From Paris to Oblivian
by S. C. H. "Sammy" Davis
First published 1954
In 1903 a group of some 216 brave but foolhardy drivers gathered in the park at Versailles, near Paris, to the start of the most frightening and disastrous event in the entire history of European road racing. This was the famous Paris to Madrid race, one of the greatest fiascos in the annals of organized sports, which started on the morning of May 24, 1903, and ended dramatically that same night in Bordeaux, approximately 315 miles to the southwest, having left in its wake at least 50 dead, 100 injured, and a never-to-be-forgotten lesson in how not to run a road race.
A Deadly Race
For even before the dust had cleared and the wreckage and bodies had been dragged away, there arose in newspapers from all parts of the world an indignant, clamorous demand that this deadly thing should cease. It seemed for the moment that a great sport was dead. And indeed, racing was never again to be allowed on the public roads of France. When sports-car competition was finally resumed, many years later, it was bounded by scores of regulations intended to safeguard the public and drivers alike, and the government and local police took over complete responsibility for every inch of straightaways and turns on the enclosed circuits. No man today is fit to organize a race, or drive in one, who has not learned the lesson of the Paris-Madrid.
Long before dawn on that fateful day in 1903, huge crowds made their way, on foot, by bicycle, and in carriages, carts, and all other kinds of vehicles that happened to be available, to the roadside, there to wait until the cars came by. Endless lines of cyclists, each holding a coloured-paper lantern, gave a carnival air to the scene. Almost everyone carried a bag of food from which projected a yard-long loaf of French bread and the inevitable bottle of light wine. The route through Rarnbouillet was crowded with anxious spectators; so. too, were Chartres, Chateaudun, Tours, Poitiers, Angouleme, Barbezieux, Montguyon, l.ibourne, and Bordeaux. Farther south, in Spain, it was a day of fete, with the King taking a personal interest in the festivities.
Boring Holes In The Chassis To Reduce Weight
Back at Versailles, the line of cars at the start was increasing every minute as huge, roaring machines were slowly driven, somehow, boiling vigorously, through the dense crowd. Limited solely by a maximum weight of 2.200 lbs., the designers had fitted their cars with engines three times as large as those used at Indianapolis today and then had proceeded to drill as many holes as possible in the high, unstable chassis to bring the weight back down. This resulted in a group of tremendous monsters that were capable of speeds lip to 100 mph. They had frail two-wheel brakes and no shock absorbers. Engine speeds were held down to about 1.000 rpm by governors. Typical, controls consisted of a hand throttle, a lever advancing the ignition, a gear shift, a clutch, a brake, and an oil-pressure pump that was manually operated by the mechanic, who sat next to the driver all during the race.
The greatest problem encountered during competition was tyre
failure, each and every puncture having to be dealt with by the driver and his mechanic right out on the road. Procedure for changing a tire went like this: the car was jacked up, the tire was unbolted from the rim, the cover was levered off, a new tube was fitted, the cover was levered back on. the bolts were refastened, and finally the tube was pumped up by hand. Since nails from the shoes of horses abounded on the racing course, punctures were frequent, and heaven help the mechanic who left the jack on the road alter the tenth lire change, however exhausted he might be.
Strength, Courage, and Judgement
As for the actual driving, it required strength, courage, and judgement to keep those huge cars on the road, especially when it came to overtaking, for there, feeling the effect of the heavy camber of the road, the machines became altogether unstable. Imagine two such cars speeding side by side, each swaying madly, and you begin to get a mild idea of what a horror this really was.
But the worst difficulty, and the one that caused many of the deaths and bad accidents, was the enormous train of dust that billowed behind each machine. Roaring down the road at better than 90 mph., a driver rushed into this blinding cloud only guessing as to where the car ahead was, unable to see any of the spectators, and judging whether the road continued straight or not by sighting along the tops of the trees visible above the cloud. It is not surprising that this was called the "heroic age."
When the last of the competing cars had finally gotten through to the starting line, at 3:45 a.m.. the official timekeeper gave the signal and the first racer, a French De Dietrich, with Britisher Charles Jarrott
at the wheel, roared away in an immense cloud of blue smoke and a thunder of sound. Sixty seconds later, Rene de Knyff, the veteran Panhard
champion with the long brown beard, a yachting tap perched precariously on his head, was sent on his way. He was followed by Louis Renault
driving one of his own cars.
Next came Leon Thery, later nicknamed "Chronometer" because of his two successive victories in the Gordon-Bennett races; then millionaire Willie K. Vanderbilt in a Mors; then Warden in a German 60-hp Mercedes. And so they went, staggered at 60-second intervals, until the last machine had catapulted down the narrow road, the shattering roar of its mighty engine audible long after the car itself had been swallowed up by the swirling gray cloud of dust.
Spectators The Biggest Obstacle
But before many miles had been covered, the drivers had learned of a new and startling hazard. Ignoring the terrible consequences, anxious only to obtain the most thrilling views of the proceedings, the crowd at some points stood stolidly on the road, waiting until the last possible instant to leap out of the paths of the speeding cars. Many of the spectators had never even seen an automobile
, much less a road race, and they tould not conceive of speeds up to 100 mph. If a driver slowed, the crowd waited a few moments longer before opening a narrow lane through which his machine might pass. This left the contestants no choice; they merely drove fiat out and hoped.
