This week in 1894 – the world’s first motoring competition

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The “Petit Journal” Road Carriage Competition, The Engineer, 27/07/1894 - .PDF file.

The Engineer reported from a French contest that showcased the latest technology in the field of horseless carriages.

The future of motoring looks increasingly as if it will involve a variety of different powertrains – battery-powered, plug-in hybrid, hydrogen, super-efficient diesel.

But back before the petrol-fuelled internal combustion engine was king, a similar plethora of ideas for personal transport vehicles competed, sometimes literally, for dominance.

In July 1894, The Engineer reported from what has been called ‘the world’s first motoring competition’, a road trial that ran from Paris to Rouen and attracted ideas for every kind of horseless carriage imaginable at the time.

Organised by the daily Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal, the contest was ‘in no sense a race’, according to The Engineer’s special correspondent, but instead offered a prize fund of 10,000 francs to the vehicles that came closest to the ideal of being ‘not dangerous, easy to drive, and cheap during the journey’.

Over 100 people paid the 10 franc entrance fee, submitting proposals for cars powered by electricity, compressed air and – mysteriously – gravity. But only 26 petrol and steam-driven vehicles showed up for the public exhibition that launched the contest and which The Engineer reported attracted crowds of people, making it difficult to approach the carriages.

Panhard and Levassor built two vehicles that helped them take a share of the first prize fund.

After several days of qualifying rounds, the remaining 21 competitors set off on the final leg of the contest in ‘splendid weather’. The Engineer was given a ride by one of the vehicles that would go on to share the competition’s first prize of 5,000 francs, built by Messrs Panhard and Levassor and driven by Mr Panhard junior, and their early lead gave our correspondent a good vantage point to take stock of the vehicles.

The Panhard/Levassor cars, and those of fellow winning manufacturers ‘the sons of Peugeot brothers, used a radial level for steering, that The Engineer remarked acted ‘perfectly for these light carriages’, while the steering wheel of the car built by Mr. Vacheron (who won fourth prize), ‘did not appear to me to be so satisfactory’.

Despite this observation, our correspondent was more prescient in his assessment of the steam-powered carriages. ‘It is somewhat instructive to note that only one carriage out of the thirteen which arrived before 8 p.m. was driven by steam; all the others being petroleum motors, mostly of the Daimler type,’ he wrote.

The Engineer was given a ride in another of Panhard and Levassor’s cars.

‘My own opinion is that steam is quite unsuitable for private persons who wish to drive their own carriages. The objections to the use of petroleum, or rather gasoline, are, first, the smell, which, when the motor is running properly, is almost absent; and, secondly, the vibration while at rest. I was anxious to see the electric motor, which was entered, but it did not appear.’

The contest attracted plenty of attention along the route to Rouen. ‘Along the whole of the road from Paris groups of people were stationed, who offered bouquets and fruit to the persons in the vehicles; and it appeared that entire schools in many cases bad been brought out to see the sight.’

And the race wasn’t without mishap, even for the vehicle that eventually arrived at the finish line first, a steam-powered car driven and designed by Jules-Albert, Comte de Dion. ‘No.4 mistook the route and mounted a very steep hill, and in turning to descend again, went into a potato field, and aid had to be obtained to get it on to the road again.’

But despite his ability to get back on track and complete the route in the fastest time – 6 hours 48 minutes with an average speed of 19kmph (12mph) – the Comte only received second prize because his vehicle required a stoker.

The first vehicle to cross the finish line was a steam-powered tractor.

Once the day was over, The Engineer joined the competitors for dinner where they reflected on France’s leading role in pioneering the use of the motor vehicle. ‘The greatest surprise is expressed that so little has been done in England in the construction of self-moving vehicles suitable for private families,’ wrote our correspondent.

‘The authorities in the United Kingdom appear to do what they can to hinder the use of such carriages, whereas in France, which we usually consider as under bureaucratic rule, everything possible seems to be done to encourage their use.’

However, he also gave details of an electric car designed by Coventry manufacturers Taylor Cooper and Bednell. The vehicle, like the other electric models, had failed to show at the competition, and the firm would wind up three years later.

An early British design for an electric car.

Given this early falter, it now seems ironic that over 100 years later the UK has become an electric car manufacturing hub for Europe thanks to the opening of Nissan’s Leaf plant in Sunderland.

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