The First Car Race & the Early Years of German Motorsports

Germany - Scott #2545 (2009)
Germany – Scott #2545 (2009)

Motor racing dates back to the days of the early motor car itself. Back then, however, it wasn’t motor racing as we know it today. There were cars which were far from sophisticated. They were huge gas guzzlers and low on power. They were unreliable and would break down at any time. They even lacked bare essentials like the windscreen, and a proper cockpit. The drivers were fearless and ambitious young men, who were willing to push their machines to the limit for that elusive glory and satisfaction. As motor-racing evolved, it witnessed some dramatic changes, came under legal restraints and today, every race has a governing body which lays down strict rules and regulations.

Being home to the modern car, the German automobile industry today is regarded as the most competitive and innovative in the world, and has the third highest car production in the world, and fourth highest total motor vehicle production. With an annual output close to six million and a 35.6% share of the European Union (2008),  The automotive industry in Germany is one of the largest employers in the world, with a labor force of over 747,000 (2009) working in the industry.

German-designed cars won in the European Car of the Year, the International Car of the Year, the World Car of the Year annual awards the most times among all countries. The Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 911 took 4th and 5th places in the Car of the Century award. In the late 1860s, Germany was always inspired by the British automotive industry with motor-car pioneers Karl Benz (who later went on to start Mercedes-Benz) and Nikolaus Otto developing four-stroke internal combustion engines in the late 1870s, Benz fitting his design to a coach in 1887, which led to the modern day motor car.

Karl Benz' Patent-Motorwagen Number 1, 1885
Karl Benz’ Patent-Motorwagen Number 2, 1887

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen (“patent motorcar”), built in 1885, is widely regarded as the world’s first production automobile, that is, a vehicle designed to be propelled by an internal combustion engine. The original cost of the vehicle in 1885 was 600 imperial German marks, approximately 150 US dollars (equivalent to $4,086 in 2017). The vehicle was awarded the German patent number 37435, for which Karl Benz applied on January 29, 1886. Following official procedures, the date of the application became the patent date for the invention once the patent was granted, which occurred in November of that year.

Benz’s wife, Bertha, financed the development process. According to modern law, she would have therefore received the patent rights, but married women were not allowed to apply for patents at the time. Benz unveiled his invention to the public on July 3, 1886, on the Ringstrasse in Mannheim.  About 25 Patent-Motorwagens were built between 1886 and 1893.

In 1894, Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Petit Journal, organized the world’s first motoring competition from Paris to Rouen to publicize his newspaper, to stimulate interest in motoring and to develop French motor manufacturing. Sporting events were a tried and tested form of publicity stunt and circulation booster. The paper promoted it as Le Petit Journal Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux (“Le Petit Journal Competition for Horseless Carriages”) that were “not dangerous, easy to drive, and cheap during the journey”, the main prize being for “the competitor whose car comes closest to the ideal”. The “easy to drive” clause effectively precluded from the prizes any vehicles needing a travelling mechanic or technical assistant such as a stoker.

Le Petit Journal announced prize money totaling 10,000 gold francs — 5,000 for first place, 2,000 for second, 1,500 for third; 1,000 for fourth, and 500 for fifth. The main prize was for the first eligible vehicle across the finish line in Rouen. One-hundred and two people paid the 10 franc entrance fee. They ranged from practical manufacturers like Peugeot, Panhard, de Dion-Bouton, and Serpollet to amateur owners and ‘over-ambitious concepts’. Seventy-eight entrants did not show up for qualifying on July 18, these included some 25 powered by unfamiliar and improbable technologies such as “gravity” — nine; “compressed air” — five; “automatic” — three; electricity — three; gas — three; hydraulics — two; liquid, pedals, propellers, and levers. Additionally, 19 petrol-powered designs and 26 steam-powered cars, quadricycles, and tricycles did not show up at the qualifying event.

The Peugeot from Albert Lemaître (starting number 65 in the first car race, held from Paris to Rouen on July 22, 1894), pictured on the left-hand rear seat is Adolphe Clément. The Peugeot with an engine manufactured under licence from Daimler was the first vehicle with a combustion engine to finish the race, crossing the line in second place.
The Peugeot from Albert Lemaître (starting number 65 in the first car race, held from Paris to Rouen on July 22, 1894), pictured on the left-hand rear seat is Adolphe Clément. The Peugeot with an engine manufactured under licence from Daimler was the first vehicle with a combustion engine to finish the race, crossing the line in second place.

