The great city-to-city races were the origin of motor-racing. Attempts had been made to organize an event back in 1887, but the the Paris-Rouen reliability test of 1894 saw motor-cars take to the roads to compete for the first time. The following decade saw interest in the events increase dramatically, and more competitors meant more events. The speeds increased too; with Henri Fournier’s average speed in the 1901 Paris-Berlin race being quadruple that of Count de Dion in 1894.
Increased speeds and increased numbers of spectators (often poorly marshaled spectators, not aware of the dangers the cars posed) perhaps inevitably led to rising casualties among competitors and spectators alike. This reached boiling point at the 1903 Paris-Madrid event, the “Race to Death”, which was curtailed at Bordeaux as shaken-competitors refused to race any further. The French authorities, who had always been to the fore when organizing road-races, promptly ceased to sanction this type of event. While road-races continued they were now primarily to be found on closed-circuits, albeit very long circuits, and the first great era of motor-racing had come to a close.
Below, we take you through some of the most accomplished drivers from the era.
Fernand Charron was born on May 30th, 1866 in Angers and died on August 13th, 1928 in Maisons-Laffitte, France. Charron was a French pioneer of motor racing. He started his sporting career as a successful cyclist.In 1891 he won the French National Stayers Championships riding a bicycle around a track following a tandem.
Between 1897 and 1903 he took part in 18 car races, 4 of which he won. In 1898 he won the Marseille–Nice and the Paris–Amsterdam–Paris races. The next year he added Paris–Bordeaux.
That same year he was challenged by American manufacture, Winton to a race. The race took place in Paris and would end in Lyons. Compared to Charron’s Panhard et Levassor the Winton looked sadly old-fashioned. The Winton broke down on the road to Lyons and the Panhard was a lonely winner at Lyons.
In 1900 Charron won the inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup (Paris–Lyon) in 1900, though his race was not uneventful when during the latter part of the race he crashed into a St Bernard dog which became wedged between the right wheel and the suspension and jammed the steering, though he still won the race. His mechanic during the race, Henri Fournier would become a champion racer in his own right.
In 1901, in partnership with Léonce Girardot and Emile Voigt, he established a company called Automobiles Charron, Girardot et Voigt (CGV) just outside of Paris.
In 1905 the company produced the first armored car which they sold to Russia with design input from a Russian officer, M.A. Nakasjidze, based on his experiences from the then on-going Russo-Japanese war. Charron later accused the Germans of stealing their design.
Charron retired after an unsuccessful season in 1903 and in addition to CGV he worked as manager of Adolphe Clément’s factory complex at Levallois-Perret which produced cycles as well as motor cars. While working for Clément he married and later divorced his daughter, Jeanne. Girardot resigned in 1906 and Charron left the company in the same year; but with the help of a major cash contribution from investors in England he was able to found Automobiles Charron Limited and produced cars for Alda, another automobile company.
During WWI he sold cars to the military and when peace arrived he divested himself of the Alda business, selling it in 1920 to the Compagnie Générale d’Électricité (CGE). Charron continued to produce cars under his own name. By 1919 the company was offering seven models but a year later the range was down to a more sustainable three models. Sales began to fall and Charron’s own energies were focused on a Citroën dealership which he had recently acquired as well as his investment in the parent company. 1930 was the final year of production but by then Charron was dead.
Marquis Jules-Albert de Dion
The Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne was born on March 9, 1856. While the automobile was invented in Germany, it was the French who pioneered its use and development leading the racing world at the turn of the century. One person who played a large part in promoting French motoring activities was Albert, Marquis de Dion.
The visionary industrialist, together with his engineering partner Georges Bouton, began producing self-propelled steam vehicles in 1882. Their company patented a light rear axle, which was named after de Dion, to improve the ride of the vehicles.
A patent for a high-speed single-cylinder gasoline engine was filed in 1890; production started five years later. The engine would power much more than just de Dion’s vehicles. De Dion and Bouton sold licenses to build the system, as well as thousands of complete engines, to 150 different car makers and motorcycle manufacturers.
In 1894 the Comte de Dion was the first driver to cross the finish line at the Paris – Rouen Competition for Horseless Carriages but he did not win the main prize because his steam vehicle needed a ‘stoker’ and was considered a little too complex to operate.
