The Birth Of British Motor Racing

Duncan ScottAnalyst INovember 20, 2008

Baron Camille Jenatzy was known for being a practical joker. One night in 1913 he had some guests at his hunting lodge in the Ardennes, and as a prank he hid in some bushes outside the house and mimicked the sounds of a wild boar.

It was his last joke, a guest leaned out of a window and shot him dead with a rifle.

And so died the winner of the first international motor race to be held in the British Isles. That race was held in 1903, but not on a famous circuit, it was run on country roads south-west of Dublin, Ireland.

This is the story of that race.

Gordon Bennett (1841 - 1918) was the owner of the New York Herald newspaper, which

had been founded by his father. Something of a playboy, he was interested in many sports, and founded an international series of motor races.

Bennett donated a trophy, The Gordon Bennett Cup, to the Automobile Club de France (ACF), who organised the contests from 1900 - 1905, always on public roads.

Competition in the Gordon Bennett car races was between national teams, each with a maximum of three cars. The rules stated that every part of each car had to be made in the team's country, and this ruled most nations out of the competition, for very few countries at that time were industrially advanced enough to make all the parts for a motor car.

In 1902 Selwyn Edge won the Gordon Bennet cup for Britain in a Napier - he was the only competitor to finish - and that gave him the right to choose the venue for the next year's event. That posed a problem, because racing on public roads was illegal in Britain, as it still is.

The Venue

The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland were very keen for the race to be held in the British Isles, and their secretary suggested Ireland as the venue. It may be of interest here to note that car sales in Britain had tripled after Edge's victory in 1902, and the industry savoured a home event quite mightily.

The editor of the Dublin Motor Newssuggested an area south-west of Dublin, and a massive lobbying operation was launched for a law to be passed permitting roads to be closed to the public for the race. Their efforts paid off, and a law permitting some roads in County Kildare, Ireland, to be closed for the race was passed as the 'Light Locomotives (Ireland) Bill' on March 27th 1903.

The race date was set as Thursday, July 2nd, 1903.

After much discussion and many changes the course finally adopted was two loops joined to form a rough figure-eight.

The length of the smaller loop through Castledermot was 40 miles, the larger one through Kildare was 52 miles.

Contestants would be started at seven-minute intervals to prevent bunching on the course, so strictly speaking it was a time-trial rather than a race.

Each of the seven population centres shown on my sketch was a control zone, where competitors had to slow down and follow a cyclist. They would also be held at a control zone if another car had departed within the previous seven minutes; the organisers were determined to prevent wheel-to-wheel racing on the narrow roads.

Determining the winner would be a matter of adding the sector times for each of competitors who finished the course, the winner being the man with the lowest aggregate time.

On Lap 1 the entrants would turn right before Kilcullen to complete the short loop. On Lap 2 they would go through Kilcullen and the long loop, Lap 3 would be the short loop again - you have the idea, except that Laps 6 and 7 would both be of the long loop.

Total race distance would be 328 miles, which was a long journey for a car of the time. Races then were as much about endurance as speed, and each car carried a chauffeur as well as a driver, he was a mechanic would a hop out of the car to deal with the numerous punctures and minor mechanical emergencies.

Driving For Germany

None of the German team's drivers were German, but all drove chain-drive 'Simplex' Mercedes. The company had not yet become Mercedes-Benz, and Mercedes was just a brand name of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft.

Sources quote differing power ratings for the cars, ranging from 60bhp to 90bhp. I believe the disrepancies arise because the standard Simplex of 1903 had a 9.2 litre 60bhp engine, but three 90bhp 12.7 litre machines were specially prepared by Mercedes for the race.

Those 90bhp cars were then destroyed in a factory fire along with 87 other vehicles. In consequence, Mercedes borrowed three privately owned Simplex cars, and the company's website simple says those vehicles were 'modified for the race in record time', but does not specifically state if the engines were upgraded.

Baron Pierre de Caters was a Belgian. An all-purpose wealthy adventurer, he was to become the first Belgian to fly an aircraft, in 1908.

Baron Camille Jenatzy was also Belgian, and a wild one by all accounts. In 1899 he was the first person to drive faster than a mile a minute, reaching 65 mph in an electric car.

Foxhall Keene was American, and another playboy. He was interested in many sports and was considered the top Polo player in the US. Polo had been introduced there by Gordon Bennett.

