The first automobile competitions

The first automobile competitions

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  • The Paris-Dieppe race, 1897. Mayade in his car (right).


  • Tour de France automobile 1899. Amédée Bollée car.

    GIRARD Étienne

  • The arrival of the winner.

    SCHRYVER by Louis Marie (1862 - 1942)

To close

Title: The Paris-Dieppe race, 1897. Mayade in his car (right).

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1897

Date shown: 1897

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Photographic album

Storage place: National museums and domain of Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojedasite web

Picture reference: 99-000681 / CMV56001 / 27

The Paris-Dieppe race, 1897. Mayade in his car (right).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

To close

Title: Tour de France automobile 1899. Amédée Bollée car.

Author : GIRARD Étienne (-)

Creation date : 1899

Date shown: 1899

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Photographic album

Storage place: National museums and domain of Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot website

Picture reference: 99-005989 / CMV1275 / 1

Tour de France automobile 1899. Amédée Bollée car.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: September 2005

Historical context

It was in the last two decades of the XIXe century that the automobile boom began. A few years earlier, research on steam traction - carried out by Amédée Bollée (1844-1917), Léon Serpollet (1858-1917) and the Société de constructions Mécaniques de Dion-Bouton et Trépardoux - had had many applications: the world industrialized was ripe for the automobile. From genius handymen - like the Marquis Albert de Dion (1856-1946), Émile Levassor (1844-1897) or Serpollet - to industrialists like André Citroën (1878-1935) or Louis Renault (1877-1944), trompe-la -death which, from 1899, exceeded 100 km / hour to artists like Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947), installed in Alsace, the beginnings of the automobile adventure write a very French saga ...

However, these new devices were still scary; strong psychological resistance discredited them. Manufacturers wishing to prove the quality of their models and put their technical innovations to the test, sportsmen adoring to take challenges, all took part with enthusiasm in these races which were not without danger since there were victims, both among the competitors and among the ranks of the spectators. Nevertheless, they foreshadowed the great car rallies of the following century.

Image Analysis

The first major automobile race was organized on July 22, 1894. It linked Paris to Rouen. Twenty-one competitors were at the start. She aroused the public's enthusiasm for this kind of demonstration. The following years thus saw the number of races from “city to city”: Paris-Bordeaux on June 11 and 12, 1895, Paris-Marseille-Paris from November 24 to December 2, 1896. In 1897, three important competitions took place, among others. : Marseille-Nice-La Turbie, Paris-Dieppe and Paris-Trouville.

The Paris-Dieppe race took place on July 24, 1897. It brought together motorcycles, steam carts and petrol cars. The competitors had to cover a distance of 171 kilometers. The photograph shows one of them, Mayade, winner with Merkel of the Paris-Marseille-Paris the previous year in a four-cylinder Panhard-Levassor. This Paris-Dieppe race provided the second of the first automobile deaths: the Marquis de Montaignac lost control of his vehicle while overtaking and poured into the ditch. The first victim was Émile Levassor who, seriously injured during the Paris-Marseille-Paris, died at the beginning of 1897. Jamin won the Paris-Dieppe in 4 hours 13 minutes 33 seconds, on a tricycle designed by Léon Bollée. He repeated this feat during the Paris-Trouville, August 14, 1897, with the same vehicle.

Two years later, the Automobile-Club de France organized, in collaboration with the newspaper The morning, a Tour de France in seven stages from July 16 to 24. Starting from Champigny, the competitors were successively expected in Nancy, Aix-les-Bains, Vichy, Périgueux, Nantes, Cabourg and, finally, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a distance of 2,218 kilometers. At the finish only nine of the nineteen cars showed up, the first being a 16 horsepower Panhard-Levassor driven by René de Knyff who had covered the course at 48.620 kilometers per hour in less than 45 hours. But three out of four carts finished the test, and only nine out of twenty-five motorcycles.

Étienne Girard photographed The Torpedo Boat, a vehicle designed by Amédée Bollée fils, recently converted to an internal combustion engine. Carried out by De Dietrich orders, this automobile with revolutionary aerodynamics for the time had made its mark in Paris-Amsterdam-Paris in 1898, but it did not appear at the finish of the Tour de France automobile in 1899.