A year later the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.) was formed by Baron de Zuylen, Comte de Dion and Paul Meyan. Baron de Zuylen was elected President. The ACF was to govern the major races in France. At the Marseille – Nice – La Turbie race in 1897 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat driving a de Dion 18 hp steamer scored the last major win by a steam powered car over a road course. The steamers ability to climb steep inclines and handle narrow switchbacks proved decisive.
By 1900, De Dion-Bouton was the world’s largest car maker with an annual production of 400 cars and 3,200 engines. The backbone of the company’s model range was a simple single-cylinder car, the 1899 petite voiture, the world’s first series-production small car. De Dion-Bouton provided a surprise in 1910 when it introduced the impressive 35hp series-production V-8 engine, the first of its kind. De Dion also was a champion for the auto industry.
He founded the first automobile club in 1895 and organized the world’s first auto show in Paris in 1898. In addition, he looked for ways to transfer automotive applications to commercial vehicles and public transportation. Not satisfied, de Dion also produced road maps, developed military equipment and was an aviation pioneer. De Dion lost his motivation as an innovator and pioneer after World War I. In 1932 he withdrew from his company, which had stopped making cars.
On various posters and in photographs of De Dion there sits an intelligent looking African with arms crossed but very much aware his surroundings, This is Michel Zélélé, Ethiopian son of a great leader, Zélélé was brought to France in 1896 by Henri d’Orléans, an explorer prominent at the time. Zélélé literally fell into a swoon when he saw a car for the first time in his life. Count of Orleans recommended Zélélé to his friend, Count de Dion.
It is at De Dion-Bouton that he learned driving and mechanics with such passion that he became in 1900 the personal driver of the Count de Dion. Besides his boss, he had the opportunity to drive many personalities including King Leopold II and it was said that it was he that taught the famous courtesan “La Belle Otero” how to drive. He would work for de Dion until the death of the Marquis on the 19th of August 1946.
Maurice Farman was born on March 21, 1877 in Paris, France and died on Feb. 25, 1964 in the city of his birth. Their father was a respected English newspaper correspond ant working in Paris and had two brothers, Henri and Richard. Farman first found success as a champion tandem bicyclist with his brother Henri.
Later the brothers would turn to automobiles. Farman began racing Panhard automobiles and won the 1901 Pau Grand Prix at the Circuit du Sud-Ouest, the first race ever to be called a Grand Prix. In May 1902 he won the “Circuit du Nord” race from Paris to Arras and back. He also competed in that year’s Paris to Vienna race won by Marcel Renault.
The brothers retired from racing and turned their attention to full-time to aircraft design and manufacture who contributed greatly to early aviation. Avions Farman the French aircraft company founded was founded in 1908 and was run by the brothers Richard, Henri, and Maurice.
That same year his brother Henri made the first circular flight of more than one kilometer, completing a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) flight near Paris. The following year they built their first airplane. The early aircraft were modifications of the Voisin biplane.
The most successful was the Longhorn, first built in 1912. By the beginning of World War I, it was one of the standard trainers in France and Great Britain.
In 1911 Maurice made pioneering experiments in aerial radiotelephony. The following year the Farman brothers pooled their manufacturing resources, although they still designed their planes individually.
Their company prospered during World War I, and in 1917 they introduced the “Goliath,” the first long-distance passenger plane, which from 1919 made regular flights between Paris and London, greatly stimulating commercial aviation in France and the rest of Europe.
As with the Wright Brothers, aviation historians have found it difficult to separate the contributions each brother made because they worked together so closely. There has been general agreement, however, that Maurice, an expert astronomer and meteorologist, supplied the scientific knowledge, Henry the artistic touch to the designs, and Dick the business acumen.
In 1936; during the French nationalization and rationalization of its aerospace industry, Farman’s assets were assigned to the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre (SNCAC). Rather than work under restrictions set by the Left-Wing Popular Front government the brothers decided to retire.
Henri Fournier was born on April 14th, 1871 in Le Mans, France. Fournier was a French racing driver. Fournier began his career on motorcycles and tricycles. In 1901 he came to the Mors racing team and was the most successful driver of this year, as he won both the Paris–Bordeaux and Paris–Berlin races.
In addition to his racing career, he did well in speed tests and in the United States set a new record for the mile with his car. At the 1902 Paris-Vienna race he also dominated the first leg with an average speed of 114 km/h, but later had to give up with transmission failure. In the autumn of that year he set the then land speed record at 123 km/h.
