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Greatest Races – 1903 Paris to Madrid City to City Race

City to City Races - Before LeMans The Great French City to City Races Were The Origins of Motor Racing

1903 Paris - Madrid
1903 Paris - Madrid

1903 Paris to Madrid – The Race to Death

By Charles Jarrott

PARIS-BORDEAUX! The very name conjures up old memories of struggles, grim and fierce, and thrilling fights amongst those whose names are now almost forgotten, but who, on the old Paris-Bordeaux road, struggled in years past for the title of ‘King of the Road’.

It all began in the days before motors were thought of and when the cycle held its own as the most rapid form of road vehicle. Mills, Holbein, Huret, Lesna, Linton – great riders of their day – struggled hard to win the great road race of the year, Paris to Bordeaux. Later, De Knyff, Charron, Girardot, Farman, Fournier and others whose names are quite forgotten, fought the same battles over the same long, straight stretches. Their course was fleet and the pace was fierce, but it was all on the same old fascinating road, and, as a grand finale, Paris to Bordeaux was the first, and, as it eventually turned out, the last stage of the last great inter-country race, Paris to Madrid.

What do I remember of that race?

Long avenues of trees, top-heavy with foliage and gaunt in their very nakedness of trunk; a long, never-ending white ribbon, stretching away to the horizon; the holding of a bullet directed to that spot on the sky-line where earth and heaven met; fleeting glimpses of towns and dense masses of people – mad people, insane and reckless, holding themselves in front of the bullet to be ploughed and cut and maimed to extinction, evading the inevitable at the last moment in frantic haste; overpowering relief, as each mass was passed and each chance of catastrophe escaped; and beyond all, the horrible feeling of being hunted. Hundreds of cars behind, of all sizes and powers, and all of them at my heels, traveling over the same road, perhaps faster than I, and all striving to overtake me, pour dust on me, and leave me behind as they sped on to the distant goal of Bordeaux.

Even at the start, the remembrance of the gigantic line of vehicles at Versailles, all awaiting to receive the signal to dash after me, weighed me down and as we sped on and on and they came not, the strain became worse and worse. I have sympathy now with the hunted animal, for once in my life I was hunted; and of all the impressions of that wild rush to Bordeaux that awful feeling of being hunted was the vivid and lasting, and having experienced it, I do not wonder that Number One has seldom won a race.

Then that long lapse at Bordeaux after my arrival, and the ominous rumours that trickled through as the cars began to arrive. Stories of death and fearful accidents, drivers killed and spectators maimed. Then, as the confirmation of these rumours came along, the realization that the inevitable had at last happened; that the last chapter had been written of the great sport and that inter-country races could be held no more; the longing for news of friends in the race; anxiety at their non-arrival; grief at the realization that of the many sufferers one of my best friends was terribly injured! I live it all over again, and I think it impossible for anyone to have gone through in one day more varied sensations than I experienced on that eventful day when we started from Paris to go to Bordeaux.

Hundreds of cars of all sorts, shapes and sizes. Some un-safe, unsuitable and impossible. Some driven by men with every qualification as racing drivers; others with drivers having no qualifications-all let loose over that long, broad road to ‘Get there!’

1903 Paris - Madrid

I went back over the road after the race and I marveled, not that several had been killed but that so many had escaped. Cars in fragments, cars in fields, some upside down, others with no wheels. The sufferers were not all in-experienced and two of the old brigade, Marcel Renault an Lorraine Barrow, handled the steering wheel for the last time, drove their last race and paid the extreme penalty.

‘The Race to Death!’ It need not have been so, but by an unfortunate combination of circumstances the leveling up of the penalties payable for the risk of motor racing took place in one event. Before, and since, what escapes many drivers have had! The same terrible smashes were experienced but no penalty was exacted.

My old love had been forsaken. For the first time I was discarding the Panhard for the De Dietrich. Since my previous victory in the Circuit of the Ardennes I had started my own business in London and selected the De Dietrich firm as the most progressive of all the French manufacturers. I hoisted their colors and accepted the leading position in their team for the Paris-Madrid race in the year 1903.

De Dietrich et Cie had in the years gone by occupied a prominent position in the French industry and the racing cars they were building for the Paris-Madrid race were not the first vehicles of the kind made by them. The brains of Turcat and Méry, the well-known French engineers, had, however, been brought to the assistance of the De Dietrich house and although the racing programme was not new, the cars themselves were of a power and type entirely novel and I, as driving one of these cars, had to stand or fall by its capabilities and behavior in the actual race.

