August 1867 – The first motor race

On August 30, 1867, Manchester played host to the first ever organised motor race, an event from which the dawn and evolution of motorsport can be traced.

An early steam powered road vehicle
An early steam powered road vehicle


Given its historical significance, the ‘novel race’ was afforded a surprisingly small amount of coverage by our predecessors at The Engineer, though we must allow for the fact that Bernie Ecclestone had not yet appeared on the scene to promote this new-fangled form of entertainment. The race was contested by “two road steam carriages”, one constructed Mr Isaac W Bolton of Ashton-under-Lyne, the other by Messrs Daniel Adamson and Co of Newton Moore.

“Mr Isaac W Bolton of Ashton-under-Lyne having only one four and 1/4 inch cylinder 9 inch stroke, the other, made by Messrs Daniel Adamson and Co of Newton Moore, having two cylinders 6 inch diameter 10 inch stroke.”

Run over a distance of around 8 miles, it took place between Ashton-under-Lyne and the showgrounds at Old Trafford, getting underway at 4.30am, possibly to avoid the attention of the authorities. At the time, red-flag laws in the US and UK required self-powered vehicles to be led by a pedestrian waving a lantern or flag to warn other road users, something not so conducive to racing, even at the relatively sedate pace of these early road vehicles.

“The larger engine, made by Messrs Adamson and Co, is a very well constructed engine, and had a good quarter of a mile start of the smaller machine. The little one with five passengers upon it passed the other in the first mile and kept a good lead of it all the way, arriving at Old Trafford under the hour, having to go steady through Manchester. The engine made by Mr Bolton ran the first four miles in 16 minutes… On arrival at Old Trafford they tested their turning qualities, and both engines turned complete circles of 27 foot diameter, both right and left, frequently.”

Though this initial racing was far from breakneck, it helped lay the path for the growth of motorsport in the late 19th century, as internal combustion vehicles begin to take over. It would not be until 1894 that the first large-scale city-to-city race would take place, the famous Paris to Rouen event attracting 102 entrants with a 10 francs fee.

By that stage, petrol had taken over as the dominant force in motorsport, powering 11 of the first 12 cars to cross the line at Rouen. The one exception was a steam-powered vehicle entered by Jules-Albert de Dion, a French nobleman with a passion for automobiles and racing (he would go on to found the Paris Motor Show). Despite finishing the course in the fastest time, Comte de Dion’s vehicle was ineligible for the prize money under the rules, as it required a stoker to keep it moving – a fitting tribute to the endeavours of Bolton and Adamson 30 years prior in Manchester.