In 1904 Fournier received some unwanted notoriety when he was involved in the first recorded train-car crash in the United States when crossing the tracks in Long Island the car he was driving was struck by a train.
“I had just reached the crossing,” said Mr. Fournier, “and the front wheels of my machine were just touching the first rail, when the locomotive loomed up, and I realized that an accident was inevitable. Not having time to reverse the power, I gave the handle a quick turn, which moved the front wheels to the right, and then the crash came.
The locomotive struck the machine two or three inches behind the left front wheel, throwing it around so that the rear of the motor was brought against the locomotive. The first thing that I remember is somebody calling and asking me if I were dead. I think I was unconscious for about a minute. My foot pains me very much, and my head aches, The machine was completely demolished. It was not one of my racing machines, but was what is known as a touring locomobile. It was only ten-horsepower, very heavy and was built to hold six persons. I refused $9,000 three days ago for it.”
It appears from the account that Fournier counter-intuitively turned the front wheels towards the locomotive causing the car to swing around rather than turning over. In any case the other riders were convinced that Fournier’s last minute turn of the wheel had saved their lives. Fournier seemed to have come out of the accident none the worst for wear when two weeks later he set a new speed record on Coney Island, New York.
He then retired for the time being from motorsport and opened a car distributorship. Banking on his name it became quite successful and sold the firs motor car from the famous French armaments company, Hotchkiss et Cie Hotchkiss. Later he also distributed cars from the Italian marque Itala. His business firmly established he returned in 1907 to racing where in four races the best result achieved was eighth place in the 1908 American Grand Prize.
While in the United States for the race Fournier announced to the American audience that he would be retiring from motor racing to pursue “aeroplaning” the following February. A casino in Monte Carlo was offering a prize of $20,000 for the aeroplanist who could navigate across the bay to Cape Martin and back again, a trip of 8 miles. Fournier remarked that “For the automobile racing has done what it did for the bicycle. It has taught us the faults of our cars, and how to eradicate them, but apparently it can teach us no more, and will die out, slowly perhaps, but surely.
As a sport it will retain its popularity, undoubtedly, but once manufacturers lose interest, as they are bound to do, in what affords them no return for the money invested,the days of automobile racing are numbered.” For all his confidence Fournier would still have to learn to fly.
He learned to fly at Châlons-sur-Marne in July 1909. At 105 kg (230 lb.) he was always handicapped as a pilot. He participated in the 1909 Reims meeting and the 1909 Grande Quinzaine of Port-Aviation but crashed both times.
In 1909, together with his brother Achille, Fournier founded the company Établissements Fournier in Levallois-Perret, France for manufacturing automobiles. His other brother, Maurice was killed at the French Grand Prix in 1911. Fournier’s health began to deteriorate after 1913 and when attempting to volunteer at the outbreak of WWI he was refused on physical grounds. Fournier died in Paris on the 18th of December, 1919 after a long illness.
Fernand Gabriel was born on the 30th of April 1878 in Paris. He began his career in 1899 at the tour de France for automobile 1899, where he was able to achieve a class victory. He achieved his greatest success with racing Mors cars. A victory at the Ardennes race 1902 was prevented only due to a breakdown on the last lap, he had to be content with second place.
His greatest triumph was winning the race 1903 Paris-Madrid Race. The race was due to several fatalities (including Marcel Renault) cancelled in Marseilles (he was more than 15 minutes faster than the competition on the 552 km) is still as a gem of Gabriel’s gauging performance in this race.
After this success, the star of Gabriel’s began to decline, probably also because he had no competitive material available. He drove a De Dietrich at the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race and a Lorraine-Dietrich the 1908 French Grand Prix. He also drove for Clément Bayard. After the first World War, he competed with Sonderklasse and Hill climb.
He later worked in the Renault car factory in Paris. Gabriel died on the 9th of September 1943 in La Garenne-Colombes, France, when the factory was bombed by the Royal Air Force after the German occupation forces had taken over the factory and converted it to war production of light tanks, trucks, marine and aircraft engines.
Louis Renault had put his factories at the service of Vichy France, and through them the Nazis. Over a period of four years, Renault manufactured 34,232 vehicles for the Germans. After the war he was arrested but died before going to trial.
