The Gordon Bennett Cup

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The Gordon Bennett Cup

James Gordon Bennett
In all there were three Gordon Bennett Cups established by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., millionaire owner of the New York Herald, the automobile racing award was first given in 1900 in France. The trophy was awarded annually until 1905, after which the Automobile Club de France (ACF) held the first Grand Prix motor racing event at the Circuit de la Sarthe, in Le Mans.

The Gordon Bennett Cup auto races drew entrants from across Europe including future aviator Henry Farman and from the United States competitors such as Alexander Winton driving his Winton automobile. Under the rules, the races were hosted in the country of the previous year's winner.

As the races were between national teams, it lead to the reorganisation and standardisation of national racing colors. Reputedly as a concession to Ireland where the 1903 race was run (racing was illegal on British public roads) the British adopted shamrock green which became known as British Racing Green, although the winning Napier of 1902 had already worn Olive Green. Britain had to choose a different color to its usual national colors of red, white and blue, as these had already been taken by the US, Germany and France respectively.

The idea fired popular imagination, but it failed to please France, which at that time had more manufacturers, greater output, higher exports and more cars in use than any country in the world. The cup went to Germany; France retrieved it in 1904, then won it again in 1905, over the mountainous circuit in Auvergne. Having won it twice in succession, the French club officials put the famous cup on the shelf and announced: "If anybody wants to organize another Gordon Bennett race, they are free to do so; so far as we are concerned the Gordon Bennett cup is dead" - and for 52 years the trophy remained undisturbed.

"The next race will be for three cars per maker, and it shall be called the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France," was the next announcement. One hundred years ago, any club organizing a car race had to be prepared to delve deeply into its treasury. The cost was so high that it was necessary to find a local body prepared to guarantee a subsidy to diminish the inevitable loss. In the Le Mans district the right kind of roads were availlable. The town undertook to form a club, and to raise 100,000 francs to guarantee expenses; Le Mans had started a racing career which was to continue unbroken.

In 1906 a real test of a car's ability necessitated two consecuutive days running, or a total distance of approximately 770 miles. The first to be sent away was Gabriel, who had won fame as the winner of the first (and only) stage of the ill-fated Paris-to-Madrid race. He perished in an air-raid on the Hispano-Suiza factory, near Paris, in 1942.

1957 Le Mans 50th Anniversary

Attentively examining the cars lined up for the 1957 Le Mans 24-hour race was a grey-haired, wiry man of 82 named Teste, who delighted in producing photographs showing the remains of his Panhard car after the steering gear had broken at 80 m.p.h. Louis Wagner, who handled a Darracq, was living in Paris in indifferent health. Vincenzo Florio, who paid a fancy price for the privilege of driving a Mercedes which he had to abandon after a burst tire had flattened the wheel rim, was by then living in Palermo, fuming at the Italian Government's decision to cancel all road races, including his historic Targa Florio. These three men were the only survivors to see the 50th anniversary of the race - the rest had all gone.

After winning at an average of 62½ m.p.h., Francois Szisz resumed his post as chief tester at the Renault factory. Louis Renault then had the idea of producing cars having the same lines as the winning machine; with engine bore cut down from the original 165mm to a modest 120mm. This was probably the world's first sports car, and its success was immense. Sixteen years before Le Mans conceived the idea of a 24-hour race the Renault spons two-seater was winning 24-hour races over the terrible dirt tracks - built for trotting matches - at Coney Island and other suburbs of New York.

To mark its jubilee, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest staged a cavalcade of historic cars in 1957. The 70 veterans, mostly French, constituted a fine historic collection covering the period from 1884 to 1913. Some 50,000 people watched the procession through the streets of the town to the circuit where a two-lap regularity run was held. Oldest was a De Dion steamer of 1884, built when Count De Dion had just formed a partnership with Georges Bouton and his brother-in-law Trepardoux. They were in frequent dispute as to the relative merits of steam and petrol, and finally Trepardoux left the group, the firm devoting itself exclusively to petrol. Panhard-Levassors were plentiful; Renaults covered the period from 1900 to 1914.

Of interest was the Baby Peugeot with engine designed by Bugattl. The Sizaire et Naudin although built in 1905, had independent front-wheel suspension and three direct drives. Few today would know that Delaunay Belleville was at one time the aristocrat of French cars; that the Zebre was the work of the engineer who produced the first Citroens; that the Bedelia was the leader of the cycle-cars.

We doubt that today many would know that Brazier won the Gordon Bennett cup in two successive years.

Gordon Bennett Cup Winners
Track Country
1900 Paris to Lyon, France
Fernand Charron
1901 Paris to Bordeaux, France
Léonce Girardot
1902 Paris, to Innsbruck, Austria
Great Britain
Selwyn Edge
1903 Athy, County Kildare, Ireland
Camille Jenatzy
1904 Taunus mountains in Germany
Léon Théry
1905 Circuit d'Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand, France
Léon Théry
Camille Jenatzy Leaves The Starting Line In His Mercedes, Circa 1903, Gordon Bennett Cup, Ireland
Camille Jenatzy Leaves The Starting Line In His Mercedes, Circa 1903, Gordon Bennett Cup, Ireland...

Also see:

Le Mans
Honour Roll - Founding Fathers of the Automotive Industry
Automotive Industry - The Pre-War Era
Automotive Industry - Between The Wars
Automotive Industry - The Post-War Era
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