Victor Etienne Demogeot
Victor Etienne Demogeot was born on August 14, 1881, at Bainville-sur-Madon. His father was shop superintendent in a foundry at nearby Neuves Maisons and it was in the machine shop of the foundry that Demogeot felt that he spent the most important part of his adolescence. Devoted to machinery, he began his formal technical schooling at age 12. Growing up with the bicycle, he became his region's cycle-racing champion at 18. Then came a stretch in the Engineering Corps of the French Army, following which he found employment as a draftsman for De Dietrich in Luneville. There, where Amedee Bollee and then Turcat-Mery cars were built under licence, Demogeot had his first intimate contact with the automobile. Thoroughly fascinated by it, it was on Palm Sunday of 1903 that he cut all of his old ties and took the train for Paris, the world centre of the automobile. His first act there was to write letters offering his services to the three marques which intrigued him most: CGV, Renault
, and Darracq
The latter was the only one to reply and it was there that Demogeot was hired, not for his background as a draftsman but because it was felt that his accomplishments as a cyclist fitted him to become a good test driver. The classical pattern was that works racing mechanics and drivers habitually were selected from among a firm's test personnel. When, in 1904, Darracq decided to build a team of three cars for the Gordon Bennett Cup Race
of that year, Demogeot was assigned as riding mechanic to another ex-bicycle-racing champion, one Beconnais. And at this same general epoque the Darracq
test department acquired a new chief, Victor Hemery, himself a product of the Amedee Bollee
shops at Le Mans
, and a native of that city. He had been driving for Darracq
since 1902. The two Victors got along reasonably well together and when the 1905 racing season arrived the formidable driver Hemery invited Demogeot to share his competition rides.
The Circuit des Ardennes
The pair's first important joint venture came on June 16, with the French elimination trials for the Bennett Cup
. The 80 hp Darracqs, driven by Wagner, de la Touloubre, and Hemery, were the least powerful of all the 24 French aspirants. Still, according to Demogeot, he and Hemery were holding second place comfortably when, close to the finish, the engine
burst into flame. After quenching the fire they could finish no better than ninth, and no Darracq qualified for the great international contest in that, its final year. Next, on August 7, came the extremely important 590 km race on the Circuit des Ardennes, in Belgium. Here again the 80 hp Darracqs found themselves facing a field of machines with nominal ratings of from 100 to 130 hp. Yet Hemery, again seconded by Demogeot, managed to seize the lead during the third of the five long laps and to hold it to the end, finishing a quarter of an hour ahead of the nearest of its 12 rivals. Such brilliance and tenacity were to mark Hemery's entire career.
Hemery behind the wheel, with Demogeot by his side. The two were sometimes team mates, at other times fierce rivals.
Victor Demogeot adjusts the Darracq's spark timing after making a sub-record first run.
Victor Demogeot pictured in 1967, at the age of 86. The large pitcher is his trophy from the St. Petersburg-Moscow race. Hanging in the frame at top is his 1906 Daytona award.
The Florio Cup
The next race was the Florio Cup, at Brescia; Hemery/Demogeot finished fourth out of 22 starters. And then, on October 14, came the 455 km Vanderbilt Cup
on Long Island, New York, the most important motor race in the New World. The Darracqs as usual were abundantly outclassed but Hemery took the fullest advantage of his lighter car's superior nimbleness, consistently making up in the curves for what it lacked in top speed. He was lying third when, on the eighth of the 10 laps, the leader, Vincenzo Lancia on a Fiat, left the pits after a brief stop. Lancia tried to rejoin the race before being overtaken by an approaching car, the pioneer front-wheel-drive racer of Walter Christie. Lancia misjudged Christie's speed and the American struck one of the Fiat's rear wheels. He was put out of the race but Lancia, his rear axle slightly bent, was able to continue at reduced speed. Hemery shot into the lead, which he had no difficulty in maintaining throughout the two final laps.