This was not always successful. Between Versailles and Chartres, five cars plunged into walls of living flesh. George Richard, swerving hard in an attempt to avoid the foolhardy spectators, hit the closed gate of a level crossing; Leslie Porter, driving a British Wolseley
, was forced off the road and immediately overturned, his mechanic being pinned beneath the blazing car; Charles Delaney, coming into a turn masked by the crowd, skidded wildly, hit a heap of stones, smashed one wheel to splinters, and also overturned. To those drivers who started out later in the morning, the road appeared as one long ribbon splattered with the wreckage of cars and the mutilated bodies of dead and dying men, women, and children. And still the crowd swelled out onto the course.
The Pilot Cyclist at Tours
At Tours, where the cars were timed in, made to crawl behind a pilot cyclist, and then timed out again at the city limit, it was obvious that the average speeds were fantastic, reaching 80 mph in some cases. De Knyff and Louis Renault
had overtaken Jarrott
in the De Dietrich
, but then De Knyff was forced to stop with engine trouble. Renault
continued at a furious pace. Two Germans, Hieronymous and Werner, were coming up fast with the latest 90-hp Mercedes; Sidney Girling was sixth with a Wolseley
; and a pleasant little man, Fernand Gabriel, had overtaken 25 cars with an inverted-boat-shaped Mors
. Werner left Tours at terrific speed, his car broad-siding wildly on the bends. Some five kilometres further on. Jarrott
, tugging hard at the wheel of the big De Dietrich, just missed plowing into the wreckage of the German car, which had snapped its rear axle.
Soon after this, Jarrott
, whose car had not been previously run in, found that the engine was feeling much looser and smoother; so he opened it up to average nearly 90 mph, pulling into Poitiers in second place behind Louis Renault. Behind him, Marcel Renault, Louis' brother and the chief engineer of the firm, made a desperate attempt to overtake Thery's Decauville, hit a projecting drainpipe by the roadside, spun around twice out of control, crashed into a ditch, and was fatally injured by the car's steering wheel. Mark Mayhew's Napier broke a steering arm and went off the road at full speed. Another car crashed into a horse-drawn cart that, piled high with wood and driven by a farm hand with muscles where his brains should have been, was ambling casually along the course.
By the time he had reached Angouleme, Jarrott was appreciably nearer Louis Renault
despite a stop to repair the ignition, which entailed the furious handling of almost red-hot metal. Camille Jenatzy
, who, with his white face and forked red beard, was satanic in appearance, was not very far behind, running in third place. But on elapsed time it was little Gabriel who led, grimly keeping the throttle of his Mors
wide open through the dust and crowd and wreckage, sweltering in his leather coat on what had turned out to be the hottest day of the year. When veteran driver Maurice Farman, who later gained fame in aviation, dropped out to aid an injured friend lying by his smashed car, big, burly Englishman George Stead whizzed by to engage his De Dietrich
in a savage and sensational duel with the Mors of another famous driver, Saleron.
The two cars swayed madly on the cambered road. First one and then the other would lead, each in turn blinding the other with billowing trails of thick dust. Neither would give way. While the battle continued, another British driver, who had run off the road while avoiding a woman, amputated his own crushed foot, which was caught in the drive chain, and then frenziedly dragged his son from under the wrecked tar. But he was too late—the boy was already dead.
More Death Behind The Wheel
On the narrow, twisting run from Barbezieux via Libourne to Bordeaux - which today is bypassed by a national highway - many more accidents occurred. Coming at a time when the brakes on most of the cars needed adjustment and the drivers were extremely tired, this constant succession of curves proved disastrous. Lorraine Barrow, a veteran of many races, swerved sharply to avoid hitting a dog which a child had pursued into the road.
At over 80 mph, his De Dietrich
crashed head-on into a tree and Barrow and his mechanic were fearfully injured. Both died later. Closer examination of the wreck showed that the chassis had buckled until it resembled a concertina, the engine had been ripped from the frame, the piston rods had gone right through the side of the engine, and every tire had been ripped off. For weeks afterward, one spring hanger remained buried to the hilt in the tree.
Meanwhile, continuing their magnificent battle, Stead and Saleron came into a curve wheel to wheel at terrific speed. Suddenly a spectator appeared in the road. Both drivers applied their lever brakes hard. Their traction broken, the cars spun sideways and collided. By sheer strength, Saleron managed to keep the Mors
on the road, but Stead's car crashed into the ditch and overturned in a great cloud of smoke. Both driver and mechanic were killed. Madam Camille du Gast, holding sixth plate with a De Dietrich, saw the smash and pulled up to give what aid she could. Camille, very attractive and at the same time extremely tough, was the sensation of the race as far as the spectators were concerned. She drove as well as any man, yet there was nothing even remotely masculine about her.
