It was a time when horsepower was still provided primarily by our four-legged friends. But that was about to change as “muscle concept cars” emerged in the late 1800s. With all the newfangled horseless carriages pushing the horse-powered ones off the roads, French newspaper Le Petit Journal grabbed an opportunity to boost its circulation. On Sunday July 22, 1894 they sponsored the world’s first car race. They billed it as a 79-mile “Competition for Horseless Carriages.” It ran from Paris, France to the city of Rouen in Normandy.
Pierre Giffard, Le Petit Journal’s editor, leveraged the first car race to test and showcase various horseless carriages. Which model would replace horses? In addition to speed, the race judged entrants by ease of use, safety, comfort, cost of operation, and reliability.
The first eligible vehicle to cross the finish line in Rouen won the first prize of 5,000 francs. Second place won 2,000; third place won 1,500, and fourth won 1,000 and 500 went to fifth.
One hundred and two entrants signed up and paid the 10-franc fee. Their horseless carriages represented a wide range of vehicles. Among them were a “concept car” powered by gravity. Another worked off of compressed air. One had liquid pedals and another featured propellers. Only one entrant had a modern steering wheel. The rest had tillers and levers. Professional manufacturers including Peugeot, Serpollet, Panhard and de Dion-Bouton also entered. Only 25 showed up on the day of the first car race.
Gottlieb Daimler’s son Paul later wrote:
“It was a curious spectacle seeing these disparate vehicle types racing against each other: the stokers on the heavy steamers, dripping with perspiration and covered with soot…and then in contrast to all that the drivers of the petrol- and paraffin-powered cars sitting calmly in the driver’s seat, operating a lever now and again, as if they were simply out for a pleasure trip—an utterly peculiar image of contrasts that has remained with me ever since.”
At 8:00 am on July 22, 1894, twenty-one qualified vehicles started from Porte Maillot. They travelled through small towns and stopped for lunch from 12 noon to 1:30 at Mantes. After lunch they travelled to Vernon, Eure, Gaillon, Pont-de-l’Arche and finally Champ de Mars at Rouen.
Seventeen of the original 21 racers eventually completed the 79-mile journey. Most arrived on the Champs de Mars in Rouen in the early to late evening of July 22.
Count de Dion crossed the finish line first at Rouen with a time of 6 hours and 48 minutes. That was in spite of his detour through a potato patch. His average speed was 12 m.p.h.. That was 3 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of:
The following day, the judges did not award Count de Dion the main prize because his steam vehicle needed a ‘stoker’ and was thus ineligible. Instead, they split first prize between the Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor cars, whose vehicles had demonstrated remarkable reliability.
The judges praised Gottlieb Daimler’s engine, saying it had “turned petroleum or gasoline fuel into a practical solution” for powering automobiles.
The first car race was just one step in a bigger race that ultimately would determine the course of history. That was the race was about fuel-powered horseless carriages versus the electrics.
By the late 1800s, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz had refined and tested real working internal combustion engines. Karl and Bertha Benz’s 1886 Patent Motorwagen No. 3 was capable of speeding from 0-14 mph in approximately 45 seconds and packed the power of an entire horse. Bertha Benz and her sons, famously drove their newly constructed automobile from Mannheim to Ptorzheim Germany on August 5, 1888. Bertha feigned an emergency visit to her mother, but her real mission was to prove to the world the viability of their horseless carriage.
Electric cars were also making great strides in design and were hugely popular in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Henry Ford’s wife like many people would drive nothing but an electric car. Despite that, Reliable electric self-starter mechanisms that could replace cumbersome crank starters were on the market by 1896. Oil reserves were discovered and huge investments made in both oil and rubber.
When Henry Ford switched his designs for his new assembly line models, the market for gasoline-fueled cars pulled away from electrics at high speeds.
Shortly after the first car race, Le Petit Journal published an article headlined:
“How can you travel other than in a motor car?”
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