A 1908 postcard of a racing Fiat hurtling through Seine-Inférieure (now Seine Maritime) driven by a stylish pair of moustache and goggle wearing Italians, led us to the discovery that early Grand Prix races took place in Normandy. Le Mans may have been the first Grand Prix in 1906, but in 1907, 1908 and 1912, the Grand Prix took place on public roads between Dieppe, Eu and Londinières.
Could the course still be driven? We accepted the challenge. Our journey would uncover triumphs, tragedy and some long forgotten heroes.
Prestige and profit
The grand prize in 1908 was 49,000 French francs (around €823k today), with lashings of hero worship for the drivers and as now, immense prestige for the Grand Prix car manufacturers.
Many car names we recognise today took part; Renault, Mercedes, Fiat, Benz, Austin, Opel. Others, including Brasier, Panhard-Levassor and Clément-Bayard for France, Weigel from the UK and Thomas from the USA, have been lost to Automobile history. In 1908 they were about to be part of the greatest show on earth.
Cocking a snook at the yanks
The Grand Prix was set up in 1906 by the Automobile Club de France in direct competition to the Gordon Bennett trophy races in America, with the hope of giving France a better chance of winning. To French fury, neither the 1906 or the 1907 Grand Prix were won by a French driver. The pressure was on for 1908.
A course of 10 laps totalling 79km (49 miles) was set out at Dieppe and plans made to close the roads to general traffic. 48 cars were expected to take part: 23 from France, nine from Germany, six each from England and Italy, three from Belgium and one from the USA. So they could be easily identified all cars were painted in a colour for their country; French cars were blue, English green, German cars white, Americans red and white, Italians red and the Belgians yellow.
Home grown talent Henri Cissac was driving for French car manufacturer Panhard-Levassor. Henri was racing hero who had already set a world speed record with his 2,500cc V-twin Peugeot motorbike. In 1907 he moved on from two wheels to four and in January 1908 won second place in the Corsa Vetturette Torino in Turin.
At Dieppe, during practice laps in the days before the big race, the Panhards were going very well. Henri said “My Panhard is excellent and I am magic. It is perhaps a little slower than some of the other competitors, but its speed is so regular that the spectators will be able to adjust their watch by it. I do not think of stopping, except taking gasoline. I am certain to arrive and it is there that I will find you, on the finish line.” Which we are pretty sure means ‘I will win’.
Bring on the Brits!
The British first attended a Grand Prix in 1907 but with unremarkable results. Two Weigel cars started the race but both broke down. Weigel were back in 1908 for another go but so were British rivals, Austin.
Austin, Prison and the cobbled together car
Herbert Austin arrived at the Hotel du Cygne (long gone, now a modern Credit Agricole) on Rue due College in Eu with a team of 60 people and four race cars, one a spare. He had been pleased to secure experienced drivers Dario Resta (born in Italy but bought up in England), JTC Moore-Brabazon and Warwick Wright. Soon, his patience and pocket would be severely tested.
In practise laps before the big day Dario Resta was testing his Austin to the max, pushing remarkable speeds and displaying the competitiveness that Austin was paying for. But the track was a huge challenge, full of sharp corners, iffy cambers and locals.
The course had already claimed two lives; on Friday, 3 July British driver Ernest Hall-Watt was killed while testing his Renault on the course. On the same day a competing car ran over and killed a spectator at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.
It wasn’t long before Dario nearly joined them as he swerved to avoid a cart, flew up a bank and smashed his car. Then he did the same thing with the spare car, ending up in some trees and knocking himself and his mechanic unconscious. Unimpressed, the gendarmes promptly arrested Dario and carted him off to Dieppe prison.
The Austin mechanics worked through the night to create one sound car from the two crashed cars, plus some parts rushed from Longbridge.
Herbert Austin spent some time convincing the French police to bail Dario and he managed to get his indomitable driver out in time for the start of the Grand Prix.
7 July 1908, patchy repairs
The weather on 7 July 1908 was dry, perfect for the race. However the day before a ‘voiturette’ race – smaller cars – had made a mess of the already challenging track. Overnight repairs were patchy and the roads were still marked by potholes and deep ruts, especially in the corners. Teams knew tyres would play a decisive role in the competition.
After publicity across Europe and the United States, public interest in the Grand Prix was immense. 300,000 spectators were expected and stands were built alongside the course.
The New York Times reported: “Such enormous crowds as invaded Dieppe by the tens of thousands, both from land and sea, were totally unprecedented. There was a steady drift toward the race course from yesterday afternoon on. Special trains arrived from all directions at intervals of a few minutes, and continued to pour their cargoes into the neighbouring towns all night.”
“Special steamers brought thousands from England to the coast towns, and for hundreds of miles around the course where the race was to be run the roads were black with people all the night through. Many came on foot from the nearby villages, until by dawn the crowd was so dense throughout the entire length of the course that farmers who owned fields adjoining the road were charging 5 and 10 francs for the privilege of standing on their ground.”
After the debacle of 1907 when the public could only get to the stand by dashing across the track, it was now to one side. From here spectators had a fine view of a new phenomenon, the ‘pits’. Near the start a wide trench had been dug and in these ‘pits’ as an English journalist called them at the time, support teams waited with spare parts. Each pit was separated by barbed wire and called a ‘pit stop’; a new racing term was born.
The race was scheduled to begin at six in the morning so that even the last-placed drivers could reach the finish line while it was still light. Willy Pöge soon took the lead in his Mercedes and his teammate Otto Salzer finished the first lap in first place. At the end of the second lap another Mercedes driver, Christian Lautenschlager, was in the lead; in the third lap, Paul Bablot in a Brasier was at the front of the pack. In the fifth lap, at the halfway mark, Christian regained pole position.
