When you heard the word “race”, what comes to mind is some form of competition, whether it is running, biking, driving, swimming, and so on. The first automotive race was a bit different, however, in that it actually wasn’t a race. Constructed by the Le Petit Journal, a daily newspaper out of Paris that had a knack for creating contests to assist with their sales, the world’s first automotive competition was held in Paris in 1894, 124 years ago. So, if the first race wasn’t a race, what actually happened?
When cars first came about, they were machines that we considered toys for the rich and weren’t utilized by a majority of the population. The thought of racing them was a foreign concept. It took a few years to establish the ambitious idea of creating a competition to test these “horseless carriages.” The competition was a 79-mile journey from Paris to Rouen, Normandy, and was designed, not as a race, but rather to display the vehicles and test their viability as a reliable form of transportation. Instead of being tested for how fast they can go and how quickly they reached their final destination, they were judged on the ease in which they were operated, free of danger to the competitors, and how expensive they were to run.
There were 102 initial races that paid the 10-franc fee to participate, however, only 26 of them actually attended the beginning of the event, July 18th, 1894. During the following three days, quality tests were conducted, eliminating five of the 26 cars before the competition began, dropping the number of racers to 21. While there were a variety of cars that were brought into the competition, ranging from a steam tractor towing a carriage, to a steam-powered tricycle, only one of the cars had a modern steering wheel.
Early in the morning on Sunday, July 22nd, 1894, spectators and cars alike gathered for the competition. The crowd gathered to watch as the vehicles lined up, and just after 8 am, the cars took off and the world’s first automotive competition began. Spectators followed on foot, horse, and bicycle to witness the spectacle. About 40 minutes after the competition began, the first casualty occurred, when a steam-powered Serpollet broke an axel and was removed from the race. When the participants reached the suburbs of Mantes around noon, 4 hours after the competition began, the group paused for a 90-minute lunch break. After their leisurely meal, the participants went back to their vehicles and took off after the bugle sounded.
While most of the vehicles did not reach speeds of more than 10 miles per hour, there were still accidents during the race. Because crowds of people came out to witness this event in the towns, the racers not only had to compete in the race, but they had to compete for space on the roads. A few dogs and a cyclist had been trampled, and many of the tires were damaged or cut on the rougher sections of the roads.
After a total time of six hours and 48 minutes, the first vehicle passed the finish line, driven by Count de Dion, followed by Lemaire, Doriot, and then Paul Panhard and Emile Levassor. Seventeen of the 21 original racers were able to complete the 79-mile trek, arriving in the early to late evening. While Count de Dion technically won the race, he only received second place, as his vehicle failed the “ease of operation” requirement – his steam-powered tractor needed an onboard stoker. Instead, the first prize was split between Lemaitre, Paul Panhard, and Emile Levassor.
While the world’s first automotive race is not as intense as today’s races, it quickly became a staple of motorsports, and eventually transcended into the automotive races we know and love today.