This French aristocrat holds a special place in both cycling and motor racing. He was a true pioneer – being an early car manufacturer and founder of the first automobile club in the world. Albert de Dion also won the first motor race in history only to be stripped of the first prize. If that was not enough, he was the driving force behind cycling’s most famous race, the Tour de France.
Early constructor and the Paris-Rouen
He formed De Dion-Bouton in 1883 with partner Georges Bouton – building steam tricycles in their Paris workshops and for a while the largest car company in the world. He was the only entrant in an ill-fated speed trial in 1887 and was also central to what is recognised as the first motor racing event.
Pierre Giffard, the editor of Le Petit Journal, sponsored a reliability trial from the Porte Maillot in Paris to Rouen in the summer of 1894. De Dion’s steam-powered car was the first to complete the 80-mile course despite crashing into a potato field en route. However, he was denied the 5000 franc first prize as he had not complied with the stipulation that each driver should be accompanied by a mechanic. That money passed to second place finisher Georges Lemaître and Peugeot.
De Dion and le Tour de France
His contribution to the Tour de France also started that year with the case of Alfred Dreyfus – hardly an obvious backdrop to one of the world’s most enduring sporting challenges. Dreyfus was a French artillery officer who was convicted in 1894 of passing military secrets to the Germans. It was a highly contentious case and split opinion – rumours of Dreyfus’ innocence abounded and were eventually proved. He was pardoned after four years behind bars and exonerated in 1906.
De Dion was a major advertiser in Le Vélo magazine at the time – a title now edited by Giffard. However, they fell out regarding the Dreyfus Affair and the Marquis withdrew his support and launched the rival L’Auto. In order to publicise this new venture, de Dion announced a new cycle race around the country in 1903. The Tour de France was such a success that Le Vélo eventually folded as the new title and new race flourished.
This remarkable man was also a founder of the Automobile Club de France (1895) and the Paris Motor Show (1898).