Wild Pioneers – 1902 Gordon Bennett Trophy

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  Londoner Charles Jarrot 70hp Panhard, one of 13 entered later became founder member of the AAThe dawn of motoring in Europe centred on Paris and early competition for this fledgling industry involved arduous endurance races called Les Grandes Epreuves (The Big Events).  Named after the wealthy owner of the New York Herald, the Gordon Bennett automobile races ran from 1900-1905. Bennett a keen sports fan saw the potential to fill pages of his paper with an exciting series of endurance races with competing nations supplying vehicles of which every part was home produced; although it is said he never drove a car or attended any of his races. France led the world in automobile development at the time and Bennett approached the countries auto club with his plan; the race would be a minimum of 300 miles in length and the subsequent race would be held in the nation of the winning driver. In 1900 victory of the Paris-Lyon race went to Fernand Charron (fra) in a Panhard so the 1901 remained stayed in France.  This race was again won by a Panhard in the hands of another French driver Leonce Girardot; the 1902 started in Paris. Louis Renault visiting a check point but a collision with Baron de Caters Mors would end his eventTwo major problems faced the organisers of these early road races. First, was the accidents and fatalities which involved both competitors and spectators and second, the closing of public roads which initially proved most unpopular. However, by the start of the 1902 Trophy race from Paris to Innsbruck in Austria any resentment had long diminished. The race for this Trophy was between Britain and France, the overall event was from Paris to Vienna, but within that the two nations would contest Bennett’s prize; their race ended at Innsbruck. The race within a race was fiercely contested, national pride was at stake and thousands lined the roads at the start. The village of Champigny-sur-Marne outside Paris was packed with flag waving enthusiasts and nervous drivers, together with their ride on mechanics keen to get underway on the first stage to Belfort, near the Swiss border and some 253 miles distant. The French team consisted of the previous year’s winner Girardot (CGV) with Fournier (Mors) and Rene de Knyff in a powerful Pandard. Their challengers from across the Channel included Arthur Callan and Montague Graham-White both piloting Wolseley 30’s and Selwyn Edge in his Napier. Marcel Renault and Rene Vauthier cross the line to win in Renault’s very fast ‘light car’At the turn of the 1900s Edge raced a Panhard which had enjoyed some performance enhancements by his friend Napier who would often act as his riding mechanic. Just one part of the mechanic’s role involved fixing breakdowns; race cars of the time couldn’t function without one. At speed their responsibilities included keeping fuel pressure via a pump, controlling oil ‘drip-feed’ lubrication as engines of the time ran a total loss system. They would oil the drive chains, adjust the leather brakes and watch out for other competitors; all under race conditions. In 1901 Edge had entered a 17 litre Napier that proved far too powerful for the Dunlop tyres originally fitted but by changing them to a French manufacturer, Edge was excluded from the race. Pre-dawn start for one 60hp Mors on route to Vienna, the driver CS RollsIn 1902 the 6.5 litre Napier offered 50hp and proved more suitable for an endurance race that would reduce the field dramatically; one way or another. Wearing the number 45 and with his cousin Cecil riding mechanic, Edge approached the start line, the first car of Girardot was flagged away at 3.30am followed by Fournier then the Napier. The mid-summer heat dried the dirt surface to dust and stones presenting just one of many dangers on route. The first part of the stage was the flattest and all drivers realised this would be their chance to make rapid progress with speeds of 70mph not uncommon. These speeds took their toll and breakdowns frequented over strained engines whilst the dust thrown up was accountable for several early accidents. Girardot endured various mechanical issues whilst Callan’s Wolseley went out early; Fournier though offered maximum attack from the start. In the Mors, that would claim the World Land Speed Record later in 1902 the French driver amazed passengers of the event