Léonce Girardot was born 30th of April 1864 and competed in motor-races between 1897 and 1905, driving mainly Panhard et Levassor machinery. As Charles Jarrott notes below, he had a superb record for finishing second in races, although he did achieve an important victory in the 1901 Gordon Bennett race.
The motor race was held on 29 May 1901, on public roads in France between Paris and Bordeaux, concurrently with an open-entry race over the same course. Initially, France were to defend the Cup against Germany and Great Britain, however prior to the start, the sole British entry was forced to fit tyres of foreign manufacture making it ineligible for the Cup.
The Germans decided not to start due to insufficient time to prepare new cars after having won the Nice-Salon-Nice at the end of march and selling their race cars. The Gordon Bennett race was therefore competed by only the three French entries, the maximum permitted from one country under the rules, guaranteeing that they would retain the Cup.
Léonce Girardot driving a Panhard won the race and was the only competitor to finish, Fernand Charron driving a Panhard and Levegh driving a Mors retiring.The winning average speed was 37 mph which would have placed him 10th in the open race won by Henri Fournier at 53mph.
Girardot was in business with fellow-racers Fernand Charron and Carl Voigt from 1901, their C.G.V. brand (the initials of their surnames) producing cars that were in the main unsuccessful in this period. A horrific accident in 1905 led Girardot to retire from competition, and a year later he left the C.G.V. partnership. He died on September 7th, 1922
“The Eternal Second.” I wonder in how many races Giradot finished second! He certainly won Paris-Boulogne and the Gordon-Bennett race in 1899, but he finished second in so many more races that he was dubbed “The Eternal Second.” Giradot always interested me by reason of this particular peculiarity in his career. It was nearly always through bad luck that he did not win. I would not have called him a dashing driver, but he was sound and safe. He always knew his car thoroughly, and, grimly determined, he would stick to his opponents like a leech. In the great Paris-Berlin race he was Fournier’s terror. Only a few minutes to the bad, he chased Fournier all the way through, but the few minutes sufficed, and Giradot finished in his usual place, namely, second. He was one of the few men who drove in the early races, and of that little band I should say he was the last to retire, his unfortunate accident in the French eliminating trials for the Gordon-Bennett Cup in 1905 being serious enough to persuade him that his day was finished, and that there are some compensations in looking on.
Though he raced as Gilles Hourgières, his real name was Paul Marie Armand Huillier and he was born sometime in 1875, the son of the Parisian Paul Augustin Huillier whose family owned the Château de Courcelles-le-Roy.
One month later he won the Paris – Trouville motor race in a time of 4h16m03s. In 1901 he switched to Mors but was overshadowed by Henri Fournier. His last race was the 1901 Paris – Berlin where he finished 12th driving a Mors.
In 1898 he fought and survived a duel with swords. Huillier died on the 14th of June 1909 in Paris at the age of only 33.
Born: 26 March 1877 – Died: 4 January 1944. Charles Jarrott was an English racing car driver and businessman. Jarrott raced from 1900 to 1904, winning the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes race and competing in the 1903 and 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup races. In 1901 he finished 10th in the Paris–Berlin Trail, driving a Panhard et Levassor No 13, and completing the 1105 km in 19 hours and 59 seconds.
In 1902 he finished 3rd in the Paris–Arras–Paris race, driving a Panhard et Levassor No 3, and completing the 864 km in 13 hours 4 minutes and 12 seconds. He later entered the Paris–Vienna Trail (sometimes described as the VII Grand Prix de l’A.C.F.) where he finished 23rd in the Panhard et Levassor number 8, completing the 990 km in 20 hours, 44 minutes and 12 seconds.
Jarrott’s greatest success was winning the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes in the Panhard et Levassor, completing the 6 lap, 512 km race at Bastogne in car number 8, taking 5 hours, 53 minutes 39 seconds. Jarrott had inherited the lead on lap 3 after Baron Pierre de Crawhez retired in his Mors Z. In 1903 he finished 3rd in the Paris–Madrid Trail race (The Race of Death), driving a De Dietrich car No 1, and completing the 1,014 km until the race was abandoned at Bordeaux in 5 hours 25 minutes and 55 seconds. But he failed to finish in the Circuit des Ardennes at Bastogne after his de Dietrich No 4 suffered multiple tyre failures.
