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Motor racing's 110th birthday

July 22, 1894 was the day that motorsport began - 110 years ago, the European public witnessed Gottleib Daimler's versatile high-speed gasoline engine dominate a host of different automobile propulsion systems in the first publicly staged reliability test for "vehicles without horses" from Paris to Rouen in France.

Two vehicles were declared winners, one from Panhard-Levassor, the other from the Peugeot brothers - and both powered by gasoline engines built under a Daimler license. The first vehicle to rumble across the finishing line in Rouen was a steam-powered 20 hp De Dion Bouton, followed just a few minutes later by the two light-footed gasoline-engined cars, each with a 3.5 hp V2 Daimler engine.

Both were declared winners because "both were powered by the gasoline engine which would not be suitable for use in vehicles without the inventions of Mr. Daimler in WŸrttemberg," commented the organizer, Paris-based "Le Petit Journal".

Since the steam-powered vehicle mentioned earlier did not comply with the test specifications with its huge and heavy machine but had done well, it was rewarded with an honorary second place. It was, incidentally, the first and only time that a steam-powered vehicle participated in a competition.

Peugeot cars finished in third and fourth place; the fifth was a 5 hp Roger-Benz, and in places six and seven, Panhard-Levassor cars brought up the rear of the gasoline-engined armada. The world's first reliability test for "vehicles without horses" had been organized by Paris-based newspaper "Le Petit Journal" in 1894 and was staged on the 126 kilometer route from Paris to Rouen. The prize money was 5,000 francs, and so quite a few car-builders registered, some of them with rather whimsical vehicles. Competitors ranged from gasoline-engined vehicles via steam-powered vehicles which were fairly popular in France at the time, electro- and hydro-mobiles through to vehicles which were powered by compressed air, gas or electropneumatically.

Of the 102 vehicles registered, only 20 were permitted to compete and set out in bright sunshine, cheered on by thousands of onlookers. Soon, however, the reliability test mutated into a race against the clock, which is why the event is occasionally mentioned as the first car race in history books.

However that may be, the crucial aspect was the fact that the lightweight universal engine invented by Daimler - the gasoline engine - had publicly established itself as a propulsion machine that had to be taken seriously. The top speed achieved with this engine was 20 km/h, and the highest average speed recorded, 17 km/h, was slower than that reached by cyclists but the public and the expert world were highly impressed by the cars' performance and transport capacity. The association of French engineers predicted "... that the races will speed up the process of solving the problem of mechanical transportation by road." People began taking an interest in the results and successes of the individual brands.

Gottlieb Daimler had watched the race together with his son, Paul, from a position near the start and finish as well as along the route. At a later stage, Paul wrote: "In the early morning of the day of the race, my father and I were near Porte Maillot in Paris. Large crowds assembled to watch what was a unique spectacle at the time: the lineup of the vehicles for the race. These racing cars differed greatly in shape, type and size. Enormously powerful and heavy steam-driven vehicles with trailers competed against filigree steam-powered three-wheelers, and the latter in turn against gasoline-engined vehicles. All of them had come with the same ambition, namely to be the first to arrive in Rouen and the first to be back at Porte Maillot in Paris.

"We ourselves - Gottlieb and Paul Daimler - accompanied the race by car. The different types of vehicle made the most peculiar impressions on the spectators. On the heavy steam-powered vehicles, we saw stokers, dripping with sweat and covered in soot, shoveling combustion material into the furnaces. We saw the drivers of small steam-powered three-wheelers, monitoring the pressure and water level in the small, elaborately built tubular boiler and adjusting the oil-fired furnace at all times. And then we saw the drivers of gasoline- and petroleum-engined vehicles, perfectly relaxed behind the steering wheel, operating levers every now and again - as if they were on a pleasure trip. It was a truly weird mix and remains unforgotten to me ..."

The world's first "proper" motor race was staged in the following year, 1895, on the route from Paris to Bordeaux and back to Paris. This time, the prize money was as high as 30,000 francs for the fastest four-seater and 20,000 francs for the fastest car in the open-top category.

And again, after 1,192 kilometers, the fastest cars were a Panhard-Levassor, with an average speed of 25 km/h, and a Peugeot in the four-seater category - both with Daimler engines. Levassor was particularly happy: he had broken the record of cyclists on this route.

A Panhard-Levassor vehicle, again with a Daimler engine, also won the 1896 race over 1,728 kilometers from Paris to Marseilles and back. Peugeot used its own engines from 1896.These and other races in the 1890s aroused enthusiasm for motor sport and widespread interest in the automobile with lasting effect, thereby contributing to its breathtaking development.

For Gottlieb Daimler and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, these successes had a catalytic effect, prompting the company to develop its own racing cars as early as 1896. And they also impressively demonstrated the reliability and robustness of the Daimler engines in keeping with Gottlieb Daimler's motto: "Nothing but the best."

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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