Peculiarly enough, the three big cars made by De Dietrich for the race were all to be driven by Englishmen – Stead, a sturdy Yorkshireman, acclimatized to France by many years of residence, one of the very oldest of the old racing crowd; Lorraine Barrow, an Englishman resident at Biarritz and one of the experts of the Continent; and myself. De Dietrich cars of smaller power were being driven by several other drivers, including Madame de Gast, but the real hopes of De Dietrich lay in one of the three big cars.

The startI have already explained that the racing cars were of a new type, and I realized this when for one long, long week before the start I watched my car being built and rebuilt. The first trouble that happened was that through a miscalculation the car was considerably over the 19-½ cwt. limit. Everything was done to bring the weight down, but unsuccessfully, and at the last moment an engine of considerably less horsepower had to be fitted. I may say that this new engine had been put through as a safeguard in the case of the car weighing too heavy. The additional advantages obtained here, however, were that much stronger axles and much stronger springs were fitted, as the weight saved through the use of the smaller motor was very considerable, and we decided that in view of the bad roads of Spain it might be better policy to build the carriage to stand the fearful roads it would have to travel over in Spain, than merely to construct it with a view to speed.

Innumerable troubles presented themselves one after the other and we almost despaired that the car would be ready in time for the race. As for it being properly tried prior to the start, this was an absolute impossibility. My one great consolation lay in the fact that Stead’s and Barrow’s machines were giving as much, or nearly as much, trouble as mine.

At last all was ready. The slipping clutch, which had been giving all the trouble, had been arranged with a long lever to which a strap was attached and I was informed that, if I had trouble with my clutch, I was to hang on to the strap and force it to hold. How I was to do this and drive a racing car at eighty miles an hour at the same time was not explained. However, the mechanics had been working on my car for three nights running, with the keenest possible enthusiasm, and for their sakes I determined at least to start and see how far I could get before disaster overtook me.

So off I dashed to Versailles for food and sleep and the last preparations for the race on the morrow.

Number One was my starting position on the following morning and, as I slipped over the ground out of Paris I thought that an appropriate place for me would have been at the end instead of the beginning of the procession. To my astonishment, however, the car was going well. Untried as it was, I nevertheless quickly realized that it was capable of traveling quite fast; but as for Madrid, why, of course it was an impossibility and this knowledge made my expression very gloomy as I walked into the Hotel des Reservoirs, at Versailles on my arrival.

At two o’clock on the following morning Barrow came into my bedroom and roused me from a very sound slumber. From some inexplicable cause, my car, which had taken an hour to start on the previous evening, started up immediately. Perhaps Bianchi, who was my mechanic and was accompanying me for the first time in a big race, had, during the night, coaxed it into a submissive mood. But try as we would, Barrow’s car would not start. Eventually, with a shake of the hand, I had to leave him to his task as, being first, I had to be in my position early.

Never did I wish a friend good luck more sincerely than I did Lorraine Barrow on that eventful morning, and never did a wish go more awry. It was the last time I ever saw him, and the memory of that handgrip in the darkness, in the hotel yard at Versailles is one of my few sad recollections in connection with motor racing.

Picking my way carefully through the thousands of sightseers in Versailles, I arrived at the Park from which the start was to take place and got to the front of the long line already formed. The thousands assembled to see the start had availed themselves of every possible point of vantage, and a dense, living mass filled the road right through the Park. The rising of the curtain on the last great act of road racing of the old style was dramatic and inspiring, with a vast concourse, assembled to witness it, and unhappy as I was when I considered my own chance of winning the race, it was never the less a thrilling moment when taking my place, the very first car to start, with hundreds to follow me to Madrid.

De Knyff was Number Two and Louis Renault Number Three. Those of us in front decided that it was too dark at three-thirty – the time fixed for the start – and so a respite of a further fifteen minutes was granted before dispatching me.

I asked what would happen to the swaying mass of people blocking the road when I started and the only answer I received was a shrug of the shoulders and a reply that they would clear soon enough when once I got going. The soldiers intended for keeping the course clear were swallowed up in the huge concourse of spectators and disorder reigned supreme.

