Competitive motorcar race from Paris to Rouen on 22 July 1894: The birth of motorcar racing 125 years ago: closely associated with Mercedes-Benz from the outset.
Every modern race victory by a car sporting the Mercedes star is also an echo of the world’s first competitive motorcar race – the race from Paris to Rouen on 22 July 1894. This was also the start – 125 years ago – of the history of motorsports for Mercedes-Benz: first prize went to vehicles with Daimler engines built by Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot, and a Benz Vis-à-Vis belonging to Émile Roger won fifth prize.
Stuttgart. Who will win this sporting competition of drivers and motorcars? That is the question at the heart of every thrilling race – in Formula One, where Mercedes-AMG Motorsport has been redefining standards in the World Championship for years, and in such new formats as the all-electric Formula E racing series, where the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E Team will be competing in the coming season with their new EQ Silver Arrow 01. But also in rally competitions, endurance racing, DTM and customer sport: every victory incorporates the spirit of motorsports born of the will to compete and win. The motorcar brand from Stuttgart is celebrating this spirit from 1894 in 2019 with its anniversary of “125 Years of Motorsports by Mercedes-Benz” and, with every new win, extends it into the future.
A new sport is born
Who will win? That is the question posed by many on this pleasant summer’s day, 22 July 1894, in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine: only an hour to go, and then the competitive race for motorcars over 126 kilometres to Rouen will be off. This was the first competition of its kind in the history of the combustion engine car, which, at that time, was a mere eight years old. The Paris-Rouen course was not just a race against the clock, but a competition for reliability and suitability for everyday use. The winning car was to be the one that fulfilled these criteria the best: “safe to use, easy to operate and not too expensive to operate” (“être sans danger, aisément maniable pour les voyageurs et de ne pas coûter trop cher sur la route”). This is the way “Le Petit Journal”, host of this first competition from Paris to Rouen, phrased it. That tabloid was a medium with a tremendous readership, and had a circulation of more than one million copies.
Pierre Giffard, sports enthusiast and publisher of “Le Petit Journal”, announced the reliability competition for horseless carriages in December 1893, and it also developed into a battle between alternative systems. Paris-Rouen was one of a series of high-profile sporting events devised by advertising genius Giffard in the 1890s – including the Paris-Brest bicycle race in 1891 and the first Paris marathon in 1896. And even if the speed of the cars was not the only deciding factor for success, this race was clearly a sporting competition. The next day, the newspaper “Le Matin” astutely claimed that the event had been the beginning “of a new sport” (“un sport nouveau”). The sport inspired thousands – about 30,000 people supported the start in Paris in 1894, which was in keeping with the great interest shown in motorcars at that time, particularly in France and Great Britain.
At 7 o’clock in the morning, the 21 participating drivers lined up with their cars at the Porte Maillot, near the Bois de Boulogne. As on the three days before, which consisted of qualification and test drives, the crowd marvelled at the vehicles, which were of very different kinds: the range of vehicles extended from steam tractors to state-of-the-art cars with Daimler-licensed engines (a total of nine vehicles) and a Benz Vis-à-Vis driven by Émile Roger, the French importer of Benz & Cie. A total of 15 motorcars with combustion engines and six steam-driven cars started the race. Of these, 17 vehicles reached the finishing line.
The de Dion steam tractor towing its single-axle passenger trailer took to the road punctually at 8:01 am. The remaining vehicles started off at 30-second intervals on a route that was characterised by poor road conditions.
In addition to the spectators beside the road at the start, there were many more along the route: the race participants were accompanied – especially at the beginning – by numerous cyclists and motorists. Automotive pioneer Gottlieb Daimler and his son Paul were also present at the start with their motorcar. Two decades later, Paul Daimler recalled his impressions in an article published in the “Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung”: “We accompanied the race in our motorcar. It was a strange spectacle to see so many fundamentally different types of vehicles competing in speed: there were the firemen of the heavy steam cars sweating, soot covered, working hard piling on the fuel, the drivers of the small steam tricycles constantly checking the pressure and water level in the small, artistically constructed boiler and regulating the oil firing, and in contrast, the drivers of the petrol and oil-fired vehicles sitting still on the driver’s seat, adjusting a lever now and again, as if they were driving purely for pleasure – truly a strange comparison and an absolutely unforgettable sight that will stay with me throughout my life.”