Qualifying was held from July 19-21, 1894, and was preceded by a public exhibition of 26 cars to Neuilly-sur-Seine on July 18. Journalists reported great crowds and excitement throughout the routes, and at Précy-sur-Oise they finished through a triumphal arch. On July 19, 26 cars lined the side of the Boulevard Maillot, stretching to the Bois de Boulogne, each parked 33 feet (10 meters) apart until, at 8:00 am, the first car led off, followed at 15-second intervals by the others. The 31-mile (50 km) qualifying event had to be completed in under three hours to be eligible to start the main event, the 78-mile (126 km) race from Paris to Rouen; 21 were selected for the main event.

Qualifying was used as a major publicity tool for both the event and the newspaper “for our readers who want to see the cars on the roads around Paris.” The 22 vehicles were split into five groups who completed complex interwoven tours of Paris and its environs, including Mantes-la-Jolie, Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Flins-sur-Seine, Poissy, Triel-sur-Seine, Rambouillet, Versailles, Dampierre-en-Yvelines, Corbeil-Essonnes, Palaiseau, Précy-sur-Oise, Gennevilliers and L’Isle-Adam, Val-d’Oise. The groups were carefully balanced to ensure each included petrol and steam, a Peugeot, a Panhard & Levassor, and different seating. Le Petit Journal, on the morning of the event, still officially expected Lemoigne and his gravity-powered vehicle to participate, although he was included as an additional member of group five.

At 8:00 am on July 22, twenty-one qualifiers started from Porte Maillot and went via the Bois de Boulogne, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Courbevoie, Nanterre, Chatou, Le Pecq, Poissy, Triel-sur-Seine, Vaux-sur-Seine, and Meulan, to Mantes where they stopped for lunch from 12:00 pm until 1:30 pm, whence they set off to Vernon, Eure, Gaillon, Pont-de-l’Arche, and ‘Champ de Mars’ at Rouen.

In the world’s first car race from Paris to Rouen on July 22, 1894, over a distance of 126 kilometers, cars powered by Daimler engines won first prize. A vehicle from Benz also successfully took part in the race and was awarded fifth prize.
In the world’s first car race from Paris to Rouen on July 22, 1894, over a distance of 126 kilometers, cars powered by Daimler engines won first prize. A vehicle from Benz also successfully took part in the race and was awarded fifth prize.

Count de Dion was first into Rouen, after 6 hours 48 minutes at an average speed of 12 miles per hour (19 km/h). He finished 3 minutes 30 seconds ahead of Albert Lemaître (Peugeot), Auguste Doriot (Peugeot) (16 minutes 30 seconds back), Hippolyte Panhard (Panhard) (33 minutes 30 seconds) and Émile Levassor (Panhard) (55 minutes 30 seconds). The winner’s average speed was 11 miles per hour (17 km/h). Of the 15 vehicles which reached the finishing line, nine were fitted with Daimler engines, manufactured under license.

A 20-horsepower steam car was the first to reach the finishing line, but was placed second by the jury as it did not comply with the competition requirements. The Peugeot and Panhard-Levassor automobiles arrived within minutes of each other. All of them were powered by 3.5 hp engines, manufactured under Daimler license by Panhard-Levassor.

On Tuesday July 24, Le Petit Journal announced the prizes:

  • First prize, the Prix du Petit Journal for “the competitor whose car comes closest to the ideal” (5,000 francs) was shared equally between Panhard et Levassor and ‘Les fils de Peugeot Frères’.
  • Second prize, the Prix Marinoni (2,000 francs) was awarded to de Dion, Bouton et Cie for their “interesting steam tractor that works like a horse and gives both absolute speed and pulling power up hills”.
  • Third prize, the Prix Marinoni (1,500 francs) was awarded to Maurice Le Blant for his nine-seater vehicle powered by the ‘systeme Serpollet’.
  • Fourth prize, the Prix Marinoni (1,000 francs) was shared between two manufacturers, Alfred Vacheron (No. 24) and Le Brun (No. 42).
  • Fifth prize, the Prix Marinoni (500 francs) was awarded to Roger (No. 85)
Jules-Albert, Count de Dion finished first in a steam powered De Dion tractor towing a caléche carriage, but was not eligible for the prize. Among the passengers are the Count de Dion, Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt-Rothschild, and writer Émile Driant.
Jules-Albert, Count de Dion finished first in a steam powered De Dion tractor towing a caléche carriage, but was not eligible for the prize. Among the passengers are the Count de Dion, Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt-Rothschild, and writer Émile Driant.