The 80 hp Darracq weighed about 960 kg ready to go whereas nearly all of its opposition used almost every gram permitted by the 1007 kg weight limit for Grandes Voitures. Reviewing the 1905 racing season four years later, expert eyewitness Gerald Rose wrote: "... the cars that competed are of absorbing interest to those who study the development of the racing car. In spite of the 1007 kg limit, it seems as if every maker was straining to build a bigger car than his rival, to get a little larger bore, a little longer stroke, and not one - or, rather, only one - grasped the vital truth that the limiting factor in road racing is the behavior of the tyres
. A big engine implies a heavy car and a high speed - a combination that ends in tyre troubles of such frequency that often the whole complexion of a race is altered by the irritating delays. But Darracq had had a lesson - dearly bought, and therefore the better learned - in racing design, and his cars were, with the Fiats
, the most remarkable machines of 1905."
Alexandre Darracq, according to contemporary journalist W.F. Bradley, knew nothing about cars at all, could not even drive one, and was essentially a merchant who did not care what he sold. The designer of all Darracq cars until about 1912 is said to have been an engineer named G. Ribeyrolles. He had designed a four-cylinder engine with its valves all on one side and all mechanically operated (L-head) in 1903. But for the marque's 1904 Bennett Cup hopefuls Ribeyrolles placed his inlet valves in the traditional "automatic" overhead position, while operating them mechanically by means of pushrods and rockers. These F-head 100 hp cars weighed 1004 kg, only three kg under the limit. Driven by Wagner, Baras, and Beconnais in the French Elimination Trials, they were very fast but could not be kept in tyres. They did, however, provide the basis for the improved 80 hp model of 1905.
In this engine the stroke remained unchanged at 140 mm but the bore was reduced from 160 to 150, for a displacement of 9896 cm3. Also, the exhaust valves were moved from the side to join the inlets above the cylinders, all being pushrod-operated. It was this machine, with no differential and no change-speed transmission other than a two-speed rear axle, from which the V8 record machine was extrapolated. How this project came about seems not to have been recorded. Darracq in Europe was second only to the giant De Dion-Bouton
as a car maker, and had highly important branches in England and in the USA. Successful exploits in competition sold cars then as now, and it was probably George Cook, president of the American Darracq Automobile Company, who impressed upon the home office the promotional importance of the annual Vanderbilt Cup Race and of the annual speed tournament on Florida's east coast. The latter consisted of a week-long festival of circuit racing and straightaway record attempts on 24 km of firm, white beach between Ormond and Daytona.
The first of these meetings had taken place in 1902, when the American constructor Alexander Winton astonished his countrymen by streaking over the measured mile in a mere 52 seconds or 111.4 km/h. The following year the mile record on the beach was trimmed to 46.4 seconds by the engineer Charles Schmidt in a Packard called the Gray Wolf. In 1904 William K. Vanderbilt, driving a 90 hp Mercedes, set a new absolute world record by covering the flying mile in 39 seconds flat, for an average of 148.5 km/h. Then, in January of 1905, Arthur MacDonald, driving a Napier, clocked a mile in 34.4 seconds for 168.3 km/h. The following day H.L. Bowden, in a car of his own conception powered by a pair of 60 hp Mercedes engines mounted in tandem, set a new mark for the mile of 32.8 seconds, or 176.5 km/h. That record was disallowed by the Automobile Club de France because it didn't recognise as automobiles any machine which weighed more than 1007 kg, as this one did. The ACF also disregarded the MacDonald/ Napier performance on the grounds that the timing had been done manually rather than automatically. This left the title of "officially the world's fastest" to Monsieur Baras who, in France in 1904, had driven an unidentified Darracq over a measured mile at a speed of 168.1 km/h.
The 90-Degree V
From the standpoints of prestige, publicity, and sales promotion it was important to the great Darracq organisation that this title not be lost. The problem was that, whereas the Bowden record was unofficial, the man in the street only knew that Bowden had done it and that the Baras record was ancient history. So Alexandre Darracq
instructed his engineer to correct the awkward situation, that is, to build a car that would go faster than Bowden's special had done. Ribeyrolles' strategy was that of a proper engineer. He, too, needed eight cylinders, but he also had a weight limit within which to stay. The tandem-four straight-eight approach involved much duplication of parts; some of them (including crankcases, crankshafts and cylinder heads) being significantly heavy. So he arranged his eight cylinders in the form of a 90-degree V, bolted to a common, compact crankcase and using just one four-cylinder crankshaft and camshaft. He used the same basic valve gear as had worked so successfully on the 80 hp, but took the bore out to 170 mm, arriving at the reassuring displacement of 25,422 cm3 and a nominal 200 hp. Some authorities give the bore as 160 mm, but they are contradicted both by Demogeot and by the contemporary press.
The V8 crankcase was made of light alloy. The use of forked connecting rods permitted the cylinder blocks to be mounted directly opposite each other, thus enabling one set of cams to do the work of two and resulting in optimally compact dimensions and light weight for the engine as a whole. Each bank of cylinders was fed by a separate Darracq carburettor and ignition was by a single Nieuport magneto. The radiator consisted of two slab-shaped cores arranged in the form of a sharp, wind-cleaving V, while its top header tank was a separate, pointed cylinder mounted longitudinally above the engine. As in the 80 hp, no change-speed transmission was used. A leather-faced cone clutch transmitted the torque to a short driveshaft and on to the two-speed rear axle. A pressed-steel, channel-section frame, made by Arbel (Forges de Douai), had Truffault semi-elliptic springs at its four corner's and Dunlop tyres were used exclusively on its wire wheels. This was the most powerful car which had been built in the world up to that time.
The only reasonably detailed account of the V8's first outing was in the February 1906 issue of the American publication, Motor. That "Motor" report stated the 1905 sporting year closed with the arrival in Salon-en-Provence of Hemery, Demogeot, and the V8 on the morning of Saturday, December 30. Officials of the ACF supervised the weighing-in at 990 kg of what amounted to a bare chassis fitted with a pair of bucket seats. The article specified that the day was bitterly cold and that the car, with driver and mechanic aboard, had to run against a contrary wind. Demogeot recalled that all of the runs were made between kilometre stones 50 and 49 on the long straightaway between Aries and Salon. Pierre Lenoir of the ACF stated that the club's records showed four runs having been made, two of them in 20.6 sec., for a new official world record of 174.7 km/h. This still was almost two km/h slower than the unofficial Bowden figure, but that it was done on a narrow dirt road says a good deal for the courage of Hemery and his riding mechanic. Obviously they would be able to go faster and in infinitely greater safety on the Ormond-Daytona sands.
With The Help of Louis Chevrolet
When Hemery and Demogeot were in New York the previous October to make their successful try for the Vanderbilt Cup, they made the acquaintance of Louis Chevrolet
, the most important French-speaking personality then on the American racing scene. Chevrolet
, while driving for Fiat at the time, was also working with Walter Christie on his front-wheel-drive
projects. The Darracq victory was a rather direct consequence of the Christie-Lancia wreck and this may have served to draw the four men more closely together. The theory that the V8 was prepared in the well-equipped Christie shop is reinforced by the fact that that shop was located next door to the manufacturing plant of the Franco-Swiss constructor of chocolate-making machinery and motor vehicles, William Walter. The six-storey factory was a haven for French-speaking members of the mechanical trades.
The Fourth Annual Ormond Beach Speed Tournament
The fourth annual Ormond Beach Speed Tournament was scheduled for January 20 through 27, 1906. The weather was ideal for the season until the opening day, when chilling rainstorms set in, accompanied by abnormally high tides which engulfed the beach. The officials who had been selected to assure the professional conduct of the complex series of spectacles possessed the highest qualifications but, as the massive coverage in Motor Age noted, coordination between them was disgracefully lacking, as was preparation in general. It was not until the afternoon of the 23rd, and after the departure in disgust of all the paying spectators, that a slight break in the weather permitted a few runs. Hemery elected to try an all-out timed sprint over the measured five-mile course. As recounted to me by W.F. Bradley, Hemery made a tremendously fast run and when he applied to the officials for his elapsed time he was told that something had gone wrong with the timing equipment and that he would have to start all over again. Demogeot said of the incident - "On the first unsuccessful attempt in Florida, Hemery was desolate and for a few moments he argued with the timers and was disqualified. He was a violent man, and immediately left for France."
