Léon Théry was born in 1879. Having started out as a mechanic it was said that his mechanical knowledge helped him to understand the need to drive according to the car’s abilities, often nursing his car home to victory when others had fallen by the wayside. His first race was the Paris to Amsterdam in 1898 at the wheel of a voiturette. In 1900 he won the cup for voiturettes on the road from Bordeaux to Periguez and competed in several hill climbs. Most of his early racing was behind a Decauville, a French maker of locomotives.
The 1904 Gordon Bennett’s cup was held in Germany’s Taunus Forest at the suggestion of Kaiser William II and drew entries from eight countries. At the time it was considered the single most important race in the world. The course stretched over 550 km in the pine forest, consisting of four laps that started from the ancient Roman bastion of Saalburg heading north to Usingen, where there was a control point (an inhabited or built up area where the cars had to travel slowly under the supervision of course officials). Other control points were established at Grävenwiesbach to Weilburg, then past Allendorf and Obertiefenbach to Limburg. The last section was reported to be the best part of the course for high speed and in practice some cars traveled at 150 km/h. After Limburg the course ran through Kirberg to Neuhof, Idstein then ran through Glashütten to Königstein, via Friedrichshof and Oberursel to Homburg and back to Saalburg where they arrayed spectacular grandstands fit for a Kaiser.
Teams were quartered in the exclusive resort of Homburg. The most famous driver in the world was the Red Devil, Camille Jenatzy. The winner of the last race Jenatzy was considered the strong favorite. An early arrival he had been driving the entire course twice a day and by the day of the race knew every corner.
The German government prepared an elaborate program of concerts, a grand open-air ballet and other events as part of a “Homburg Week” running from the 12th to the 23rd of June.
The 17th of June saw the day of the race and the weather could not be hotter. Officiating was led by Baron von Molitor of the Automobilclub von Deutschland, the official starter, and M. Tampier of the Automobile Club de France, who was the timekeeper. The chronographs for timing the event were supplied by the Anglo-Swiss firm of Stauffer, Son & Co. After the chaos at the Paris to Madrid race 5000 troops were requisitioned for keeping the Tanus course clear. There were 18 starters including three British entrants. The first car, that of the last years winner, Jenatzy started from Saalburg at 7 a.m.
With steam running from his radiator and in a cloud of trailing smoke Jenatzy was away followed in seven minute intervals by the rest of the field. Jenatzy was the first through Saalburg for the second lap but to his consternation Théry was already leading on time followed by Edge in third. Jenatzy would later remark that he never wanted to start first again as the leader on the road had the task of clearing the course on that first lap. Jenatzy was driving like a man possessed but still Théry was extending his lead. By the end of the second lap Théry knocked eleven seconds off his previous lap. On the third lap Théry broke one of the blades of his fan while Jenatzy stalled his car at Limburg. Théry’s lead was now 9 1/2 minutes. Jenatzy, totally exhausted was the first to finish not knowing whether he had won or lost. Finally a bugle blew and in the distance the Richard-Brasier of Leon Théry appeared. He had won at an average speed of 54.5 mph. With each of his laps within 3 minutes of the other he had earned his nickname of the “Chronometer”.
Third place went to the Turcat-Mery driven by Henri Rougier followed by the Mercedes of Baron Pierre de Caters and Edgar Braun. Two British competitors placed with the Wolseleys of Sidney Girling who finished 6th and that of Charles Jarrott who finished 12th or last. Australia’s Selwyn Edge, the 1902 winner who again drove a Napier, stopped at Idstein due to a seized engine.
In October Théry traveled to the United States and at a dinner of the Automobile Club of America he was asked as all racing car drivers are asked if he ever feared for his life. Théry smiled and shrugged his shoulders and responded through an interpreter that he never thought of it. He went on to remark that to be a successful racing man one must drive as if he were the only man in the race. A racing man must only think of his car and how he can obtain the maximum speed from it and if a driver fears that he may be injured he should never do any racing at all. Due to scheduling, Théry was not able to take part in the Vanderbilt Cup race held earlier that month. While in America Théry took part in some exhibition races at the Brighton Beach Race Course but found oval dirt track racing not to his liking.
For the 1905 Bennett Cup, Henri Brasier would make only minor changes to his Richard-Brasier racing car, which included lowering the center of gravity. The Brasier had a 4-cylinder engine producing 90 hp at 1200 rev – three forward speeds and dual-chain drive. At 2150 pounds and with a 104 inch wheel base, the car was very much in keeping with the prevailing design of the day. Théry’s Brasier was also equipped with Michelin’s new anti-skid tires. The tread of the Michelin anti-skid tires and the wearing surfaces of the sidewalls were protected by a tough but flexible ox-hide band. In this leather tread were imbedded from three to five rows of hardened steel rivets or studs. It was advertised that in the Michelin construction the full resiliency of the tire is preserved, because the lower sidewalls, or that part immediately above the bead, was of rubber. The car’s use of the latest in shock absorbers attached to each axle did much to preserve the Michelin tires.
The French who hosted the race swore that there would be no repeat of the chaos that marked the Paris – Madrid race of 1903. Unfortunately nobody told the local peasantry who promptly stole the overhead wires linking the various controls severely compromising communication amongst the officials during the race. The race would be held at the Auvergne Circuit in France. The race consisted of four laps of the mountainous 137.35-km (85.35-mile) circuit, to make the total distance 549.4 km.
The Brasiers of Théry and Gustave Callois were instructed to maintain a conservative pace. This appeared to doom their chances when the new F.I.A.T.s expanded their early lead, first place being held by Vincenzo Lancia. The Panhard of Maurice Farman missed a turn forcing a trip through the woods whereupon both driver and mechanic were thrown from their car only to be caught by some trees and perhaps certain death, Farman ending up higher than his mechanic. He pulled out a cigarette and looking down at his mechanic quietly remarked: “I wish you would pass me a match up, Tom.” Disaster struck on lap three however when Lancia’s engine froze. This left Théry in the lead, one that he would not relinquish. Second and third went to the F.I.A.T.s of Felice Nazzaro and Alessandro Cagno.
Théry retired from racing and turned to manufacturing his own car but this did not turn out well and nearly bankrupted him. In 1908 he attempted a comeback driving a Brasier in the French Grand Prix , but he retired on the last lap of the 10 lap race with a collapsed wheel. He was running fourth overall and first of the French cars. This was the last race of his career. Sadly one year later he was dead from tuberculosis. The two great drivers of their generation, Jenatzy and Théry could not be more different. One, Jenatzy being mercurial in the car and a practical joker out of it, the other, Théry calculating yet laconic.