Two cars fitted with a Daimler two-cylinder V-engine shared first prize and a Benz vehicle received 5th prize, something the Germans were quite proud of. The reliability test drive from Paris to Rouen paved the way for the unique tradition of 120 years of Mercedes-Benz motor sport history. The winners of the race were not only the vehicles from Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot, but the motor car powered by the fast-running Daimler engine demonstrated its superiority over road-going vehicles with other propulsion systems. This magic moment would change mobility for ever: “How can you travel other than in an motor car?”, is how Le Petit Journal summed up the result of the competition in an article on July 23 as it looked forward to the future with excitement and anticipation.

The engineer Emile Roger, starting in a Benz vehicle with an output of 3.7 kW (5 hp), was the 14th to cross the finishing line. In 1888, he became the sole agent for Benz vehicles and engines in France, but deliberately chose to avoid mentioning the origins of the Mannheim-based motor car when registering for the competition from Paris to Rouen in 1894. Roger took 5th place in the competition and in the final report, which was published in Le Petit Journal on July 24, was singled out for praise by virtue of the “successful improvements to the motor car with petrol engine”.

While Roger imported complete Benz vehicles, Daimler initially provided engine technology expertise for the French motor car manufacturer; as early as 1887, Gottlieb Daimler was negotiating with Edouard Sarazin from Paris about marketing his developments on French territory. Sarazin in turn agreed with businessman Emile Levassor that the latter would build the Daimler engines under license. Following Sarazin’s untimely death, his wife Madame Louise — she would later marry Levassor — carried on the business, thus laying the foundations for the French motor car industry. The engines built by Panhard & Levassor from 1889 onwards accelerated the development of the motor car in France.

The steam-powered tractor of Count Jules-Albert de Dion, which from a modern-day perspective seems utterly bizarre, may well have completed the route in the shortest time, but fulfilled the rules and regulations much less effectively than the more sophisticated motor cars. Other steam-powered vehicles also took part in the competition; three of these, however, failed to complete the route with its poor road conditions.

Painting of starting scene of the 1894 Paris Rouen Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux, on the front page of Le Petit Journal 5 August 1894. Car 27 is a Peugeot 3 hp driven by Louis Rigoulot.
Painting of starting scene of the 1894 Paris Rouen Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux, on the front page of Le Petit Journal 5 August 1894. Car 27 is a Peugeot 3 hp driven by Louis Rigoulot.

Races like the Concours du Petit Journal held in 1894 have a long tradition in France: Pierre Giffard, publisher of Le Petit Journal, also organized the Paris–Brest–Paris cycle race (1891) and the Paris marathon (1896). Yet the motor car race in July 1894 to find the most reliable vehicle took on a dimension that went beyond sport — it was about redefining mobility on the road. The competition was designed to help accomplish one of the great unsolved tasks faced by engineers: “At the end of the 19th century, human inventiveness, which in less than 100 years has created steam power, gas, electricity, and other types of propulsion, has still not found a mechanical process for replacing horses as the propulsion for vehicles.” Viewed from this perspective, the race from Paris to Rouen marked both the birth of motor sport and the finale of the competition between the various propulsion systems — from which the motor car would emerge as the undisputed winner.

Quite incidentally, the future name of the vehicle would be coined in the media reports from the 1894 race. Whereas Le Petit Journal was still referring to “horseless carriages with mechanical propulsion” in 1893 (voitures sans chevaux, à propulsion mécanique), the reporters in July 1894 were already writing about voiture automotrice and “automobile” in reference to the race.

Various vehicles, each powered with Daimler engines, notched up important victories in the ensuing years, thus underpinning the excellent reputation of cutting-edge technology from Stuttgart — including in the race from Paris to Bordeaux in June 1895, which was regarded as the first motor car race in the proper sense. The Paris–Marseille–Paris race from September 24 to October 3, 1896, was the first competitive ‘city to city’ motor race, where the first car across the line was the winner, prior events having selected the winner by various forms of classification and judging. The race was won by Émile Mayade who completed the ten-day, 1,710 km, event over unsurfaced roads in 67 hours driving a Panhard et Levassor. Many other legendary race victories recorded in France form part of the history of Mercedes-Benz motor sport including Daimler’s dominance in the Nice Race Week 1901, which gave rise to the brand name Mercedes.

1896 - Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade - Winner of Paris-Marseilles-Paris. This new 4 cylinder model won seven of the ten stages in the hands of 3 different drivers.
1896 – Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade – Winner of Paris-Marseilles-Paris. This new 4 cylinder model won seven of the ten stages in the hands of 3 different drivers.