In 1904 Jarrott entered the Gordon Bennett Cup Eliminator, the (I Eliminatoires Françaises de la Coupe Internationale) that was held in the Forest of Argonne, but his de Dietrich 24/28 hp, Car No 21, retired after 5 laps with mechanical problems.
After that, Jarrott retired from the international racing scene, although he did compete in some of the first Brooklands meetings, and also set up records for the London-Monte Carlo .run, in a 40 hp Crossley. In 1905, he was one of the founders of the Automobile Association.
In fact, Jarrott’s mechanic, H. P. Small, clearly recalled fitting the first-ever AA badge on Jarrott’s De Dietrich. Jarrott became the AA’s chairman in 1922. He was also chairman of the Junior Car Club, founder member and vice-president of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and one of the seven men who founded the Olympia Motor Show.
He sold his interest in Charles Jarrott & Letts Ltd in 1910, but continued in the motor trade for some considerable time after that. During World War 1 he was Inspector of Transport to the Royal Flying Corps,’ and was three times mentioned in dispatches; he was also secretary of the Royal Society of St George. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Jarrott died on 4 January 1944, and was mourned as ‘Britain’s finest racing driver of the old school’.
René de Knyff
Chevalier René de Knyff (1865-1954) competed in eighteen car races, winning five of them. Always driving a Panhard et Levassor car, he was noted for his sportsmanship and sense of fair play, assisting rivals who had run into trouble even at potential cost to himself.
After is retirement from motor racing in 1903 (the Paris-Madrid tragedies affecting his desire to compete as much as anyone), de Knyff kept his interest in motor-racing and from 1922 to 1946 was the first president of the Commission Sportive Internationale.
Do you remember the figure of De Knyff in the Gordon-Bennett race in Ireland—the standard-bearer of the flag of France, and the one of all others to whom France looked to regain the Cup? And do you remember how he fought? Huge-limbed, bearded, and sullen-faced, throughout the whole of that long day, when he alone of the French team was left to defeat the dare-devil Jenatzy, do you remember how he calculated his chances, how he drove to finish, in the belief that his opponent could not finish, and do you remember that last wild desperate lap when he realized that he had left it too late, and that Jenatzy and time had secured the Cup for Germany? If you saw De Knyff on that day you should be proud, because you saw him at his best, fighting out a race against odds.
From the very beginning of the sport, no race of importance was run without the Chevalier being a competitor. Panhard-Levassor and De Knyff are to-day synonymous terms, as they were ten years ago. Paris-Marseilles in 1896, and even before then, saw him following the sport, and his title “le Roi de l’Automobile” was undisputed. His triumphs were many, and however trying the race may have been, and however used up the other competitors were at the end of the journey, one thing was certain—De Knyff always arrived, calm, collected, and, so far as one could judge, capable of doing the whole distance again without resting. As my mentor in motor racing I owe him much. Encouragement and good advice I always obtained from him, and his dictum “always finish” was the paramount idea in my mind during every race in which I took part.
I remember it was just before Paris-Berlin, and having become confident in the handling of my 40 h.p. Panhard, I asked De Knyff whether he thought I had a chance. The responsibility laid upon my shoulders by the Panhard firm in entrusting me with one of their racing cars weighed heavily upon me, but the Chevalier relieved my mind. Said he: “How can you expect to win your first race amongst so many veterans? Your time is not yet. Finish, and we shall all be delighted, and your turn to win will come later on.” And I proved the excellence of his advice in the years that were to come.
On the many trial runs which those of us driving Panhard cars made before some of the big events, it was De Knyff who arranged the programme and it was De Knyff who assisted us in our difficulties.
As a sportsman knowing France and her roads like a book, as a compagnon de route, he was always fascinating. No matter what town one arrived at, De Knyff knew all its most interesting features, knew where the right hotel was and what wine had to be sampled. It was at Chalons sur Marne, when Pinson, Chanchard, and Berteaux, with their racing cars, were members of the party, that De Knyff introduced to my palate a delicious brand of red champagne . In Turin, he knew that a special sort of cigar could be obtained. Vienna had a speciality in the form of a particular Rhine wine. And in all matters pertaining either to equipment, route, feeding, or technical knowledge, we all looked to him for guidance.
