The goal of this race was to determine the fastest time from Paris to Bordeaux and back again, as the actual name, the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail, implies. To give you an idea, on the roads of that time, it was 1,178 km or 732 miles. In that case, why was this race unique? In any case, on June 11, 1895, the first-ever first-to-finish race began, pitting a huge field of automobiles against one another.
The event was an idea of a bunch of car nuts and journalists who wanted to boost the then-young French automotive industry. They wanted to see how far automobiles could go and if motor racing could make it a spectator sport financially.
Competition was low, though, because, as we’ve already mentioned, this was just a few decades after a period when competitive walking was among the most-watched sports in the world. We are not referring to sprinting here; rather, we are describing the kind of strolling that people do for long periods at a leisurely pace. Thousands of people would reportedly show up to see some walking contests. Sure, our ancestors would have thought it was hilarious to watch people walk in circles nonstop for days on end before YouTube existed—but, to be fair, it was probably more of a reason to gather with friends and family. Coming back to the topic of vehicles, it’s kind of like NASCAR, but there aren’t as many fiery disasters.
There had been several individual car races before the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail. One of these races may have been the first on August 30, 1867, when a steam-powered vehicle constructed by Isaac Watt Boulton and driven by his son competed in an eight-mile race against a steam-powered vehicle owned by Daniel Adamson; the identity of the driver in the latter case is unknown today.
Importantly, in 1878, the Wisconsin legislature tried to arrange a 200-mile race for self-propelled cars; however, only two vehicles participated. One Georges Bouton of the De Dion-Bouton Company ran in a two-kilometer race that a Parisian newspaper arranged in 1887; the story is a little more comedic. Unsurprisingly, he emerged victorious. It was
The Paris-Rouen Rally, which occurred in 1894 in Paris, was a step closer to what we would now call a car race. The event organizers made it clear in a December 1893 edition of the Le Petit Journal that this was not a race, so even though it is sometimes referred to as the first car race, the car that crossed the finish line first was not necessarily the winner. Rather, a panel of judges determined the victor by looking at how closely each vehicle met the overall criteria of being the best all-around vehicle in terms of affordability, reliability, ease of use, and safety.
In that regard, although the sequence in which the participants completed the course was taken into account when deciding the champion, the vehicle that reached the finish line first was not awarded first place because it required an additional rider to maintain its momentum. In reality, two firms—Panhard et Levassor being one of them—shared the first prize of five thousand francs, equivalent to anywhere from thirty thousand to four hundred thousand dollars in today’s dollars (depending on the inflation rate you choose to use).
The Paris-Bordeaux-paris Trail Race Takes Place Around a Year After This
With a few caveats, the car that finished the circuit first was supposed to win this race. To begin, there could be no less than three occupants in the winning vehicle. Secondly, making repairs or maintenance in the middle of the race was legal, but you could only use the supplies in your car. Furthermore, drivers were free to swap out as frequently as they pleased. Lastly, it was decreed that manufacturers may only enter one of each type of vehicle they made. This was mainly done to prevent manufacturers from saturating the race with their vehicles to boost their odds.
Only nine out of twenty-three cars made it through the torturous voyage between the cities; eight of those were internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, and the ninth was a seven-seater steam car. In addition to gas and steam-powered vehicles, an all-electric vehicle also made its debut; yes, contrary to common belief, electric vehicles did rule the early days of the automobile business.
As an example, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia manufactured the vast majority of the electric automobiles used as taxis in New York City in 1899, accounting for around 90% of all cabs. On top of that, electric cars were the most popular kind of vehicle in 1899 and 1900. The Baker Torpedo, an electric vehicle, had the first aerodynamic body to encase the driver and platform in 1902. Two bystanders were killed when this vehicle crashed during a speed test after reaching an incredible 80 mph. Later on, it reached 120 mph, but this time, onlookers weren’t allowed.
The widespread interest in EVs at the time makes perfect sense. The electric automobiles were far quieter than their rivals and didn’t have any noticeable engine vibrations. Unlike gas-powered vehicles, they rarely if ever produced smoke or backfired. In contrast to gas-powered vehicles, which required a cumbersome and potentially hazardous hand crank to start, these were likewise ready to go the moment you sat in them. In contrast, on chilly days, steam-powered automobiles usually needed half an hour to an hour to get moving.
The Legacy of a Landmark Race
In considering the future impact of such a significant motor race, it’s crucial to understand the enduring influence it holds in shaping the automotive landscape. You might wonder, “How does an event from over a century ago affect us today?”
You, as a modern enthusiast, can trace the roots of automotive innovation back to these early races. The challenges faced and the solutions sought during the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail paved the way for advancements in vehicle design and endurance. Your contemporary cars owe a debt to the early engineers who honed their craft in these pioneering races.
The impact of this momentous race resonates in the way we perceive transportation. It wasn’t just about speed; it was about proving the viability of automobiles as a reliable mode of transport. Today, you reap the benefits of this pursuit of reliability and endurance, reflected in the vehicles you trust for your daily commute or long-distance travel.
While competitive walking may seem amusing in retrospect, the shift to motor racing marked a turning point in spectator sports. The transition from unconventional sporting events to the allure of high-speed automotive competition mirrors how sporting culture evolves, capturing the attention of audiences then and now.
Surprisingly, the early prevalence of electric cars prompts contemplation about our current environmental concerns. You might be amazed to discover how, in the past, electric vehicles were dominant. This historical fact fuels discussions on the possibilities of sustainable transport, highlighting the cyclical nature of technological preferences.
Considering the indelible mark left by this landmark event, it’s evident that its impact extends far beyond the race itself. The strides made in technology, the shift in mobility paradigms, and the inspiration it continues to offer to present-day innovators all attest to its significance.