Three forty-five at last. On with the switch and away went the motor. A hundred handshakes and a mighty roar from the crowd and I was off. It seemed impossible that my swaying, bounding car could miss the reckless spectators. A wedge shaped space opened out in the crowd as I approached and so fine was the calculation made that at times it seemed impossible for the car not to overtake the apex of the human triangle and deal death and destruction. I tried slowing down, but quickly realized that the danger was as great at forty miles an hour as at eighty. It merely meant that the crowd waited a longer time on the road; and the remembrance of those hundreds of cars behind me and the realization that the hunt had commenced made me put on top speed and hope that Providence would be kind to the weak intellects which allowed their possessors to run such risks so callously.

Regarding that portion of the Paris-Bordeaux road to Chartres I was ignorant. After Chartres I remembered it well, but the first corner after leaving the Park at Versailles nearly led to my undoing. As a matter of instinct, in motor racing, when traveling over a strange road and being in doubt as to the direction, one always took the road on which most people happened to be congregated and on this occasion, coming to a fork, I decided to take the road to the right when, suddenly, as I arrived at the corner, I perceived the left-hand road was the correct one. Although traveling at eighty miles an hour I perceived that I could just make the turn and as we swung round we missed the curbstone by inches.

I previously mentioned that my engine had had no running on the road and now, as I began to press her, she began to clank in an ominous manner. It was obvious that she required very gentle handling and I slackened down a little while Bianchi slaved at the lubricating pump and poured oil into the base chamber.

My great trouble was with my clutch, which persisted in slipping. I had, however, the long metal lever and strap and by pulling on the strap we could do what the clutch spring refused to do, namely, make the clutch hold. Until Bianchi had to start pumping oil, he of course hung on to the strap and prevented the clutch slipping, but he required two hands pump and even then it was terribly hard work. Hence I had to hold on to the strap with one hand and steer with the other. And still we were pegging away on to Rambouillet, and Chartres.

It was not unexpected, however, when before Rambouillet was reached, Bianchi told me by gesticulations that De Knyff was just behind. We must have been traveling well in spite of my having reduced speed, for it took him some time before he got by and dropped us. And then Louis Renault came along very fast and was soon away, and immediately afterwards we reached Rambouillet control and found both cars there. De Knyff, however, was in trouble with his ignition and, he being delayed, I followed Louis Renault out of the control. Soon after, De Knyff came along again, but stopped immediately and this was the last time I saw him. Renault was traveling magnificently but, we also were going well and I had hopes that I should pull back the lead he had gained. I was delighted with the way in which my De Dietrich was behaving. Practically its first trial on the road and it was running like an old, well-tried car. And then, suddenly, with a sob, the motor stopped.

If there was one particular trouble in racing from which I suffered most, it was stoppages in the fuel pipe and this was the cause of my stoppage on this occasion. As I drew up on the grass on the right-hand side of the road I wondered how many cars would pass me before I got going again. We quickly located the trouble and started to disconnect the pipe from the tank and carburetor to clear it. The sensation I have mentioned of being hunted had overpowered me from the very start, and as we worked away it was almost with a sense of relief that I expected the other cars to come up and thus enable me to join in the chase instead of being chased myself.

It was a glorious morning, not then six o’clock, the sun shining and the air so clean and fresh; and after the roar and rush of the wind when the car had been traveling, everything seemed so still. Not a sound could be heard except our own labored breathing as we toiled on the car. In vain I listened for the well-known hum in the distance betokening the approach of another car. It seemed incredible. We appeared to have stopped hours and yet no cars had overtaken us. Where was De Knyff? Where were the go 90 h.p. Mercedes which were to have overwhelmed us at the very start? Where were the big Panhards? Had some terrible catastrophe happened and the road become blocked in some manner or other? It seemed impossible that we could have traveled at a speed sufficient to have gained so much time on all the rest. And then we finished our work, the motor started up again, Bianchi resumed his pumping and we were off en route for Tours.

It was almost with a sickening feeling that I realized I was still the goal which the struggling multitude behind were endeavoring to overtake. As a race of sheer enjoyment I only appreciated that portion after Tours. The worries of the engine and the clutch, and the dense masses of people at every town made the experience anything but pleasurable, keen as I was on the sport. In addition to this, in every control I was by myself. I might have been endeavoring to create a great record entirely alone, instead of being one of hundreds of cars rushing to Bordeaux, for I saw none of them. Louis Renault was in front but so far in front that he had left each control before I arrived.