The Automobile-Club de France (A.C.F.) was founded on November 12, 1895, on the initiative of the Marquis Albert de Dion, a major vehicle manufacturer and enthusiast of motor racing. The first president of this association was Baron de Zuylen de Nyevelt. The A.C.F. very quickly became a breeding ground for ideas and a meeting place for builders. He presided over the organization of exhibitions and motor races for which he drew up the regulations.

In 1906, the A.C.F. organized the first race under the name of Grand Prix. It was an exceptional competition, which was not meant to become regular. It took place over two days in June, on the Le Mans circuit. With a development of 105 kilometers, this circuit was approximately triangular in shape. The competitors had to do six laps per day, which represented an overall course of 1260 kilometers. There were thirty-two hires representing twelve different automobile firms. The winner of the Grand Prix was Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz (1873-1944) driving a Renault. Renault mainly took advantage of its removable Michelin rims which, in the event of a puncture, made it possible to change the inner tube without having to pry up a fixed rim, a time-consuming operation. The surfaces of the roads and circuits were indeed of very poor quality, and tire changes were frequent.


Motorsport was born almost immediately after the conception of the first gasoline-powered automobiles. In these early years of motorized adventure, France dominated automobile construction and racing, and the Automobile-Club de France was the organizer of a number of national and international races. Most of them leave from Paris to another city in France or Europe, Amsterdam or Madrid for example. Competitors must respect imposed regulations, which often vary from one race to another, the only point common to most of these competitions being that a maximum weight is fixed on the vehicles entered in order to limit the power of the cars in indirectly restricting the size of the motors. At that time, in fact, engines of ten to fifteen liters were quite common, this volume being distributed over four cylinders at most. The power produced is then less than 50 horsepower. The pilot is always accompanied by a mechanic.

These early motor races took place on roads closed to traffic, not on tracks built for competition. This is the case for the Grand Prix circuit at Le Mans in 1906 as well as for the Dieppe circuit (77 kilometers) or the German circuit of Kaiserspres (120 kilometers). Nevertheless, some tracks are already exceptions, such as the inclined oval track at Brooklands in England, which was put into service in 1907. All the participating vehicles are painted in the national colors: blue for French cars, green for the British, red for the cars. Italian, yellow for the Belgians and white for the Germans. From 1934, German manufacturers decided not to paint their cars in order to reduce their weight, hence the nickname given to Germanic cars: the Silver arrows, the "Silver Arrows".

From 1922 onwards, motor racing became international and in 1924 many national automobile clubs federated to form the International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs (A.I.A.C.R.). French cars, driven by Bugatti, but also including Delage and Delahaye, continued to dominate the competition until the end of the 1920s, when the Italian automobiles - Alfa Romeo and Maserati - began to impose themselves regularly on circuits. The vehicles then became single-seaters - the flight engineer died out in the early 1920s - and were powered by supercharged eight to sixteen-cylinder engines, producing up to 800 horsepower. After World War II, A.I.A.C.R. reorganized into an International Automobile Federation which created a Formula 1 World Drivers' Championship in 1950 and organized the first international race, run on May 13, 1950 at Silverstone, Great Britain.

  • automobile
  • Belle Epoque
  • innovation


Hubert de BRÈVES, "Courses de fin de siècle", in Historia, 1984, special issue 449 bis The automobile is 100 years old, 1884-1984. Stéphane CALLENS, "Fatal errors, hundred years of automobile accidents", in Alliage, 1996, n ° 28.Jean-Pierre DELAPERRELLE, The Invention of the Automobile: Bollée, from steam to turbo, Le Mans, Éditions Cénomane, 1986. Yann KRISS, “Le Grand Prix de France”, in Historia, 1984 , special number 449 bis The automobile is 100 years old, 1884-1984. A century of automobile competition in Dieppe, Dieppe, Alpine Alumni Association, 2003. International Automobile Federation, From the race to the road, July 1990, n ° 1.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The first automobile competitions"