Léonce Girardot was renowned as motor racing’s perennial runner-up during the early days of the sport – the 1900s Chris Amon if you like. However, unlike the New Zealander, his career included one great victory. That was the 1901 Gordon Bennett Cup in an event that was both the most important race of the season and forerunner to modern-day Grand Prix racing.
He first competed on the 1897 Paris-Dieppe run with a Panhard and led the following year’s Paris-Amsterdam-Paris race at half distance. However, team-mate Fernand Charron was ahead by the time the cars returned to the French capital with Girardot completing a 1-2 for the marque.
Panhard continued to dominate city-to-city races in 1899 when filling the top five positions on the Paris-Bordeaux and top four in the Tour de France Automobile. Girardot confirmed himself as a reliable and trusted member of the team by finishing in third and second positions respectively. He also won for the first time in minor Paris races to Ostend and Boulogne.
Gordon Bennett Cup winner
American newspaper magnet John Gordon Bennett Jr introduced a new international competition to decide motor racing’s foremost nation in 1900. Charron’s Panhard won the inaugural race for France, with Girardot second of course.
The 1901 event was held concurrently with the Paris-Bordeaux and Girardot finished that event in 10th overall. His was the only car entered in the Gordon Bennett to finish so Girardot scored the major victory of his career. But further second place finishes that year in the Pau GP and Paris-Berlin only emphasised his place in motor racing at the time.
Girardot joined forces with Charron and Emile Voigt to form Automobiles CGV in 1901 and he finished fifth for their new marque in the Circuit des Ardennes. It was in that Belgian race two years later that Girardot scored his final result of note when second again.
An accident during the eliminating trials for the 1905 Gordon Bennett almost cost him his life and he retired from the sport. He continued to work in the motor industry before dying from pneumonia in 1922.