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FEATURE: The first automobile race

Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Most people’s knowledge about motorsports history begins with the creation of the Formula One world championship in 1950. The true origins of motorsports are still a bit unclear and a source of debate. Thus, in this article, you will discover what can be considered the first-ever automobile race.

The history of automobile racing will begin very shortly after the creation of the first proper automobile. Some people would consider racing events organized prior to the creation of what is mostly considered the first-ever automobile, the Benz Patent Motorwagen.

Nonetheless, this article will just focus on automobile races organized with what we could call a ‘modern version’ of a car, that became part of history with the creation of the Benz Patent in 1886, although some concepts of internal combustion motors had already been discovered before.

Back in the day, the concept of a car was still very poorly developed. As an example, the first car was created in 1866, as mentioned before, while the first tires were produced in 1888, by Dunlop. The French and the German industries were the most important in the early days of the 20th century and cars were slowly developing and started becoming reliable enough to cover arguably long distances.

Thus, in 1894, what we can consider the first-ever automobile race was organized, in France. At the time, automobile racing had a slightly different definition than what we are used to nowadays. First of all, the purpose of these ‘races’ was to display the reliability of your machine, and a talent for mechanics was rather recommended than a talent for driving.

Secondly, circuits of course did not exist just eight years after the first car was produced. Why would people waste their money to create short and weird-looking loops made out of rocks to let cars lap them dozens of times? What a silly idea, right?

Moreover, the car industry was in infancy and the roads were, therefore, free of cars and rather full of horses. Do you understand what I am getting at? Why not using these already existing public roads to link two cities as fast as possible? Great idea.

This is an approximation of what the organizers of the Paris-Rouen race probably thought back in 1894 when they organized the first-ever automobile competition. The goal was simple: link Paris and Rouen, using a car. The name of the competition also described the event very accurately: “Le concours de voitures sans chevaux” or “The competition of cars without horses.”

Cover of Le Petit Journal – 5 August 1894, representing the Paris Rouen competition.

The event was organized to promote a Parisian newspaper, the still existing “Petit Journal,” and the course was 126 km long. Actually, there is one small detail. The organizers did not image a “crazy race going at full speed” but a “promenade.” This means that the cars were actually ranked based on three criteria: “safety, convenience, and relative cheapness”. 

Therefore, a judge embarked with the driver and had to attribute marks to the competitor before a final ranking was established after arriving in Rouen. Last but not least, a proper “promenade” needs a regulated speed. The drivers were asked not to exceed the speed of 16 kph to prevent a “crazy race going at full speed.” The Panhard et Levassor was unanimously declared winner of the competition.

The Paris to Rouen is widely considered the first-ever automobile ‘race’ but can we really call this event a race? At the reader’s discretion.

The idea of organizing a true “crazy race going at full speed” was however still on the mind of a few people in France, who decided to create the first automobile club in 1895: the ACF or Automobile Club de France.

The organization immediately got to work and on the 11th of June 1895, the departure of the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris was given. The course was 1178km long and this time, speed was key as the first car to arrive in Paris would seize the win of the race. 

After more than 48 hours of driving, averaging a speed of 24.2 kph, Emile Levassor was the first to arrive in Paris but was penalized because the rulebook stated that the cars should have four occupied places at least to be homologated, while Levassor’s car only had two. 

Thus, more than 11 hours after Levassor, Paul Koechlin was the fourth to cross the finish line but was awarded the victory as he was the second-fastest competitor of the event, averaging a speed of 19.7 kph.

More than 100 years ago, the first official automobile race was held and a passion for motorsports was born. This passion has since then never stopped evolving as evidenced by the creation of various events following the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris, like the 500 miles of Indianapolis in 1911 and it is safe to say that thanks to this heritage, although the speeds did not remain the same, the passion did.

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