1903 Paris - MadridAnd then, just before Tours, Werner, on one of the huge Mercedes racers, came along and after a tussle, was by and at last I had company. We had done so well that the fact that no other cars had caught us pleased me beyond measure, and as we trundled through Tours to the outward control, little Bianchi’s face, greasy and oily, was one broad grin of approval; and whether I was having a good time or not, it was perfectly clear that he was glorying in his first experience of a big road-race. Never was any engineer keener over his engines than Bianchi was over any car which I was driving in any race, and even his lack of knowledge of the French language did not prevent him from capturing from under the noses of the guardian mechanics on the road – whether they belonged to De Dietrich or not – all and everything necessary for the good running and health of the car. I think his unadulterated enjoyment had something to do with the sheer abandon with which I drove the remainder of the race to Bordeaux.

On going back over the times, I find that all my time was lost over the first half of the journey and that from Tours on, our times were not touched by any other competitor.

While waiting at the outward control at Tours, another car rolled up and I was delighted to find it was Stead on his De Dietrich, starting Number Five. Halfway to Bordeaux and out of the first four cars two were Dietrich-this seemed a good record for the marquee. However, for some reason or other, Stead was very gloomy. He grumbled at his car and abused his mechanician for some fault or other in a splendid combination of English and French. I enquired for news of Lorraine Barrow, and learned that he had arrived at the start alright and, moreover, Stead had seen him at a control a distance back, when he was going very well. In the middle of my conversation with Stead, Werner’s time expired and he was dispatched, and a gasp went out from the crowd as they saw the manner in which his car rushed up the winding road out of Tours.

One minute after, I was off and soon into his dust. Five kilometers farther on, with a wrench of the wheel, I just missed the fragments of his car in the road, smashed to bits, and in the same second I saw both Werner and his man standing by the car, obviously unhurt and the former sufficiently unconcerned as to be occupied in lighting a cigarette before even he could have known the cause of the accident. It appeared that his back axle had broken when traveling at top speed, and his escape must have been miraculous; but nothing could shake the phlegmatism, characteristic not only of the Fatherland, but also of most of the best drivers of racing cars. It does not do to have nerves if engaged in driving a racing car, but Werner’s stolidity was out of the ordinary and his smash occurred so suddenly that he could have had no warning.

Louis Renault was thirty-five minutes ahead but we were now utilizing the full power of the motor and the car was traveling grandly. Corners did not exist. Hills disappeared and on the long, straight stretches it was merely a question of holding on.

Ruffec at last and here we were in trouble. More delay, in the changing of an ignition plate, red hot from the heat of the engine. How long it took us I know not. I remember a blazing hot sun, a crowd of spectators who crowded on us regardless of our warnings that other cars were coming along the road, and the handling of the red hot pieces of metal with our bare hands, not noticing in our feverish haste to be off again that every time we took hold of those fiery parts the touch blistered, white and hot.

A welcome glass of champagne and we were off and away once more, on to Angoulême. Talking of champagne reminds me of the manner and method of taking food on those road events. Of course, it was possible in the controls to obtain almost anything in the way of refreshments. I seldom arrived in a town without finding a friend ready with some form of food and drink, but the difficulty was that if trouble was being experienced it was seldom possible to eat or drink. I remember seeing Bianchi, suddenly attacked by hunger munching a roll of bread which had received in some unhappy manner a bath of lubricating oil, but, as he explained to me afterwards, so intent was he on our engine that he had not noticed what he was eating.

Faster and still faster, until we seemed to be merely skimming over the ground and a savage joy possessed me when I realized that we were holding our own with the hunters. The game was probably escaping; anyhow, we had not been caught. The reckless crowds, assembled in the road at the entrance to each village and town, now had no terror. We slackened for nothing. Bordeaux 120 kilometers away (75 miles) and we had not been caught and overwhelmed by that long line I had seen as I made my way to the start in the morning. Renault was in front but he was not in our class and we were now gaining even on him. Then, away in the distance, on the hill, Angoulême appeared in sight and another stage had been completed.

Here the inhabitants and spectators were frantic with excitement and congratulations; flowers and fruit were showered on us. Then an excited official at the control rushed up and said that Jenatzy, on a 90 Mercedes, had left the last control and was hard on my heels and he implored me, for the sake of La Belle France to beat the German car into Bordeaux. And I rose to the occasion and swore that, come what might, my De Dietrich would finish first before any German car should be allowed to enter Bordeaux. I was also informed that Renault was still thirty-five minutes ahead, so that any hope of beating him was gone unless he broke down before Bordeaux.