In 1908, Christian Lautenschläger won the French Grand Prix in Dieppe in a Mercedes, ahead of two Benz race cars. In 1914, Daimler then celebrated a triple victory at the French Grand Prix in Lyon. In the era of the first Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows (1934 to 1939), the Stuttgart-based brand won the French Grand Prix in 1938 (Reims) and the Pau Grand Prix in 1939. France is also associated with the Mercedes-Benz decision to return to motor racing after the Second World War: in 1952 the 300 SL race car (W 194) won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, while 1954 saw the “Reims Wonder” — the double victory of the new W 196 R race car in the French Grand Prix — pave the way for the return of the Silver Arrows to Grand Prix racing.

In May 1898, the first German car race was staged, from Berlin to Potsdam and back. In his chronicle of the racing history of Mercedes-Benz, automotive historian Karl Eric Ludvigsen provides a vivid description of the advent of motor sport on German soil:

A few inquisitive souls had turned up to see the departure of thirteen chugging, rattling horseless carriages with their own eyes. It was the start of the first automobile driving competition in the German Empire. The cars roared off down the rutted main road in the direction of Potsdam — the town chosen as the turning point, from where the participants would set off on the return trip. Potsdam was also the residence of one of the first German promoters of motorization — Kaiser Wilhelm II. The 54-kilometre drive was also historic for another reason, as the first time Daimler and Benz automobiles had lined up together at the start.

The first Dolomites race around Bolzano in August 1898 was won by Wilhelm Bauer and Wilhelm Werner in their Daimler Viktoria car. The race, dominated by the 5.5 kW vehicle with a two-cylinder engine, is regarded as the first properly supervised long-distance car race through the Alps — and again it was Daimler that made its mark in the early history of motor sport. In 1899, Daimler cars scored a double victory in their class in the first Semmering race. The driver of the winning vehicle, a 12 hp Daimler Phoenix, was Emil Jellinek, originally from Vienna, a businessman and Austrian Consul General, who went on to become a famous name in motor sport circles. He ordered his first Daimler car in 1897. In 1898, he bought the world’ s first two road vehicles equipped with four-cylinder engines (8 hp Daimler Phoenix models), now mounted at the front.

Lancia Gamma-20HP (Tipo 55 Corsa) 1910 in Covent Garden London, 2007
Lancia Gamma-20HP (Tipo 55 Corsa) 1910 in Covent Garden London, 2007

In 1900, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the owner of the New York Herald and the International Herald Tribune, established the Gordon Bennett Cup. He hoped the creation of an international event would drive automobile manufacturers to improve their cars. Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars, which had to be fully built in the country that they represented and entered by that country’s automotive governing body. International racing colors were established in this event. The 1903 event occurred in the aftermath of the fatalities at the Paris-Madrid road race, so the race, at Athy in Ireland, though on public roads, was run over a closed circuit: the first ever closed-circuit motor race.

In the United States, William Kissam Vanderbilt II launched the Vanderbilt Cup at Long Island, New York in 1904.

The only race at the time to regularly carry the name Grand Prix was organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF), of which the first took place in 1906. The circuit used, which was based in Le Mans, was roughly triangular in shape, each lap covering 65 miles (105 km). Six laps were to run each day, and each lap took approximately an hour using the relatively primitive cars of the day. The driving force behind the decision to race on a circuit — as opposed to racing on ordinary roads from town to town — was the Paris to Madrid road race of 1903. During this race a number of people, both drivers and pedestrians — including Marcel Renault — were killed and the race was stopped by the French authorities at Bordeaux. Further road based events were banned.

Races in this period were heavily nationalistic affairs, with a few countries setting up races of their own, but no formal championship tying them together. The rules varied from country to country and race to race, and typically centered on maximum (not minimum) weights in an effort to limit power by limiting engine size indirectly (10–15 L engines were quite common, usually with no more than four cylinders, and producing less than 50 hp). The cars all had mechanics on board as well as the driver, and no one was allowed to work on the cars during the race except for these two. A key factor to Renault winning this first Grand Prix was held to be the detachable wheel rims (developed by Michelin), which allowed tire changes to occur without having to lever the tire and tube off and back on the rim. Given the state of the roads, such repairs were frequent.

Benz supercharged racecar, circa 1919
Benz supercharged racecar, circa 1919

For the most part, races were run over a lengthy circuit of closed public roads, not purpose-built private tracks. This was true of the Le Mans circuit of the 1906 Grand Prix, as well as the Targa Florio (run on 93 miles — 150 km — of Sicilian roads), the 75-mile (121 km) German Kaiserpreis circuit in the Taunus mountains, and the French circuit at Dieppe (a mere 48 miles or 77 km), used for the 1907 Grand Prix. The exceptions were the steeply banked egg-shaped near oval of Brooklands in England, completed in 1907, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, first used in 1909 with the first Indianapolis 500-Mile Race in 1911, and the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, in Italy, opened in 1922.

