Until the end of 1907 the Grands Prix held in France, Germany and Italy were each held under different regulations — which must have made life very difficult for those manufacturers who wished to take part in more than one of the events. The Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, which was held on July 7th, 1908 (a Tuesday, for some reason) was the first to be held under agreed international regulations — those decreed a minimum weight of 1,100 kg, and a maximum cylinder bore of 155 mm for 4-cylinder engines, 127 mm for 6-cylinders.
This 1908 event can therefore be considered to be the first “One Formula” race; it was held at Dieppe over ten laps of a 77 km circuit — some 480 miles. The race-day’s 75th anniversary was celebrated on July 7th, 1983 by a group of eight still-lusty Edwardian racers. Led by John Walker’s Panhard et Levassor and Sam Clutton’s Itala, they went via Le Havre to Dieppe to drop oil and split pins around the long circuit which still looks, apart from the tarmac surface and the lack of safety barriers in the villages, very similar in many places to the way it did in 1908.
In 1983 we did not try to emulate the winner’s (Lautenschlager on Mercedes) distance, nor his speed — 691/2 mph, which included the time taken to change eleven tyres. Rigal, who finished in fourth spot on his Bayard-Clement at an average of 641/2 mph had to find time in his crowded day for the changing of nineteen tyres. In a fit of nostalgia the 1903 GP Mercedes of Roger Collings requested four tube changes between Hereford and Southampton, and George Daniels’ recently resurrected 1906 Daimler suffered a slight seizure near Nuneaton — but once into Normandy the cars were all well-behaved and enjoyed the 100-odd traffic-free miles to a village near Eu, on the north-east corner of the old Dieppe circuit, which was to be the 1983 expedition’s base-camp.
In 1908 the start had been at 6 am — but it was a little later on July 7th this year (due to sea fret, or whatever that is in French) that the elderly racers set off from the start at Neuville (no sign now of the 1908 grandstands) along the D920 towards Envermeu, via the notorious bridge at Ancourt. There, in 1908, a bugler had been posted to sound a warning if a car had crashed and blocked the bridge, so that an official up the road could flag down the approaching cars. We lacked such musical accompaniment in 1983, but since our speeds — in the lower eighties, in deference to local tastes — were some 20 mph down on those of 75 years earlier, we did not have such a braking problem.
In Londinieres, the Itala (which finished 11 th in 1908 driven by Cagno) took a brief lead from Walker’s Panhard et Levassor (which had finished 23rd in ’08, driven by Farman), but the latter’s crew did not find the Itala’s total loss of oil system entirely to their taste and re-took the Italian job on the wiggly section through Fresnoy. The hills here proved taxing for Briscoe’s 3-litre 1911 Delage, which seemed rather breathless in the hot weather. Barker’s 1908 60 hp was seen flitting about on its photographic duties, and Liddell’s Straker Squire was in disgrace after having refused to start in the early morning, even on its (Edwardian?) starter motor.
There was some lorry traffic on the turn and up the hill in Eu, which gave us time to appreciate that few of the buildings seemed to have been painted since they were photographed by Autocar in 1908. Then there was a more or less straight 20 mile section back towards Dieppe where our 1913 Theophile Schneider’s superior aerodynamics helped towards an opening lap average of around 55 mph. That compares rather unfavourably with Salter (Mercedes) who in 1908 put in a standing lap at 78.89 mph. One must ask how they stood it all, 75 years ago. Their single advantage was closed roads. We had to suffer the Berliet trucks, but our roads were sealed, and must have been smoother than they were at the turn of the century — even so we were out of our seats on many of the sections, and the cars had become pretty rattly after only one lap. Perhaps, as Mr Shakespeare pointed out, “Courage mounteth with occasion”. Certainly those early racing motorists must have been extraordinarily courageous, and the winning cars enormously strong. Certainly July 7th, 1908 and 1983 were both very good days. What a pity that Edwardian motoring now has the deerstalker hat-tuftuf image; it can’t have been like that at all, not all of it. — TJ Threlfall
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