Baron de Caters, MercedesJust as we were off, Bianchi got down and gave a hurried look around the car to see if everything was all right for our last dash, and suddenly informed me with horror in his voice that our front wheels were coming to pieces, the spokes having loosened themselves in the hub. I think I should have got down and investigated the matter had it not been for the knowledge that Jenatzy was coming up just behind me and might arrive at any moment. The bystanders saw the trouble also and were terribly excited when I told Bianchi to jump up. If the wheels held up, a bucket of water on each at Bordeaux would put them right for the next stage and I could do nothing but take the risk.

The road after Angoulême is a series of twists and turns, corners and angles, and it was on this portion of the road that most of the unfortunate accidents in the race took place. It was here, however, that we made our biggest gain. At this time I was driving as for my life, Jenatzy behind, Renault in front, and as corner after corner was negotiated, and nearer and nearer we drew to the finish with the car going better than ever, I longed for another two hundred kilometers in which to make up our lost time before Tours. That our wheels might go at any moment had not entered my head after leaving Angoulême, and when, suddenly in the distance, a white flag stretched across the road appeared, it seemed almost incredible that we had arrived at Bordeaux, the ninety kilometers between Angoulême and Bordeaux had been covered so quickly. We averaged over sixty miles an hour over this stretch and gained twenty minutes on Louis Renault, finishing fifteen minutes behind him.

No one had expected that there was any possibility of my finishing in almost the same position as that in which I had started, but it is the unexpected which always happens in racing, and the De Dietrich car, regarding which little had been said prior to the event, had provided a sensation of the race.

I was surprised to see so many friends at the control in Bordeaux. English and French, they impressed upon me their gratification and satisfaction at my having got through so successfully. Then, with an official on my car, I made my way into the town to the closed park where the cars were locked up until the start of the second stage.

A long interval took place before any other cars arrived. I made my way to my hotel and afterwards back to the control to watch other arrivals. One or two cars arrived, but very little information was forthcoming from their drivers; they all seemed very vague as to what had happened to any cars other than their own.

Then, in an extraordinary manner it began to be whispered that terrible accidents had happened, but no one knew from whence these rumours had come, only everybody was uneasy and fearful. Presently the cars began to roll in thick and fast and the rumours were confirmed by the various drivers, but instead of being accurate in detail, everything was exaggerated. Every driver had a different story until it seemed at last as if the road of passage must have been bestrewed with dead and dying. Who was killed? Who was hurt? What had happened? A feeling of horror came over those of us assembled in the control that we had participated in a great carnage and the lack of reliable information made matters so much worse. Charron eventually arrived, having driven a touring car in the race with ladies as passengers, as he had not been able to get his racing car in time, and from him I learned more than from anyone else. There had undoubtedly been terrible accidents and I was horrified to learn that Lorraine Barrow and Stead, on their De Dietrichs, were smashed up and seriously injured and not expected to live, Barrow’s mechanician having been killed on the spot. Stead had been cut down by another car and capsized at eighty miles an hour, while Barrow had struck a dog, deranged his steering and struck a tree end on at top speed. Marcel Renault had also smashed, and there had been dozens of other accidents en route. Charron said he had never seen anything like the scene the road presented.

1903 Paris - Madrid

Other cars came in and other stories were told. An English car driven by a novice had upset on a corner, and the unfortunate Englishman accompanying the driver had been pinned under the car, which caught fire and burned him to death. In Chatellerault, a child had dashed in front of one of the cars and a soldier had rushed to save it. The driver, endeavoring to avoid both, not only struck and killed them, but also dashed into the crowd which hemmed the course.

I need not recapitulate the list of deaths. The English papers of the 25th of May had the details of what they termed ‘The Race to Death’.

Road racing was dead. Never again would it be possible to suggest a speed event over the open roads and the sport-which, while it was sport, was in my opinion the best of all sports-was finished. The peculiar thing about it all was that the outside world had not appreciated up to that moment that there was an element of danger in motor racing. One or two drivers had certainly been injured, but accidents were very rare; and then, suddenly, by one of those compensations which occur with all things in life, the toll was paid in one event, and so heavy was it that with a shudder and a gasp the world at large realized that motor racing might be really deadly.

The French Government decided the matter for every-body concerned. The race was stopped forthwith and all the racing cars taken possession of by the authorities. Special trains were secured and the cars were dragged to the railway station behind horses and returned to Paris; not even the motors were allowed to be started.