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Race of Death

Updated on December 8, 2014

The Drivers

The race took place on May 24th, 1903 and at the end of this day it seemed certain that car racing would be finished forever.

Up to that fatal date the great races from Paris to Vienna, to Berlin, to Bordeaux, had so captured imagination that the whole purpose of life seemed to centre about a drive in one of these races to come. Then the curtain lifted on what seemed likely to be the finest race of them all - The Paris to Madrid.

The entry list was fantastic. 313 cars and 313 cars to be driven by world famous drivers. And the cars were bigger and much faster than ever before with huge four cylinder motors, some with 170 cubic inch capacity.

The principal drivers were the heavily bearded de Knyff, leader of the Panhard team, both the Renaults (Marcel and Louis) both the Farmans, Gabriel, Heath, Vanderbilt. The red bearded, excitable Jenatzy, Duray, de Caters, Fournier, Barrow, Werner, Stead, Charles Jarrott... the best and most experienced men available. Owing to the fierce prejudice against motoring in England at this time, with absurd speed restrictions enforced, British cars couldn't be tested to rival the might of France, but that didn't prevent Herbert Austin entering his Wolseleys which were low built but strange looking cars but with very big motors, plus a lone Napier was entered.

In those days the cars were dispatched one by one in racing number order so the start took hours after the first car had been sent on its way by the timekeepers. No flags were used, just a wave of the timekeepers hand.

All cars carried mechanics. All had spare tire covers with spare tubes strapped to them.

There were no special precautions taken along the route, no barricades, no police control. When a car reached a big town it was timed in , then the driver was ordered to go slowly through the town and restarted on the outskirts. This was the sole precaution, learned from experience.

But this race had been well publicized so that huge crowds had collected all along the road. It didn't stop many from trying to get a better look by standing in the middle of the road and right from the start with so many spectators assembled, the drivers were worried.

These cars were capable of 100 mph in 1903 but they needed considerable strength to steer, a tire could explode at any given second and a dense cloud of yellow dust trailed them making it hugely dangerous for the car behind to see especially at such huge speeds and with brakes that were virtually worthless.

To overtake, a driver had to judge the car's position by the top of the trees seen above the dust cloud and hope and pray that this line of trees actually followed the line of the road. The risk was great because the roads were heavily cambered which affected the steering. Even for Jarrott driving car number 1, the spectators were a danger so imagine what it would have been like for the later starters.

For the British, the Wolseleys were of major interest. Every word about their design, construction and preparation which appeared in the motor press was read over and over again. The mere sight of one was reason to boast about it for weeks. It was rumored that Austin was determined to drive one of these himself. Certainly one was entered in his name with another rumor that the company's other directors were going to take out a legal injunction to stop the head of Wolseley risking his life.

The Start

Well, the start was dramatic. Thousands of cyclists and even more pedestrians crowded the roads all the way to the park at Versailles with thousands carrying bright paper lanterns adding to the dramatic effect. Every cafe was ablaze with light and full to capacity. Any form of traffic control was hopeless. How the 313 racing cars reached the start was a mystery especially as to drive then slowly was very difficult and liable to result in overheating. The start was going to be at 3.30am but it was deemed too dark so the start was delayed until 3.45am.

Forty five miles from the start and Louis Renault was leading, de Knyff was second and Sydney Girling with a Wolseley was coming an astonishingly sixth. But the new big Mercedes were fantastically fast and probable winners. The average speed even at this early stage was very fast.

Suddenly horrible rumors were spreading. It seemed that there had been a series of appalling crashes and that hundreds of people, drivers and spectators had been killed. It was true. Marcel Renault had crashed while overtaking and was dead. Barrow, swerving his de Dietrich to avoid a dog, went straight into a tree. His car was torn to pieces and he was instantly killed. Salleron and Stead collided while driving side by side.Stead's de Dietrich turned over in a ditch. Leslie Porter brought his Wolseley fast round a curve to find a level crossing gate closed, the officials responsible for flagging the competitors apparently gone to a cafe. Porter tried to swerve into a field, the car skidded wildly, crashed into a wall and burst into flames. The mechanic was killed instantly. Mayhew crashed in the lone Napier while trying to avoid spectators. Dellahmey's de Dietrich turned over on a heap of stones after a swerve at speed for the same reason. Richard's crashed while avoiding spectators in the centre of the road. Tourand swerved into the crowd while avoiding one man. Gras ran into a closed level crossing gate.

1903 Race of Death - Darracq

1903 de Dion Bouton - Race of Death

French Government Intervention

From then on, rumor and truth seemed equally wild. At least four cars had ploughed into a crowd of spectators, many of them killed. After the leading cars had reached Bordeaux the French Government stopped the whole race, not even allowing the engines of the cars to be started and ordered all of them to be sent back by train.

Newspapers exaggerated the disaster out of all proportion. The facts about the casualties were deliberately suppressed officially - for what reason nobody knows.

Star of the Drivers - Gabriel in his 1903 Mors

How they Finished

One man, Gabriel, had surpassed himself. Starting at 168th with his sharp nosed Mors, he had overtaken car after car in the dreadful dust, passed wreck after wreck, recognising some of the crashed cars as belonging to friends of his and steered most of the way by the tree tops at speeds up to 100 mph and he said afterwards that twice these lines of tree tops hadn't followed the road lines. He reached Bordeaux in 5 hours, 14 minutes. An average speed of 65 mph.

Saleron, with another Mors, came in second at 59 mph and Charles Jarrott with the de Dietrich third at 58 mph.


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    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Another well written and most informative hub. Your research shines through. Well done.