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Races that Shook the World

Races that Shook the World

Автором Rodney Walkerley

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Races that Shook the World

Автором Rodney Walkerley

133 pages
1 hour
Oct 14, 2015


This exciting narrative recounts dramatically nine races which are memorable in motor history by reason of their technical importance, or the essential drama of the race described, or their impact on automobile development and design.
The stories selected range from the earliest motor race of all between Paris and Rouen, shortly before the turn of the century (1894), and the sinister Paris-Madrid race of 1903 to the disastrous contest at Le Mans and other events of contemporary times.
(1959 - Rodney Walkerley)
Oct 14, 2015

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Races that Shook the World - Rodney Walkerley



Shortly after 3:30 a.m. one of the first starters, Sydney Girling, wheeled out his Wolseley and crossed the line—the ill-fated, tragic race from Paris to Madrid had begun.

Apparently in no danger, Marcel Renault roared down the dusty road from Paris.

That is what they called it at the time—The Race to Death. I refer, of course, to the historic race from Paris to Madrid in 1903 which had to be stopped by the French Government when the cars reached the control at Bordeaux. That race not only startled the world with the high speed of the big cars of the period but quite suddenly and tragically enlightened the public as to the perils of thronging the sides of unguarded roads while machines are rocketing past at high speeds—a lesson which the multitudes that line the route of the Mille Miglia have still not absorbed.

But, actually, the race which first shook the world really took place in 1894—and it was not actually a race at all. Just the same, it was a contest between mechanically propelled light locomotives, to wit, automobiles, and the world woke up to the fact that whether they liked it or not, a new age had arrived ; the horse-drawn vehicle was on the way out. July 22 of that year may be likened to the day when the Wright brothers’ contrivance flapped into the air at Kitty Hawk or the more recent day when the Russians made a rocket powerful enough to hurl a metal sphere into an orbit of its own around the Earth.

I have, of course, gone to Gerald Rose’s masterwork, A Record of Motor Racing, published by authority of the Royal Automobile Club in 1909, for the facts of the case. Rose points out that the first actual motor race was staged as early as 1887 by the French newspaper Vélocipède at the instigation of a M. Fossier, in which only one machine was able to start, a four-wheeler steam-driven coach conducted by the famous Count de Dion, whose name is still associated with rear suspension of modern racing cars. Thus the 1894 competition is usually regarded as the first real race, although it was a reliability run from Paris to Rouen, and this had been preceded by somewhat hilarious qualifying trials on routes radiating from Paris.

The remarkable thing is that La Petit Journal, whose M. Pierre Giffard organized the Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux, which was its correct title, received no fewer than 102 entries, although most of them existed on paper, if at all. The entry forms detailing the motive power, as gasoline was by no means the universal provider at

But a few minutes after the preceding picture was taken, Renault lost control while passing another car, spun off the road, and was fatally injured.

the time, contained several indications that other sources of vehicle propulsion still remain untapped.

More than one was entered as being moved by gravity; others ran by means of hydraulics, compressed air, the weight of the passengers, systems of levers, pedals, pneumatics, electricity, and one was stated to be quite simply automatic; (another was even more simply, self-acting.)

Speed was not the sole factor in this event. A committee was to decide which vehicle had set up the best performance as an automobile for carrying passengers. It is interesting to note that in this day when more than one engineer is turning his attention to steam once again, of the entries which were at least entities of reality, 38 were driven by gasoline, 31 by steam. On July 19, 17 cars and coaches underwent the trials and finally, as the great day dawned, 21 machines had been accepted, to run the 80 miles from the Port Maillot in Paris to Rouen, with check points on the way and (naturally) a luncheon interval at Mantes. There was great public interest when the machines assembled at seven in the morning as 19 competitors set off one by one, led by a massive de Dion steam tractor which was attached to the back half of an elegant carriage.

Rose found it impossible to establish the actual average speeds achieved on account of the numerous official halts, but he estimates that the de Dion, which kept ahead all the way, even after an excursion into a field caused by mistaking the route and trying to get round an impossible comer, averaged 11.6 m.p.h. with a Peugeot probably a little faster.

In the end the first prize of £200 was awarded jointly to the firm of Panhard and Levassor of Ivry-on-Seine and the Peugeot concern from Valentigny in the Jura, both of which used Daimler engines from Wurtemburg. Among the finishers, 12 cars had 3½ h.p. gasoline engines, eight were steamers—among them de Dion’s heavy tractor which was not considered a real motorcar, somewhat understandably. Five Peugeots finished, four Panhards, four Serpollet steamers, a Benz and other makes, long since vanished, were Le Brun, Vacheron, de Bourmont, Gautier Wehrle (steamer), Scotte (steamer) and the de Montais steam tricycle whose boiler was warmed by gasoline lamps.

This affair may be said to have put the newfangled horseless carriage in the headlines of the world, and at once the attention of enthusiasts turned to racing pure and simple. It does not seem to have occurred to anybody, so early in the new era, that racing could be dangerous, except perhaps to the drivers who were so soon to experience the terrors of hurtling down dusty bumpy roads at crowds who stood across their path, opening up only at the last moment (which in several cases, it was). Towns on the route were controls,

through which the cars were driven behind a cyclist in neutralized time, but villages and hamlets were virtually unguarded and taken flat.

After the final banquet at Rouen, competitors and others interested formed themselves into an enthusiastic committee to organize a real race. This committee became, in due course, the great Automobile Club de France, governing body of the sport from that day until the formation of what is now the International Federation of National Automobile Clubs.

Led by Count de Dion and backed by the Baron de Zuylen de Nye-velt, the committee met in November of 1894 to plan a full-scale race

The first of the Gordon Bennett races to be run on a closed circuit—and the only one to be held on British soil—was in 1903. In this picture, Henri Farman’s Panhard hits top speed on the circuit near Belfast.

from Paris to Bordeaux and back, and in June of the following year the world saw what may be considered the first real motor race. Thirteen gas-driven cars, six steamers, an electric vehicle and two motorcycles went off at two minute intervals from Versailles. One of the stipulations was that the winning car must have more than two seats (which is why Levassor, who finished first on a Panhard at 15 m.p.h., was disqualified and placed second); another laid it down that repairs could be done only with equipment carried on the car throughout the race—a rule which was perpetuated in the Le Mans 24 Hours up to last year.

Production car racing came in 1900 with the Catalogue Race held in February of that year on a triangular course of 44 miles and another circuit race was held at Pau, where the mountainous course measured 209 miles.

International racing arrived in the same year. James Gordon Bennett offered a handsome trophy and now

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