PastImperfect

 

From the archives of Bob Montgomery, motoring historian

THE FIRST GORDON BENNETT RACE: As is well known by readers of this column, the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903 held on a figure eight course in Ireland, marked the true start of international motoring racing.

If one is to be absolutely historically correct, however, the birth of international motor racing should have been the first race in the Gordon Bennett series of races, held in France in 1900. That it is not regarded as such was due to the chaotic nature of that event.

The Gordon Bennett series originated with the Coupe Gordon Bennett - a silver cup presented by James Gordon Bennett Jnr to the Automobile Club de France for an annual international motor race to be contested by teams of three cars representing each country. It was a condition that the cars had to be entirely manufactured in the country which they represented, although strangely, the nationality of the driver was not stipulated.

Four countries nominated teams for the first race: Germany and America a single car each; Belgium planned to enter a team of three but in the end had just a singleton entry. France, meanwhile, as befitted the country which regarded itself as the home of the motor industry, fielded a full team of three cars. However, as always seems to be the case with the Gordon Bennett series of races, considerable controversy surrounded the French entry.

The Automobile Club de France chose a team comprising of three Panhards, their drivers being Charron, Girardot and De Knyff. The fact that De Knyff was a director of the company and that Charron and Girardot were agents for the marque did not escape the attention of the disappointed contenders for team places. All hell broke loose, especially since Mors were the in-form racing manufacturer of the time. However, then as now, the Automobile Club de France were not for turning and so the three Panhards remained the official French entry in the race.

A month before the date chosen for the race - June 14th - the French police launched an anti-motorist campaign with the result that serious consideration was given to switching the race to Italy. However, it went ahead as planned, on a route between Paris and Lyons measuring 566 kms.

Such was the chaotic nature of the organisation of the event that the competitors were only informed of the route 24 hours before the start. Girardot started first followed by Camille Jenatzy in the sole Belgian entry driving an interesting twin-cylinder Bolide. Charron came next followed by Alexander Winton, the sole American representative driving a car of his own manufacture and followed by the last of the French entries, Rene de Knyff. There had been a German entry at the start but he declined to run as a protest at the short notice given of the route.

After 30 kms. the Three French cars were running nose-to-tail while the opposition trailed in the distance. Jenatzy managed 322 kms. before giving up, complaining "that he had never in his life met so many flocks of sheep on the road." Girardot hit a drain and destroyed his car and De Knyff broke his gears and was also out. Winton was also gone by this stage, his tiller steering proving not to be up to the task. At the 376 kms. mark Charron was in an unassailable lead but just as he approached the finish "an enormous dog jumped between the right front wheel and the spring, and the car instantly ran off the road, and after 60 yards of wild running was steered back to the road." What today we might call a phenomenal avoidance!

Charron ran out the only finisher and promptly returned to Paris by train. The chaotic nature of the race caused the 1901 and 1902 races to be relegated to minor affairs before the 1903 race in Ireland attracted the entry which would set international motor racing on its path to modern Grand prix racing.