Willie Vanderbilt and Charlie Rolls
A few kilometres further down the road, Willie Vanderbilt stopped to render first aid to a friend and Charlie Rolls, later of Rolls-Royce, did the same for the crews of six other wrecked cars. At Bordeaux, excitement and enthusiasm was running high as the first dust-covered cars, with their equally dirty crews began to limp in. Louis Renault was the first to arrive. He was followed by Charles Jarrott and then by Fernand Gabriel, who. starting in 168th place, had averaged over 65 mph for the 345 miles through all that dust and trouble and horror. Behind Gabriel came Saleron's Mors. Baras' Darracq, Baron de Crawhez's Panhard, Warden's Mercedes, Rougier's Turcat, Mery, Jenatzy's Mercedes, and a few other survivors. The cars were wheeled to a guarded park, there to spend the night before being handed back to their drivers for the next day's run to Madrid.
Then the rumours commenced. No one who was present will ever forget that day in Bordeaux with the anxious rush for news as each survivor arrived, the frantic inquiries for friends and cars amid the growing hostility of the crowd, and the appalling stories of disaster. The whole thing seemed unreal—the day, the race, the horror - but it was only too true. None of the drivers knew whether or not the officials would allow the race to continue, and most of them wondered if they would have the courage to go on if the next day's slaughter was permitted. Louis Renault was frantic at the news that his brother was seriously injured, not knowing that he was already dead. Jarrott's joy at his car's magnificent run was utterly destroyed by the news that he alone had survived of all the De Dietrich team.
Let Us Eat, Drink And Be Merry, For Tomorrow We Die
Just 24 hours before, on the eve of the start of the race, he had been worried because his car had not been properly run in. He had encountered his teammates, Barrow and Stead, dining in a small cafe in Paris. On seeing his wrinkled brow, Barrow had said, "Whatever is the matter with you? Are we not all here?" And then, raising his glass, he had added, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." These words, spoken in jest, had been bitterly fulfilled. Never was Charles Jarrott to forget.
And so an air of indecision and doom hung over Bordeaux. But not for long. The government impounded all the racing cars. Not even a single engine could be started. Behind horses, the machines were cowed to the rail depot. The heroic age of road racing was over. After some discussion, it was decided that there should be a classification of the cars even though the race had been stopped short hy some 300 miles. Places were figured on an elapsed-time basis and the final results were as follows:
- Mors—Fernand Gabriel. 65.3 mph.
- Renault—Louis Renault. 62.3 mph.
- Mors—Saleron. 59.1 mph.
- De Dietrich—Charles Jarrott. 58.2 mph.
- Panhard—Baron de Crawhez. 57.9 mph.
- Mercedes—Warden. 57.7 mph.
And so on for the 99 cars that had managed to finish the race. The complete list may be seen, in the neat hand script of Monsieur Forreaux, at the Automobile Club de France, still intact to this day.
The ghostly influence of the Paris-Madrid race is still felt strongly today. Because of that great disaster, modern sports-car clubs and road-racing associations have had to make as sure as is humanly possible that all races are held on courses which are properly patrolled and reasonably safe for drivers and spectators alike. The emphasis has been on closed-course racing because greater crowd control can be exercised and the drivers and cars can be protected to some degree by the use of hay bales, escape roads, telephone signal systems, flagmen, no-passing zones, repair pits, etc.
And yet, in spite of all these precautions, there have been a number of bad accidents, mostly involving foolhardy, selfish spectators who have sneaked into restricted areas to get a better view for eye or camera. This has already led to the closing of two large and famous courses in the United States. With the growing tide of resentment—there are new laws being made all the time forbidding the use of certain public roads for racing - it is concievable that road racing could once again be outlawed throughout the world. This is entirely in the hands of the public, and it is up to us to see to it that an inconsiderate few do not spoil the great sport of competitive automobile
racing for the enthusiastic majority.
In a way, it is unfortunate that such rigid regulations must be forced down the throats of the road-racing fans of today. If people really had enough sense to stay out of the way, there would be no need for snow fences and special police, and the average event would be easier and more fun to watch and less expensive for the promoters and parent clubs. However, as long as there are a few curious numbskulls, around to louse things up, the rules are a must. Actually, the greatest danger to the sport today comes not from the closed courses, but from the great rambling ones like the Mexican Road Race and the Italian Mille Miglia. Since no power on earth could effectively safeguard thousands of miles of ordinary public highway, it is obvious that either or both events could eventually result in another world-shaking disaster similar to the Paris-Madrid.
For those able to travel in France today, it is well worth taking a drive down the famous Paris-Bordeaux road. Route Nationale 10, which runs to Barbezieux, then 10 B, followed by 89, still seem haunted by the ghosts of those great, ill-omened racing machines. The route is wider now, and dustless, but it still feels spooky. As for the drivers in the race, you may still meet some survivors in your travels. Gabriel died just after the last war, still reticent about his magnificent achievement. De Knyff, a very old man, could talk vividly about the race not so many years ago. Langlois, who finished 37th with a Panhard
, is still a power in the Royal Automobile Club of Belgiunt. Jenatzy
died of consumption soon after the race. Jarrott
passed on in the interval between the two world wars. Louis Renault
lived to make Renault
automobiles famous, only to die of worry for his workmen when the Germans overran his country in the 1940s.