In all of his reminiscences Demogeot showed no tender feelings toward his old comrade-in-arms, and many other sources testify to the man's belligerent nature. His outrage in this case was expressed in the strongest language of the ex-Marseillaise sailor which he also was, and which did not in the least conceal his meaning from the American officials. On the spot, Hemery was ostracised definitively from the event on grounds of abusive behaviour towards the authorities. According to Motor Age he did not leave for France but remained as an understandably sullen witness to the drama that followed. The problem of course became that of who would drive this fearsomely unique projectile. Darracq's best American driver, Guy Vaughan, was considered, only for the idea quickly to be dropped. Then, on the 25th, the ride was offered to and accepted by Louis Chevrolet, who had come as a member of the Christie team. And on the following afternoon this man, already the holder of the absolute record for the closed-circuit mile, hurled the thundering, 25-litre car through the straightaway-mile trap in 30.6 seconds, equal to 189.2 km/h. Bowden's unofficial record was shot down in flames.
The "Two-Mile-A-Minute" Dream
The promoter of these celebrated speed-fests was one "Senator" Morgan, so nicknamed for his oratorical prowess. In his publicity for the year's event the great attraction which he used for luring the paying public was the as-yet-unrealised "two-mile-a-minute dream", meaning the achievement of 193 km/h over any distance, no matter how short. On that same afternoon the first car to make a record run was a surprise entry by the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. of Newton, Massachussets. This streamlined open-wheeled steam car was brand new and never before had been run at speed. Stanley-factory repair foreman Fred Marriott made a run through the measured mile at the Daytona end of the course and, seemingly without effort, flashed through the trap at the absolutely stupefying new world-record speed of 28.2 seconds: 205.3 km/h.
That staggering performance by a tiny, 750 kg car threatened to render anything else anticlimactic. And it was only Friday. A busy weekend lay ahead. The weather was improving and there would be crowds to entertain. But, with The Dream having become history without the slightest fanfare and with hardly any paid attendance, what was there to do for an encore? Morgan had the inspiration of holding a speed duel over the unprecedented distance of two miles, the challenge being to cover that distance in less than a minute. This entrepreneurial sleight-of-hand had the ring of the original theme of the meeting, few people would notice the difference, and it was capable of providing a frustration-filled week or more with an exciting, crowd-satisfying denouement.
Motor Age reported that, on the afternoon of January 28: "The two-mile-a-minute race for the gold speed crown having been scheduled for decision, the biggest crowd of the meet was in attendance. Floridians had been worked up into a fine state of frenzy by the Times-Union voting contest for the prettiest and most popular girl in the state, who was to place the crown on the victor's brow." Louis Chevrolet had done his job well. He had driven the V8 to a fine new world record for gasoline-engined cars, although there was no hope of rivalling the Stanley's speed. But if Chevrolet would not drive the car (except for another high fee) and if Hemery (on Darracq's payroll) could not drive it, then who would? Mr Cook, head of the firm's American branch, had the answer: Demogeot was on the company payroll. Let him drive the thing. He was supposed to be a test driver, wasn't he?