In 1904, many national motor clubs banded together to form the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR). In 1922, the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) was empowered on behalf of AIACR to regulate Grand Prix racing and other forms of international racing. Since the inception of Grand Prix racing, competitions had been run in accordance with a strict formula based on engine size and vehicle weight. These regulations were virtually abandoned in 1928 with an era known as Formula Libre when race organizers decided to run their events with almost no limitations. From 1927 to 1934, the number of races considered to have Grand Prix status exploded, jumping from five events in 1927, to nine events in 1929, to eighteen in 1934 (the peak year before World War II).

1937 BMW 328

During this period a lot of changes of rules occurred. There was a mass start for the first time at the 1922 French Grand Prix in Strasbourg. The 1925 season was the first season during which no riding mechanic was required in a car, as this rule was repealed in Europe after the death of Tom Barrett in previous year. At the 1926 Solituderennen a well thought-out system, with flags and boards, giving drivers tactical information, was used for the first time by Alfred Neubauer, the racing manager of the Mercedes-Benz team.

Starting from 1922, the first races were held on a 33 km long combination of public roads around Nideggen, Wollersheim, Vlatten, Heimbach, Hasenfeld and other villages in the Eifel mountains of Germany, similar to the Targa Florio which was a very important race at that time, and popular in Germany due to two wins by Mercedes (still without Benz then).

In 1922, all vehicles were allowed, cars, motorbikes, and even bicycles with supporting engines. Over 100 entrants showed up to compete in the 10 lap event. The track was not paved, and muddy after heavy rains. In 1924 to 1926, the races for 2 and 4 wheels were held on separate days, and classes were introduced. Still, several fatal accidents happened. Even spectator stands collapsed, caused by stormy weather.

The unsatisfying safety situation led to the construction of the Nürburgring circuit in that area. The original Nürburgring was to be a showcase for German automotive engineering and racing talent. Construction of the track, designed by the Eichler Architekturbüro from Ravensburg (led by architect Gustav Eichler), began in September 1925. The track was completed in spring of 1927, and the ADAC Eifelrennen races were continued there. The first races to take place on Saturday June 18, 1927, showed motorcycles and sidecars. The first motorcycle race was won by Toni Ulmen on an English 350 cc Velocette. The cars followed a day later, and Rudolf Caracciola was the winner of the over 5000 cc class in a Mercedes-Benz Compressor. In addition, the track was opened to the public in the evenings and on weekends, as a one-way toll road. The whole track consisted of 174 bends (prior to 1971 changes), and averaged 26 to 30 feet (8 to 9 m) in width. The fastest time ever around the full Gesamtstrecke was by Louis Chiron, at an average speed of 72 miles per hour (112.31 km/h) in his Bugatti.

Germany - Scott #2545 (2009) first day cover, Berlin postmark
Germany – Scott #2545 (2009) first day cover, Berlin postmark
Germany - Scott #2545 (2009) first day cover, Bonn postmark
Germany – Scott #2545 (2009) first day cover, Bonn postmark

Germany commemorated the 115th anniversary of the Le Petit Journal Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux with a single stamp contained in a miniature sheet released on August 13, 2009 (Scott #2545). Designed by Henning Wagenbreth and printed using offset lithography by Giesecke & Devrient of Leipzig in a quantity numbering 3,150,000, the 85-euro cent sheet is perforated 14 and depicts several different racecars under the stylized castle of Nürburg which overlooks the Nürburgring circuit. These cars date back to the earliest days of what is now called the “North Loop” of the circuit which opened in 1927. Pictured are a BMW 328 — the most successful sports car of its time —in addition to the MG Midget, a small roadster manufactured from 1928 to 1932. The Bugatti T37 was especially successful in mountain races. In the early 1930s, the Talbot 105 regularly won races and from 1932 dominated the Alfa Romeo P3 races. Only six cars were produced by the Maserati 6 C 34 between 1934 and 1935. These vehicles are representative of the fascination of motorsport as well as of historic automobiles.

Today, there are over 100 major racing events for historic vehicles in Germany alone. One of the most famous and, with more than 60,000 visitors, one of the biggest is the German Automobile Club’s (AvD) Oldtimer Grand Prix on the Nürburgring circuit, which was held for the 37th time in 2009. In the “Green Hell” of the North Loop, over 600 classic racing cars in 10 different classes participated.

Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany

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