Christian Lautenschlager was fearless, but prudent, the perfect blend for a Grand Prix driver. He said of his plans “I had enough gasoline with me for five laps, and after the fifth lap I refilled my tank. With this new filling I probably could have finished the race, but to be on the safe side I chose to top up another 20 litres after the ninth lap so that I would not be worried about being unable to completely finish the last lap for lack of fuel.”
But coming up fast behind the German team were the French.
Tyres and terrible trouble
At 1.25pm Henri Cissac and his mechanic Jules Schaub were on their ninth lap about 10km from Londinières, near Sept-Meules, travelling downhill at around 149km (about 90 mph) while holding an impressive 6th place. They were just one minute behind Victor Héméry, who would eventually finished 2nd. What happened next took an instant.
The Panhard-levasseur was using new Michelin tyres with detachable rims which may have been the problem, but it was probably just a puncture.
The front left tyre shredded and flipped back to twist around the external drive chain, stopping the engine and wheels instantly and sending the car hurtling. The Panhard-levasseur rolled, crashed into a tree and bounced down the road. Henri Cissac, still gripping the steering wheel, suffered fatal chest injuries before being flung into a nearby field. Jules Schaub was crushed as the car rolled.
Theirs would be the first deaths in a Grand Prix race.
More tyre problems
Tyre problems forced many teams to drop out as they underestimated the terrible conditions and hadn’t stocked enough for the race. Christian Lautenschlager used up 22 tires stopping ten times to change them, not just in the pits but around the course, sometimes several times in one lap.
Christian said “I always carried one front tire and two rear tires as spares on the car and strictly observed the rule that, as soon as I would change a tire, I should pick up a replacement tire on passing the depot so that I always had the normal complement of spares.”
Broken glass and tar filled dust
Damage to tyres was not the only problem with the Dieppe course. Tar filled dust filled the air and even with goggles, got into the driver and mechanic’s eyes. Coming up behind another car would mean driving through stone showers kicked up by its wheels.
During Victor Hémery’s seventh lap a stone smashed the left glass of his goggles and injured his eye. He drove on to the pits where a doctor removed a glass sliver from his eye and patched it. Victor continued the race. He came second.
After the race all drivers and mechanics had to seek medical help for their eyes.
The winners arrive!
Christian Lautenschlager won the race in his Mercedes finishing after six hours, 55 minutes and 43 seconds. His average speed was 111.117 km/h (69mph). He was nearly nine minutes ahead of runner up Victor Hémery’s Benz. Teammate Otto Salzer had the fastest lap at 36 minutes and 31 seconds, an average speed of 126.5 km/h.
Only 23 of the 48 cars that started the 1908 Dieppe Grand Prix finished the race.
We hear from the winner
As the winner was announced the band played the German national anthem andspectators in the stands applauded. Christian Lautenschlager, it was noticed, was not in the least fatigued.
“I knew my car was good and fast and absolutely reliable,” Christian reported after his win “I told myself that if I am going to make good progress I must above all not risk too much, and that it is instead important to drive cool-headedly and at an even pace. So I didn’t make full use of the engine power, because I was afraid of tire defects.”
“Applying this principle, the longer the race went on I became increasingly more composed, especially since my car was running brilliantly and was able to overtake the other cars in the bends and especially on the hills without any difficulty. Driving through the villages I was able to take the corners quickly because the roads were good there, and on the straightaways I felt like I was flying – which was necessary, of course, because I knew what was at stake.”
“But as time went on my arms became a little stiff because I had to hold them in a bent position, which inhibited blood circulation; so alternately I took one hand or the other off the steering wheel and stretched my arm out for a while until the circulation returned to normal. At the end of the race, when I jumped out of the car, I didn’t feel exhausted at all, but could have continued on for most of another race without feeling weak.”
How did the Brits do?
Alas, the 1908 Weigel cars were no more successful than in the 1907, all three broke down during the race.
The Austins did well; JTC Moore-Brabazon finished 18th, Resta 19th, but Wright’s engine seized after five laps. He blamed his mechanic for not giving it enough oil.
After 1908, 17 French manufacturers, disgruntled their own competition failed to produce a single home grown winner, abandoned the Grand Prix. For the next few years the only big races were in America. Then in 1911 Monaco, always on the lookout for a bit of publicity and a tidy profit, hosted a seven day rally over nearly a thousand miles with a speed limit of 15mph.
In 1912 the Grand Prix was again held in Dieppe. It was, at last, won by the French.
The widows sue
The widows of Herni Cissac and Jules Schaub sued Panhard-Levasseur, saying the men had been victims of an industrial accident while working for the company. The 1912 Paris court of appeal agreed and awarded them 100,000 francs (Mme Cissac) and 80,000 francs (Mme Schaub) damages, with interest.
Clips from the 1908 Dieppe Grand Prix
The Old Motor tells the story of the 6 July ‘light cars’ event held the day before the Grand Prix.
For the full story of British cars in the Grand Prix races, read ‘Britain’s first Grand Prix car’ in Motor Sport magazine.
This is a film about the winning cars (yes the actual Merc!), explaining how it worked and just why it was revolutionary at the time.
|2||6||Victor Hémery||Benz 150 hp||+8:40.2|
|3||23||René Hanriot||Benz 150 hp||+9:29.2|
|21||10||Friedrich Opel (de)||Opel||+2:21:38.6|
|Ret||48||Henri Cissac||Panhard-Levassor||Fatal crash|
|Ret||33||François Marie Roch-Brault||Germain|
|Ret||42||Jules Simon||Porthos||Water pump|
|Ret||26||J. Gaubert||Porthos||Water pump|