That afternoon the Stanley developed mechanical problems which took until the following day to correct. But the afternoon of the 29th brought glorious weather and a glorious crowd to witness this battle of Titans. Marriott made two runs, the best of them taking 59.6 seconds, just under the magic minute. But the Stanley was unable to sustain full steam pressure at full throttle over this longer distance. Then Demogeot made two runs. "All eight cylinders were working in beautiful rhythm and hurling the thing of steel along like a thunderbolt." His best time was 58.8 seconds, meaning 196.9 km/h. The unknown mechanic, never having driven at great speed in his life, had trounced the incredible steamer and had beaten the fearless champion Chevrolet by a resounding margin. He did not lack what it took to put his foot down all the way under such formidable conditions. The crowd knew it, and was moved. This was the moment that Morgan, the professional showman, had been waiting for and the pageantry which would close his famous tournament for another year could begin. Motor Age dutifully reported:
"The steamer's record was broken for the mile and Hemery's substitute won the gold crown and with it the real glory of the meet. When Demogeot returned to the start he received a great ovation from the crowd which swarmed all over the course and fairly mobbed him. Men shook his hands and some over-enthusiastic Florida women placed their hands on his head so as to say they had touched the head of the new speed king. It was a memorable scene befitting a great occasion. Never was a victory more enthusiastically acclaimed in the history of the beach tournaments."
To have asked why the Darracq's 197 km/h over two miles was more significant than the Stanley's 205 over one would have been in unthinkable taste and would have spoiled Senator Morgan's dream. A few days later Demogeot was part of a team which set sail for Cuba to participate in another Morgan production which called itself the Grand Prix of Havana and was tied in with carnival season there. Fellow members on that trip were Vincenzo Lancia, Emanuele Cedrino, and a young racing-car builder named Henry Ford, who had not been lucky at the Beach. Demogeot won at Havana, driving the 80 hp winner of the Vanderbilt Cup. From Havana, Demogeot returned to New York, where he recalled having been asked to become the purchasing agent in France for a pioneer American taxi company. But on his homeward voyage his wallet was stolen, he almost perished from sea-sickness, spent four days marooned by the equinoctial tides, and lost his taste for further transatlantic adventures.
In the years which immediately followed Demogeot drove for Darracq in a number of races, the most notable of which was the Coppa Florio of 1907 at Brescia. There he finished a splendid second, three minutes behind Cagno's winning Itala. His riding mechanic was none other than a boy named Jean Chassagne. As for Hemery, he left Darracq to take a position of greater responsibility with Benz. In May of 1908 he and his old riding mechanic met again in the harrowing St Petersburg-to-Moscow road race. Gerald Rose commented on this first motor race to be organised in that country: "The big Russian race was ... a wonderful scramble of 777.5 km over cart tracks and bad roads, which proved in some cases a veritable test to destruction. The event was won by Hemery on one of the new Grand Prix Benz cars at an average speed of 82.0 km/h - a most extraordinary result when the abnormally bad state of the roads is taken into account. A large number of the cars broke their springs, and the majority of the 19 withdrawals were directly traceable to the state of the roads."
The records show Demogeot's Darracq was only 10 minutes slower than the winning Benz in this almost nine-hour ordeal. He told Pibarot: "Hemery wanted an absolute win in order to drive for Mercedes (Benz). He put lead shot in my petrol tank. A few kilometres from Moscow I had to clean the fuel lines for the fourth time. It was then that he passed me, almost without tyres, and won." Demogeot drove just one more race - the Coppa Florio of that September, in which he finished fourth on a Mors, bracketed by Cagno and Lancia. Except for a brief interlude in aviation in 1910, when he worked for the engineer Roux, creator of the marque AVIA, he continued to earn his livelihood as a master auto mechanic until 1914. At that point he invested his savings in a business to make bookkeeping ledgers. Then in 1932, aged 51, Victor Demogeot retired to occupy himself with the family farm at Bainville. He died on March 8, 1970.
On its return from Florida the glorious old Darracq V8 was acquired by Algernon Lee Guinness - future director of the firm of Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq -and driven by him in hill-climbs, sprints, and record attempts. Its last formal outing was June 26, 1909, when Sir Algy wrestled the brute over Saltburn Sands in Yorkshire. Although not quite as fast as Demogeot had been, he nevertheless set a new British record for the mile at 193.4 km/h. He kept the car and, in about 1920, tried its engine in a speedboat, although the results were disappointing. Pibarot learned that, at about the time of Guinness' death in October 1954, the engine had passed to the hands of an English enthusiast, Gerald D. Firkins.