His natural and picturesque place, however, was at the steering wheel of his car, when he gave one the idea of domination and of a master. One of his peculiarities was that he always wore when racing one of those peaked yachting caps such as he had always been accustomed to in the days when 50 kilometres an hour were unknown. The disinclination of a cap of this type to keep on the head at 120 kilometres an hour did not deter him from always starting with this head-gear, with the result that in his later races it was usual to see him with his big brown beard wind-blown and dust bestrewn, and his closely-cropped head minus covering of any sort, his cap usually having blown off at the commencement of the race when he had began to travel fast.
Belgian by birth, De Knyff nevertheless is absolutely French in sympathy, and is jealous to the utmost degree for the reputation of the Panhard firm of which he was and is a director. Serious and deliberate in all his actions, he did everything possible to see the Panhard colours carried to victory. Powerful in physique, he kept himself in training by playing racquets, and many mornings I have seen him at the covered-in courts in the Tuileries Gardens getting fit for the big race of the year.
He is also a great sportsman. Pigeon-shooting and cycling at one time knew him as a leader, and I have seen him at a great boxing contest at the National Sporting Club, as well as a spectator and admirer of Shrubb, when that well-known English runner won the French Cross Country Championship.
To my mind, De Knyff always was and is to-day the most interesting figure amongst the many interesting personalities of the French automobile world. An interesting personage in connection with De Knyff’s races was Aristides, his trusty little mechanician. A little thick-set boy when he started, he developed into a thick-set youth, and was the acknowledged head of all racing mechanicians, past and present. What Aristides did not know about his car was not worth knowing, and the Chevalier trusted him on all detail matters connected with getting his car into racing trim.
De Knyff pointed Aristides out to me one day in a garage at Nice puzzling out the intricacies of a new automatic oiler he had just dismounted from his racing-car, and when asked why he had pulled it all to pieces, he explained that he had been puzzled all the way down from Paris as to how and why it worked, and therefore at the first opportunity he had pulled it to bits to find out.
It was significant of the confidence Aristides had in De Knyff, that when the Chevalier stopped racing, Aristides would accompany no one else, although he was responsible for putting George Heath’s car into racing trim the year he won the Circuit des Ardennes.
Albert Lemaître also known as Georges was born in 1865 in Ay, France. By trade he was vintner when not racing cars. Lemaître was the first petrol powered finisher in what is described as ‘the world’s first competitive motoring event’ when he drove his Peugeot Type 7 from Paris to Rouen at 19 km/h (12 mph) in 1894.
The Comte de Dion had finished first but his steam powered vehicle was ineligible for the main prize which was shared between the manufacturers Peugeot and Panhard. On the 21st of March he won the Nice-Castellane-Nice race and followed that two weeks later in wining the Pau-Bayonne-Pau.
Throughout the 1890s he competed in a range of events and races driving Peugeots, but after their withdrawal from competition in the early 1900s he was contracted to drive for Mercedes but was never to enjoy the same level of success. Lemaître would later become an investor in the American De Dietrich Company.
In 1906 in Paris he murdered his wife, the former Lucie Dumény, in a domestic argument after she had filed for divorce. After shooting her twice in the head he then fired the third gunshot into his own head.
On hearing the news of her death Lucie’s lover also shot himself. Lemaître however survived and in September 1906 he was acquitted of a Crime of Passion.
Émile Levassor was born on January 21st 1843 into a well-to-do Protestant farming family in Marolles, a village in the Ille-de-France south of Paris. A bear of a man, he had a reputation for decisiveness and perseverance. Graduating from the Ecole Central he joined the prestigious John Cockerill engineering works at Seraing, Belgium.
Three years later in 1868 Levassor returned to the Paris region to work at the Durenne works in Courbevoie which produced amongst other machinery, boilers and stationary steam engines. In December of 1872, with an investment of 50,000 francs (approximately $300,000 today) he became a partner in Perin et Panhard, then a company involved in making wood working machinery.
While working Cockerill’s he had come to know Edouard Sarazin, a Belgian engineer who had a lucrative business as a manufacturer’s representative specializing in patents. One of his clients was Otto and Langen’s Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz where Gottlieb Daimler was the chief engineer.
When the company asked Sarazin to find a licensee to manufacturer the Deutz engines in France he sought out his friend Levassor. Later this arrangement was repeated when Daimler set up his own company and what was now Panhard et Levassor when René Panhard joined the firm in 1886. Interestingly Panhard et Levassor was Sarazin’s second choice Rouart Frères turned him down in one of those accidents of history.