sponsored express train by blasting past them at over 70mph; on a dirt road. Covering 87.5 miles in 80 minutes it would be transmission issues that ended Fournier’s chances of a win. The Hon CS Rolls also drove a Mors but his collided with a tree and was destroyed quite early in the event; not deterred in the least he purchased the Fourneir car at the end of that year. Knyff extended his lead further when the Napier slewed across the road at high speed; Edge used great skill to prevent a rear blow out from ending their race and possibly worse. With a new inner tube fitted, frustration was amplified when their hand pump failed to operate; luckily a passing competitor, Count Eliot Zborowski offered salvation and the loan of his pump. Knyff finished the first stage in 7 hours 11 minutes in first place, the Napier finally arrived in 11th place; 253 miles covered. Victorious Marcel Renault in Vienna tragically killed during the infamous 1903 Paris-BarcelonaCars were parked on arrival and rules dictated no repairs could be undertaken until the following morning; not easy when the competitors started the next stage at 3.30am. Edge awoke to find all four of his tyres were flat, luckily the next stage was 200 miles through Switzerland where authorities decreed no racing was allowed, even so approaching the overnight stop at Bregenz, Edge noticed his brakes weaken. Not a good omen as the most dangerous stage followed.  Climbing 6000ft into the mountains, the competitors faced the daunting Arlberg Pass. A few lines from Automotor Journal at the time explained the route over the pass, ‘there were gutters you could bury a man in, hundreds of them crossing the road at right angles: it would be a trial of springs as well as motors. Ridges too that lent more than a suggestion of the steeplechase reared their crests across the way. For scores of miles, particularly in the high Arlberg country, six thousand feet above sea level, the road hung on the brink of fearsome precipices. Ruts and loose stones abounded in the Austrian section of the course’. Baron de Caters Mors prior to the incident with Renault would still finish a creditable 9th in the heavy classPrior to the 3.30 am start Selwyn and Cecil Edge replaced 4 threadbare tyres and noted the leather band brakes were virtually worn out but with time against them they lined up keen to follow their rival Knyff. Reports from the officials warned of the treacherous road conditions; summer heat had melted the snow leaving a rutted surface littered with rocks. Edge was fortunate to survive leaving the road at speed, his brakes now useless it took much effort to return the Napier onto the track as outside assistance was banned. Whilst the climb slowed the racers, the descent was rapid, requiring nerve and skill but mostly brakes; some racers considered this part too dangerous and quit. Others took on the challenge but were forced to utilise the inner wall of the mountain pass to slow down after their brakes cried enough. The Napier was muscled from one curve to the next and amongst many machines stopped at the side of the road was Graham-White’s Wolseley and the big Panhard; Rene de Knyff had succumbed to differential failure just 30 miles from the finish. A fortuitous victory maybe but there is no denying the shear grit shown by the victors and the strength of the Napier automobile being the sole surviving Gordon Bennett Cup competitor. 132 cars left Paris for Innsbruck and Vienna with an impressive 74 completing their events, the first to reach Vienna was Marcel Renault averaging 39mph, further proving the endurance qualities of early automobiles.111 years later the Edge’s Napier performed perfectly at the 2013 VCR run Results Paris-Innsbruck 26-28 June 1902 - Paris-Innsbruck: 565.60 km 1:  45 Selwyn F.Edge    Napier 50    11h02m52.6m 51.17kph/31.80mph Retirements
  • 5 René De Knyff         Panhard 70       differential
  • 170 M Grahame White   Wolseley 30   crankshaft
  • 1 Henri Fournier       Mors Z         clutch shaft
  • 12 Leonce Girardot   C.G.V.          split fuel tank
  • 171 Arthur Callan     Wolseley 30
Paris-Vienna Trail 26-29 June 1902 - Paris-Vienna: 990 km Results
  1. 1: 147 Marcel Renault   Renault    15h47m43.8
  2. 2:   7 Henri Farman        Panhard   16h00m30.2
  3. 3:  38 J. Edmond             Darracq    16h10m16.2
  4. 4:  26 Count Eliot Zborowski  Mercedes   16h13m29.6
  5. 5:   6 Maurice Farman     Panhard     16h19m29.4