Driving For Britain

As a gesture to the (not yet independent) Irish, and possibly to ward off any Fenian intervention, the British team chose the colour 'shamrock green' for their shaft-drive Napier cars. The colour, renamed to 'British racing green', was adopted permanently.

Selwyn Edge was born in Australia, and was brought to England at the age of three. He had been disqualified from the 1900 race for not having British tyres, he broke down in 1901, and won in 1902, so this was his fourth Gordon Bennett adventure.

Charles Jarrott was a former racing cyclist. He entered the Berlin-Paris race of 1901 in a Panhard, coming tenth.

J.W.Stockswas another former racing cyclist. He was manager of the De Dion Bouton Company’s British branch.

Edge's Napier had a 13.72 litre engine rated at 80bhp, the other two drivers had 7.7 litre 45bhp engines.

Driving For France

Rene de Knyffwas Belgian, and he was President of the Racing Committee of the Automobile Club de France. He was an entrant in the first Gordon Bennett race in 1900, and competed in the Paris-Madrid race. His car was a 13.6 litres 80bhp chain-drive Panhard.

Maurice Farmanwas English. Like de Knyff he drove a 13.6 litre chain-drive Panhard.

Ferdinand Gabrielwas the teams only Frenchman. Just 23 years old, he had won the Paris-Madrid race earlier in the year, and competed in Ireland driving the 11.6 litre 70bhp Mors car that had borne him to victory.

Driving For America

Alexander Wintonhad started with a bicycle workshop in Ohio, and progressed to making his own cars. The 17.0 litre 80bhp Winton car he entered in the 1903 race was built by himself and his chief engineer Harold B. Anderson, it is now in the Smithsonian.

Percy Owenwas manager of the Winton Automobile company, and of course drove one of their cars, with an 8.5 litre 40bhp engine.

L. P. Mooers was an engineer with the Peerless car company, competing in one of their 11.0 litre 80bhp machines.

The Race

At 07.00 on July 2nd Selwyn Edge (Britain) was the first away from the start. He was followed by the others at regular specified intervals.

Stocks (Britain) was soon out of the race after a collision with a wire fence. Keene (Germany)

clocked the fastest Lap 1, followed by Edge (Britain) , Farman (France), and Jarrott (Britain).

On Lap 2 Jarrott (Britain) suffered a steering failure, and Mooers (USA) was also out, with engine overheating. Jenatzy (Germany) was fastest on this lap, followed by De Knyff (France), Edge (Britain), and Gabriel (France). Edge's tyres tended to come off their rims when hot, and he rapidly fell away as a contendor.

On Lap 3 Jenatzy was again the fastest, again followed by De Knyff. Keene (USA) dropped out with mechanical problems in this lap.

Jenatzy was fastest on all the remaining laps, and won the race and its £8000 purse with a margin of 11minutes 40 seconds over De Knyff. Then came the other two drivers for France, Farman and Gabriel, and they were the only team to get all three cars to the finish.

None of the American cars, and only one of the British cars finished.

The photo (left) shows Camille Jenatzy in his white Mercedes being congratulated on his win.

Some sources claim that Germany was allocated black as their team colour for the Gordon Bennett races, but all contemporary sources describe them as white. Photographic evidence also supports white as being Germany's colour.

And so it was all over. There were to be many more international motor races in the British Isles, but the Athay area of County Kildare had staged the first, and history had been made.

After The Race

Non-UK readers may be surprised to learn that 'Gordon Bennett' became an epithet for astonished disbelief in parts of Britain, especially the London area. In researching this article I came across several different alleged reasons. According to who you believe, it was because his fiancee's mother exclaimed 'Gordon Bennett!' when he drunkenly urinated into her fireplace at a reception. In a similar story, a grand piano received the urine. In all versions the engagement was broken off.

You will be realising that Bennett was far from being the sombre gentelman his photograph might suggest.

Some have it that 'Gordon Bennett!' was first heard when he flew a plane through a barn, or when he rode naked through New York for a bet, or when he drove around a corner so fast that Winston Churchill's mother was thrown from his car.

Bennett lived mainly in Europe from 1877 until his death in 1918, chiefly in Paris and on his yacht, running his newspaper via telegraph. He had a long string of women, and only married at the age of 73 for business reasons, because it gave him a family link to the Reuters news agency.


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