Initially Levassor had no intention of building anything beyond the engine for other customers. It was only after careful deliberation and study of various other designs, chief amongst them one from Peugeot who was one of his first customers for the Daimler engine did the decision come to be made in 1990. Once it was made however Levassor was one of France’s chief proponent of the gasoline motor car.
Levassor struggled to produce a car that would travel more than a few hundred yards but eventually he was able to drive down to St. Cloud and back, a trip of twelve miles. By 1891 Levassor had designed a radically new motor car to house Daimler’s engine. He broke with tradition by placing the engine in front of the driver rather than under him, thereby obtaining better traction for the steering (front) wheels.
He replaced the typical belt drive with a shaft-and-gear transmission that could be selectively engaged with a clutch to give different speed ratios. These and other innovations and existing designs were brilliantly combined by Levassor in the automobiles that his firm started selling in 1892. His vehicles were the first true, if embryonic, automobiles, rather than being simply carriages that had been modified for self-propulsion.
In June 1895 Levassor gave a sensational demonstration of the effectiveness of his design by finishing first in a field of 18 gasoline, steam, and electric motorcars in a race from Paris to Bordeaux and back, a distance of 730 miles (1,200 km). Levassor died on April 14th 1897 never having fully recovered from injuries sustained in a race the previous race.
Émile Louis Mayade
Émile Louis Mayade was born on the 21st of August 1853 in Clermont-Ferrand. By the 1890s he was working as ‘Chef d’Atelier’ at Levassor in Paris, looking after the workshop and machinery, plus participating in the development of the cars.
He drove a Panhard et Levassor in the world’s first ‘city to city’ motoring contest from Paris to Rouen in 1894 and went on win the world’s first open motor race, the 1896 Paris–Marseille–Paris, where the first driver across the line was the winner.
His greatest success was the victory in the 1896 Paris–Marseille–Paris where he won three stages and finished in 67 hours 42 minutes 58 seconds, almost 30 minutes ahead of Merkel in another Panhard et Levassor 8 hp.
Mayade died on the 18th of September 1898 in Chevanceaux, Charente-Maritime, after a traffic accident with a runaway horse and cart that caused him to be thrown from his car and crushed.
Marcel Renault was born in 1872 in Paris, France. His father, Alfred Renault had built a solid fortune in trade of fabrics and buttons and his mother Louise was a daughter of wealthy merchant.
Marcel Renault gained business experience while working with his brother Fernand at their father’s textile firm. Their younger brother Louis was mechanical genius who built his first car at the age of 21. Marcel together with two of his brothers founded Renault Frères on the 25th February 1899.
Marcel was responsible for administration, Ferdinand for marketing and Louis was dedicated completely to the design and construction of the cars. Before the year was over they had built 80 cars.
Firmly believing that the best way to promote their cars was through racing Both Louis and Marcel were soon entering races. Their greatest victory came in 1902 at the Paris – Vienna race where Marcel driving a Renault 28 hp Type K (Light Car) beat the larger and more powerful Mercedes and Panhards.
The cars light weight worked wonders on the steep roads and Marcel Renault crossed the finish line 1st, having covered 1,300 km at an incredible average speed of 62.5 kph!. Demand increased, unfortunately fate too: in 1903 Marcel Renault crashed near Angouleme and was killed during the infamous Paris – Madrid, “Race to Death”.
Alfred “Levegh” Velghe
Levegh or Alfred Velghe was born in 1871 and died on February 28th, 1904. He was a leading French racing car driver of his time and raced under the name A. Levegh. On October 20, 1898 he won his first major race, the St. Germain-Vernon-St. Germain driving a Mors.
In fact all of Levegh’s wins would come driving for Mors. The following year he shared a win with Léonce Girardot in what was scored a dead heat at the Paris-Oostende in Belgium. Later in October he won the Bordeaux-Biarritz race.
1900 would prove his best year when Levegh won the Bordeaux-Périgieux-Bordeaux race and the ‘Heavy Car’ class of the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race, held in 1900 as an unofficial Olympic sport.
In addition he won two hillclimbs at La Turbie (Nice), and at the Estérel Climb near Cannes. Levegh also participated in the Gordon Bennett Cup car in 1900 and 1901 but without any wins. though he led at Portiers before he was hit by car troubles. Ill health forced Levegh to retire and he died of a lung disease a short time later.