causing the car to run off the road, up the low bank and into the adjoining field, where it turned over. M de Montariol jumped clear as the car went over, but his mechanic was pinned underneath and badly hurt about the head.

“Meanwhile M de Montaignac, hearing the crash of the collision and the cries, realised he had caused an accident and committed the fatal imprudence of turning to look back. His car immediately swerved for the second time violently to the right, and dashed over the bank into the fatal field where it rolled right over. M de Montaignac was very badly injured and died within three hours, after having displayed the most remarkable bravery and fortitude, explaining how the accident had come about, and constantly affirming that the responsibility rested entirely on him. His unfortunate mechanic was also severely injured and died later.”

Rose observed that this was the first fatal accident “due to racing pure and simple”. It was a nail in the coffin of tiller steering: “As long as every rut and stone communicated a jerk to the arm of the driver, and a corresponding swerve… there was a constant danger of such accidents.” Over the following two years a notable reduction in racing incidents was attributed to the replacement of tiller-steering by geared wheel steering.

I think we found the spot, but not just before Marsac village as the usual attribution ‘Sault du Chevalier’ infers, for the left-side geography there provides little abutting slope – but a brief few hundred metres after the village seemed to match the wreckage photo, though now much overgrown on both sides of the D6089. There the right-side field still lies well below road level, while to the left a steep, densely wooded bluff climbs rapidly. I photographed the section as best I could, but without surviving evidential features – such as a roadside building or wall in the contemporary photograph – my confidence level isn’t great. Perhaps readers know?

The luckless Marquis’ car is sometimes cited as a ‘Landry Bairoux’. But there were MLB cars – hefty single-cylinder products – built at Hondouville, Eure, by partners J Landry and G Beyroux, so perhaps Rose got it right. And the M stood for Montaignac – so motor racing’s first driver fatality thus died in a car he financed. Renaud de Montaignac de Chauvance, 47, from Egletons, unlucky victim of inexperience.

Doug Nye

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