A race as a sport and media phenomenon
After 5 hours and 40 minutes, the De Dion-Bouton steam tractor of Count Jules-Albert de Dion with its single-axle passenger trailer is the first vehicle to reach the finishing line. However, the vehicle did not meet all the conditions of the competition. The main prize “Prix du Petit Journal”, of no less than 5,000 francs, was, as a result, divided between the manufacturers Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor. They both crossed the finishing line in Rouen only a few minutes after de Dion and fulfilled all the competition rules with their four-seater motorcars. Both vehicles were powered by a Daimler two-cylinder V-engine with an output of around 2.6 kW (3.5 bhp), built under licence by Panhard & Levassor.
Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni, owner of the “Le Petit Journal”, donated four more prizes. The second and third prizes went to steam cars – which shows how intense the competition between the different types of drive was at that time. The fourth prize was shared by two vehicles with combustion engines. The fifth prize, 500 francs, went to engineer Émile Roger with his Benz Vis-à-Vis, which was powered by a 2.2 kW (3 bhp), horizontally installed single-cylinder engine.
Milestone for personal mobility
The birth of motorsport in 1894 was also an outstanding milestone in the release of the new form of mobility, the motorcar. In 1899, the “Almanac of Sports” commemorated the race that had taken place five years earlier. That publication commented on the great media response to the Paris-Rouen race as follows: “The whole press scene, both political and scientific, joined in like a well-arranged and trained choir to produce a dithyrambic anthem to this new star, the fairy called motorcar” (“Tout la presse, politique et scientifique, entonna comme un chœur bien stylé, bien entrâiné, un hymne dithyrambique en l’honneur de l’astre nouveau, la fée Automobile”).
The French newspaper “Le Figaro” also commemorated the opening of the seventh Paris Motor Show on 9 December 1904 under the heading “Ten years later” (“Dix ans après”). The Paris-Rouen race in 1894 was, they said, “the first manifestation of the motorcar” (“ la première manifestation automobile”).
On 29 June 1907, on the occasion of the French Grand Prix, the magazine “La Vie au Grand Air: Revue illustrée de tous les sports” attributed the tradition of motorsports to the Paris-Rouen race in 1894 and published an article by Pierre Giffard remembering the race organised by him.
The birth of motorsports also serves as a yardstick for assessing scientifically the increases in performance achieved in automotive engineering: Georges Forestier, Inspector General of Bridges and Highways and Professor of Road Construction at the “ École nationale des ponts et chaussées”, summarised this on 22 July 1899, which was exactly five years after the Paris-Rouen race, in the journal “Le Génie Civil”: “The average speed during the Paris-Rouen race (1894) was almost exactly 21 km/h, in the Paris-Bordeaux race (1899) it was 48.2 km/h” (“La vitesse moyenne croit presque régulièrement de 21 kilom. à l’heure, dans la course Paris-Rouen (1894), à 48,20 km dans la course Paris-Bordeaux (1899).”). It was on this route from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895 that the first motorcar race against the clock, which is the basis for modern racing, took place.
Highlights of 125 years of Mercedes-Benz motorsports history
Successes achieved in France have always been amongst the highlights in 125 years of motorsports at Mercedes-Benz:
- In 1901, the brand name Mercedes was born as a result of motorsports – in particular the Nice Week races, which were dominated by the Mercedes 35 bhp.
- In 1908, Christian Lautenschlager won in a Mercedes ahead of two Benz racing cars in the French Grand Prix in Dieppe.
- In 1914, the Mercedes team celebrated a 1-2-3 win in the French Grand Prix in Lyon.
- In the era of the first Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows (1934 to 1939), the brand from Stuttgart won the French Grand Prix in 1935 and 1938 (Rheims) and the Grand Prix of Pau in 1938 and 1939, amongst others.
- In 1952, the year Mercedes-Benz returned to racing after the Second World War, the 300 SL racing sports car (W 194) won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
- In 1954, the double victory of the new W 196 R Formula One racing car in the French Grand Prix marked the return of the Silver Arrows to Grand Prix racing.
- It is now 30 years ago that Mercedes-Benz won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with an outstanding one-two victory for the Sauber-Mercedes C 9.
- Mercedes-AMG racing driver Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One French Grand Prix in 2019 ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas.