Britain's first international motor race
- Brendan Lynch, based on his Triumph of the Red Devil, the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Cup Race
- October 22, 2003
- The Gordon Bennett races - The birth of international competition, by Leif Snellman
IV Coupe Internationale, 'Gordon Bennett Trophy' (2 July 1903)
Son of the founder of the New York Herald Tribune, James Gordon Bennett was born in New York in May 1841. With money on tap, his early life was devoted to sport and gambling. He once rode a coach and four from Rhode Island to Central Park stark naked, for a wager. In 1866, he initiated the first transatlantic yacht race when he successfully raced a New York rival from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to the Isle of Wight for a $90,000 wager.
Tall and handsome, Gordon Bennett was much in demand by the ladies. But his engagement to a prominent Baltimore socialite came to an unparlourlike end, after he arrived drunk to her New Year’s Day 1877 party and relieved himself in the grand piano. Bennett’s family was no doubt even more relieved when he agreed to represent the New York Herald Tribune in Paris.
New York’s loss was Europe’s gain. Gordon Bennett had a keen sense of the newsworthy and he introduced daily weather forecasts to Europe, as well as wireless telegraphy for sending news dispatches.
He publicised his Tribune with a series of spectacular publicity stunts such as Artic and African expedition sponsorships. He was responsible for Henry Morton Stanley’s 1869 search for explorer David Livingstone which resulted in one of the most famous journalistic scoops of all time and the universally quoted greeting - “Mr. Livingstone, I presume!”
In 1900, Bennett offered an international motor racing trophy which was to be contested by teams of three cars, each nominated by a recognised national club. Every part of the car had to be made in the country of origin, drivers and entrants representing national clubs were to be members of those clubs.
Race distance was to be between 550 and 650 kilometres, and the event was to be run annually between 15 May and 15 August by the country holding the Cup. France was to stage the inaugural competition on June 14, 1900.
The organisation of the first event was so casual that Belgium’s Camille Jenatzy, and many other drivers lost their way. Sheep and straying animals caused further havoc. Fernand Charron lost control at 60 mph, when a St. Bernard dog wedged itself between the right wheel and spring and jammed the steering. But the former cycling champion regained the road and overcame a damaged axle to win an average of 38.6 mph.
First British success
The 1902 351-mile race took place over the toughest route yet from Paris to Innsbruck. Despite having virtually no brakes, Britain’s Selwyn Edge snatched a sensational and unexpected victory in his Dunlop-shod car Napier car. Edge’s win marked the first international motor racing success by an English car. It stimulated local automobile interest and finally introduced motorsport to the British Isles.
Britain’s opportunity to defend the Cup and revitalise its backward auto business seemed likely, however, to be swamped by insurmountable odds. With a rigidly enforced speed limit, no race track and public hostility against the automobile, where could the event be held?
Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland secretary Claude Johnson was the first to suggest Ireland as a suitable venue. On 22 July, 1902, he asked Dublin Motor News proprietor Richard Mecredy if he could suggest a suitable course, possibly a 50 miles circuit. which could be lapped seven times to make a race distance of 350 miles. Mecredy - who had known Selwyn Edge and fellow-driver Charles Jarrott from his cycle racing days - responded enthusiastically. In November, there was a rare unity of Saxon energy and Celtic ardour as English and Irish officials inspected nominated areas to the south and west of Dublin.
Kildare and other local councils were quick to draw attention to their areas. Queen’s County declared “That every facility will be given and the roads placed at the disposal of motorists during the proposed race.”
The Automobile Club left no stone unturned in its PR drive for the race. Letters were sent to 102 Irish MPs, 90 Irish peers,300 newspapers, 34 chairmen of county and local councils, 34 County secretaries, 26 mayors, 41 railway companies, 460 hoteliers, 13 PPs, and Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. The Bishop soon declared himself “an ardent supporter of the race,” while the County Councils were happy to support the idea, as road improvements would be paid for out of central funds!
A special road closing bill was passed in record time and received the Royal Assent on 27 March, 1903, only seven days after its first reading. A figure-of-eight course was chosen based on the town of Athy, 40 miles south of Dublin. In Monasterevin, the officials met a decidedly under-impressed man, who insisted, “I don’t think I’d care to go through the world so quick. My old donkey will carry me quickly enough into the next world, and what’s the use in hurrying when you can’t come back?”
The race would commence between Athy and Kilcullen and competitors would race north to Kilcullen, then southwards through Timolin, Moone and Castledermot to Carlow. They would return along the Barrow river bank to Athy, before recrossing the start and finish line to complete the shorter 40-mile eastern loop.
Reaching Kilcullen for a second time, they would head west across Curragh to Kildare, and Monasterevan. Then, it was left for the climb to Stradbally and Windy Gap, before returning northwards to Athy and the finish line. This section measured 51.87 miles. The race would consist of three laps of the shorter circuit and four of the longer western route, a total distance of 327.5 miles.
One could hardly find two more contrasting individuals that the wild race winner, Camille Jenatzy and the urbane second-placed René de Knyff, the great French winner of many of the early city-to-city classics, the races which preceded the Gordon Bennett series.
And just as different also were the two leading English drivers, the former racing cyclists Charles Jarrott and Selwyn Edge. Jarrott was a risk-taker who was lucky to escape a monumental accident at Windy Gap. Edge was a steadier cooler driver, but what he lacked in speed, he more than made up for by sheer grit. His staying power during the 1903 race, during which he experienced countless tyre failures, is still inspirational.
The youngest driver was the devil-may-care 23-year old Fernand Gabriel. He drove the Mors car in which he had just won the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race, which had to be terminated at Bordeaux, after the deaths of many drivers and spectators.
As well as Rene de Knyff, the French team included Henry Farman, who subsequently became Europe’s most significant early aeroplane designer, and the first person to fly 100 miles non-stop. Baron de Caters completed the German team with the Irish-American playboy Foxhall-Keene. The race also featured the first U.S. team to compete abroad, Louis Mooers in his Peerless and Alexander Winton and Percy Owen in Wintons.
As winner of the 1902 Cup, Edge in his number-one car had the honour of leading off the race at seven o’clock. Clad in a long white coat, the 35-year old British team leader confidently placed his green Napier on the startline.
There was a great shout as the green Napier blasted away. Edge accelerated rapidly under the grandstand and his car quickly disappeared over the brow of the rising ground in a great cloud of dust. The Autocar correspondent wrote “As it took the open road beyond, it was shut out by the white wall of its own raising and the first hope of England was gone.”
The crowd buzzed with amazement at Edge’s speed. The waiting tension had been broken. Their anticipation grew as they eagerly awaited the next starter, Rene de Knyff. Clad in a bulging belted macintosh, and wearing his trademark yachtsman’s peaked cap, the 39-year old veteran of so many classic races approached.
As he clipped on his goggles, a journalist noted, “Sitting imperturbably behind his steering wheel, his massive figure seemed the embodiment of calm courage, combined with the qualities of resourcefulness, dash and unlimited staying power.”
The complete antithesis of de Knyff, Camille Jenatzy’s excitement and energy were palpable as he exchanged a final hearty handshake with his friend, Baron de Caters. Clad in a black India-rubber smock strapped around his waist and a sailor’s Sou’ Western hat, the 35-year old Belgian restlessly awaited the starter’s orders. Car Illustrated described him as “A man of obviously high-strung temperament, his presence suggested the recrudescence of an extinct volcano.”
Jenatzy’s take-off was appropriately volcanic. Great sheets of flame belched from the Mercedes. Its wheels revolved dramatically, tearing grooves in the road as he made what Autocar described as the best start of the day.
Edge, meantime, continued his circuit-opening lap at rapid pace, from Kilcullen down to Castledermot and Carlow. A ripple of excitement ran through Athy as he arrived at the East Control at six minutes to eight. Officials and spectators at the distant exit control heard the cheering. They didn’t believe that the Napier driver had arrived so quickly until the pilot cyclist led him over the crown of the railway bridge.
Unlike de Knyff who found time to shake hands with his head mechanic, the focussed Jenatzy looked straight ahead while speaking to his helpers. Then he sped away, both hands off the steering wheel, while still talking to them!
Although Selwyn Edge produced a scintillating first lap, it was the amateur driver Foxhall Keene who took the lead by 20 seconds from Edge, with Farman third, ahead of Jarrott, Jenatzy, de Knyff, de Caters and a misfiring Gabriel, who was seven minutes behind the race leader. The American Peerless and Winton cars experienced overheating and other trouble from the start and were the last cars on the road.
After racing up through Athy and Kilcullen, Selwyn Edge turned left across the Curragh on to the western course. But after his meteoric opening lap, he lost precious minutes after Kildare when radiator cap blew off. On way to Monastervin, it disappeared for good and his radiator was sending out clouds of steam by time arrived at nine. He and his mechanic-cousin, Cecil, used a towel to bind the radiator filling tube. But Edge didn’t complain. “The roads are in good order” he reiterated with Balaclavan fortuitude, as he departed in a cloud of steam.
Jarrott suffered a misfire after leaving Kildare, which he quickly repaired. But in haste leaving Monastervin, he brushed the wall as he exited bridge. A short time later, he had a big crash Windy Gap, when his Napier’s steering failed and the car somesaulted to destruction. As both Jarrott and his mechanic Bianchi passed out, locals though they were dead and covered them in white sheets. Jarrott subsequently recalled, “When I came to, I wondered if I was dead. I could see sunshine and nothing else. With the hand I could move, I tried to scratch away the blur before my eyes, and found it was a sheet. I called out to Bianchi and to my relief he replied. I then asked him the somewhat superfluous question as to whether he was alive. He replied in a faint voice that he was alive but that he felt very bad.”
Henri Farman lost valuable time with overheating. Temporarily cured of his misfire, Gabriel nearly collected Monasterevin bridge, on his way to setting fastest lap on the western circuit at 52 mph. The Frenchman told spectators how J W Stocks had looped the loop near Carlow after crashing his Napier into a wire fence.
When times were collated, it was seen that Red Devil Jenatzy had taken the lead by 2 minutes from René de Knyff, with Edge 5 minutes in arrears, followed by Farman, de Caters and Foxhall Keene, who hit a bank and damaged his axle.
James Foxhall-Keene again astounded his team by matching the pace of the more experienced drivers on the third lap over the Eastern circuit. But, just before Athy, he struck an embankment and mechanics warned him against continuing. His compatriot Louis Mooers finally parked his Peerless after overheating and gear selection problems.
Baron de Caters became a crowd favourite after first stopping to help the injured Jarrott, and then parking at the grandstand to relay the news that, contrary to rumours, both driver and mechanic had survived the accident. Not the sort of sporting action you would find in today’s cut-throat Formula One.
Henry Farman set fastest lap, to challenge his pioneer compatriot de Knyff, but Jenatzy had increased his overall lead to 3 minutes over de Knyff, with Farman third ahead of de Caters and Gabriel. Repeated tyre failures forced Edge way down the field.
A thunderstorm drenched competitors, as they headed back to Monastervin again on the fourth lap, when Edge was reported to have been killed near Monasterevin. Jenatzy and Gabriel were also reported to have been injured in another crash between Monastervin and Maryborough! Gabriel spun at Kildare control, while trying to make up for lost time with the misfiring Mors, while Edge lost further time with tyres that wouldn’t stay on at speed.
This lap marked a turning point. Jenatzy revelled in the conditions which suited his sliding style and he lapped two minutes faster than any of his rivals. Despite the rain, the Belgian’s time for the lap was only seconds slower than his time in the dry and he increased his lead to 11 minutes from de Knyff and the closing Farman and de Caters, who had slipped past Gabriel.
Another windy shower buffeted the drivers, as they headed for Carlow on Lap 5 of the 7 laps. De Knyff had an exciting moment when an elderly spectator attempted to cross the road, as he approached Castledermot. It turned out that the man was one of those who hadn’t heeded his Parish Priest’s request for abstinence on the day of the race!
Jenatzy eased his pace – but no by much! Motor News noted, ”At fifty, he took a flying leap with all four wheels in the air for a moment, and then came down with an appalling smash on the road again.”
While overheating slowed Winton and Owen, Edge lost another 25 minutes with tyres. Farman and Gabriel and de Knyff were racing neck and neck for the honour of being the fastest French driver, just one minute separated their times in that order. Farman’s fastest lap threatened de Knyff for second place, while the latter had reduced Jenatzy’s lead to eight minutes.
After 200 arduous miles, just 16 minutes covered the first five cars. The timed mile section revealed how closely matched were the cars. The Mercedes of Jenatzy and de Caters recorded 66 mph, marginally ahead of Farman’s and de Knyff’s Panhards at 65 mph.
As soon as he realised his rivals’ progress, Jenatzy immediately speeded up. But speed eluded Gabriel, whose Mors was again misfiring badly. He looked tired, as he and his mechanic repeatedly tried to cure the problem which almost certainly cost them a top-three placing. After the race, they discovered the simple reason for their problem. A vacuum had developed after the team failed to ventilate the cork with which they had replaced the tank’s original loose cap.
A misdirected petrol can struck the side of de Knyff’s Panhard in Stradbally. The Irish Times reported, “Liquid flowed freely and it seemed as if the motorcar was disabled. The Chevalier showed evidence of great annoyance and employed inelegant language.” To add to his concern, the sensation of the lap was Farman who, with another rapid time, leap-frogged de Knyff to second place. But it was the determined Red Devil Jenatzy who lapped half a minute quicker than Farman to increased his lead to over nine minutes.
Edge lost another tyre half way into the seventh and last lap on the longer Western circuit. Alexander Winton had by now retired his car, but Percy Owen was still circulating in the second overheating Winton. Henry Farman was frustrated by another delay for extra water but, once again firing on all cylinders, Fernand Gabriel was on a mission to recover a compensatory fourth place from Baron de Caters.
The struggle between Jenatzy and de Knyff continued right down to the wire. The book Triumph of the Red Devil describes Jenatzy’s last lap, and the race finish: “The aura of race leader had now well settled on him but the Red Devil didn’t slacken pace. As was the case all day long, he was a man on a mission. As the marsh insects battered against his face and splattered his speeding car, he recalled the fly which had cost him best Mercedes placing in the recent Paris-Madrid. It would be nice to win, all right - like the feeling after breaking those records four years before in Paris. But that had been a lonely unchallenged race against the clock. Today was different – taming these demanding roads and beating the world’s best drivers!”
Jenatzy had started 14 minutes after de Knyff but at the end, was just two minutes behind him on the road. “Far away a speck was visible with a powerful glass. The signaller stood out on the road under the stand to wave the Finish flag. The speck hurled itself on and on, growing ever larger and larger. Its colour and shape was soon apparent and by the massive figure at the wheel, we knew it was de Knyff. He had fought magnificently to the end. A ringing cheer went up as he hurled beneath the wooden bridge, the car bounding along, plunging like a mad thing. He gracefully lifted his hand from the steering wheel and blew salutations to the crowd.
“He had barely time to slow down when the warning signal rang again. Two minutes later came Jenatzy, well in the middle of the road and running beautifully straight, his body bobbing curiously as the Mercedes plunged over the bumps. Nothing on the whole course could equal in grandeur, the spectacle of that car rushing under the bridge and the final lap of Camille Jenatzy.”
As the bellowing engine was finally silenced, Jenatzy took time to accustom himself to the sudden quiet. Deafened by the day-long engine noise, he could hardly hear the cheering crowd. More used to racing than winning, he was visibly surprised and almost overcome by the warmth of his reception. But after all his previous career setbacks, none deserved it more than the man whose consistency lay in never failing to try, and who had given his all in what was probably the finest performance of his remarkable career. To average over 49 mph for the 327 miles was an astonishing triumph over the rainstorm and difficult conditions.
Apart from the racing, there was also the day-long drama surrounding the Belgian driver, Baron de Caters, whose wife had not wanted him to race, following the Paris-Madrid disaster. He waved to her in the Ballyshannon grandstand, each time he came around and he earned the cheers and respect of the crowd when he stopped to help Charles Jarrott after his crash. But 10 miles from the finish, just before Athy, the rear axle of de Caters’ car broke and his wife had an anxious wait before she heard the news that he was unhurt.
As spectators dispersed, the evening’s afterglow reverberated with the wonder of what they had just witnessed. The new century suddenly filled with thrilling possibilties. The great race would be discussed around firesides for evenings and years to come. On the hill outside Stradbally, fans descended on Jarrott’s car for souvenirs. Wheel spokes and other parts rapidly disappeared, until a boy took out a sailor’s knife and tried to cut off a piece of tyre. It burst with a loud bang and the souvenir ants departed at racing speed. For drivers, spectators, wives and souvenir hunters, Thursday July 2, 1903 had been a rare and eventful day which had touched many emotions.
James Joyce based one of his Dubliners stories on the great race. The world land speed record was broken at 84 mph by Belgium’s Baron de Forest in the supporting Phoenix Park Speed Trials.
Sadly, some businesses exploited race visitors. According to Autocar, “Jarveys unblushingly asked for ten shillings a seat from Athy to Ardscull, while twopenny mineral water cost sixpence in the meanest shebeen.” After being overcharged in a hotel, another visitor wrote “Gordon Bennett is a new word for fleece!” Thus was born the “Gordon Bennett!” epithet which is still to be heard in British sitcoms.
But the Gordon Bennett sowed the seeds of Ireland’s unique motorsport association. Sir Henry Segrave travelled far from his Tipperary home to break the world land speed record at over 200 mph. Hundreds of thousands attended the Irish Grand Prix and Ulster TT races, which featured such famous drivers as Nuvolari, Varzi, Ascari, and Fangio. Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn scored early significant successes in Irish road races, while local drivers John Watson and Eddie Irvine were each World Championship runners-up.
1. Jenatzy (Mercedes), 6h39m at 49.2mph
2. De Knyff (Panhard), 6h50m
3. Farman (Panhard), 6h51m
4. Gabriel (Mors), 7h11m
5. Edge (Napier), 9h28m (disqualified)
Note on the author
“Book of the Month! An absorbing read and highly recommended.” (Classics) was one of the enthusiastic reviews of Brendan Lynch’s centenary and first lap-by-lap account of the 1903 event, Triumph of the Red Devil – The 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett Cup Race. With Foreword by Sir Stirling Moss, 180 pages and 100 photos. The book costs 27.50 euro and is available from 5 Mid Mountjoy St., Dublin 7 or email@example.com.