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Iekx, Jacques. "The Great Automobile Race of 1895.” Scientific
American (May 1972) 102–111
THE GREAT AUTOMOBILE RACE OF 1895
BY JACQUES ICKX The birth of anything, living or inanimate, is generally considered to occur at the moment when it becomes viable. In this sense we can fix a definite date for the birth of the automobile. It came into the world as a lively, healthy phenomenon on June 13, 1895. The idea of an automobile had had innumerable conceptions and miscarriages prior to that time, but on that date the horseless (arriage at last emerged as a useful creation ready for growth. The labor that led to its "delivery” was an event now long since forgotten but one that created worldwide excitement at the time. It was called the Great Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Race."
A century of abortive efforts to produce a viable motorcar had set the stage for the drama. The efforts had begun even before James Watts' invention of the steam engine, although they were not serious until Oliver Evans in the L'.S. and Richard Trevithick in England had developed high-pressure steam engines with a power-weight ratio appropriate to self-propelled vehicles, The attempts by Trevithick and many others to develop a road vehicle at the beginning of the 19th century were unsuccessful primarily because the leafspring suspension had not yet been invented. It was to be the railroads that would first introduce travel by machine.
Starting in 1858, with the further development of the steam engine, efforts to build a road vehicle were renewed, at first with no greater success. Finally in 1873 the French inventor Amédée Bollée père made steam-driven cars possible and indeed capable of high performance. They did not become practicable for general use, however, and after 12 years of tinkering Bollée abandoned his experiments, having concluded that the future belonged not to the steam car but to the emerging new “thundering engine” powered by gasoline.
The need for motive power in light industry had stimulated much work on the creation of an internal-combustion engine. It was first realized in a reliable form by Nikolaus August Otto of Germany with his construction of the four-stroke engine that was to be the basic forerunner of the modern automobile power plant. The company for which Otto worked, Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz, was not interested in developing motorcars. It remained for two independent German in. ventors, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, to take up the problem.
Benz concentrated on producing a three-wheeled vehicle propelled by an Otto engine running at 250 revolutions per minute. He turned out his first vehicle and
FIGURE 11.-Serpollet Carriage, a modern steam automobile of French design.
FIGURE 12.—Side view of Serpoilet Carriage, showing location of
condenser, et cetera
FIGURE 13.—Showing details of the boiler of the Serpollet Carriage.
The boiler is of the flash type; that is, it carries no water ordinarily, but when the engine is in operation, a pump injects into the boiler at each stroke of the engine as much water as may be required to generate the steam necessary to propel the vehicle; the instant the water enters the boiler it is converted into steam. As the amount of steam is proportional to the amount of water, it can be seen that by regulating the water supply, the power of the engine and thereby the speed of the carriage, can be controlled. This is the method actually employed to control the speed. In starting, a handle is moved which connects the engine, the boiler and the pump in the proper relation; and while under way the velocity is varied by the manipulation of a lever which controls the amount of water injected into the boiler. The fuel used is kerosene, which is vaporized and then fed into a properly constructed burner. The amount of oil supplied to the burner is regulated by the same lever that regulates the supply of water, so that both are increased or reduced in the proper proportion. The boiler is constructed of a number of steel tubes, which are about two and a half inches in diameter, and from three eighths to half an inch thick. These tubes are pressed into the form shown in Fig. 13, the dark line in the section marked A representing the interior space. A number of tubes collapsed in this form and bent into the shape B, are assembled as shown at C. The number of tubes depends upon the capacity of the boiler. As the tubes are very thick, they can, without any danger of bursting, be heated to so high a temperature that the water injected into them is at once turned into steam.
In Fig. 12 it will be seen that the engine is located under the body of the carriage between the two axles, and that motion is imparted to the hind wheels by means of chains and sprocket wheels. The boiler is located at the back of the vehicle, the lower part projecting some distance below the rear axle. A small smoke stack at the rear of the body allows the gases of combustion to escape. Between the front wheels, a compact condenser is located, and into this the steam from the engine is exhausted. The condenser serves two purposes; it recovers a portion of the water that would otherwise escape into the air, and thus increases the distance the carriage can run without a new supply, and at the same time it lessens the noise produced by the exhaust, and also the volume of steam escaping into the atmosphere, which in cold or rainy weather becomes plainly visible.
Although we have been rather slow in this country in taking up the the automobile, inventors and manufacturers are now working at a pace that will soon make up for lost time. We already have a number of designs of steam carriages whose operation is highly creditable. Fig. 14 illustrates one of these. The design of the engine, boiler and other mechanism can be well understood from Fig. 13, in which a portion of the body is removed to expose the internal parts.
The Count de Dion personally raised 69,000 francs for prizes and expenses of the event from his friends, notably James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the Paris edition of the New York Herald and a racing enthusiast. The organizing committee for the race was formed at a meeting in the Count's hotel on the Quai d'Orsay, the distinguished assembly included his fellow car-makers, political officials, journalists, sportsmen, engineers and men of wealth. The date for the start of the race was set for June 11, 1895.
The list of entries grew to 97, but only 23 vehicles were to gather for the competition. There were six steam-propelled cars : two de Dion-Boutons, two Serpollets, a Gautier-Wehrlé and an antique Amédée Bollée père omnibus La Nouvelle. The gasoline-propelled vehicles numbered 14: four Panhard & Lerassors, three Peugeots, a Peugeot-Michelin, a Gautier, a Rossel, two Benzes, a Vincke & Delmer and a Lepa pe. There were also a Jeantaud electric car and two motorcycles: a Millet and a Hildebrand & Wolfmuller.
We can quickly dispose of 10 of the entries. The Lepape car, which had two driving front wheels, two steering rear wheels, and a friction transmission on the flywheel of a three-cylinder planetary motor never reached Versailles, One of the Serpollets, a prototype, with advanced steering and close-set front wheels, got no farther than Versailles. The 118 kilometers from Paris to Orléans were too much for the Gautier, the Rossel, the Gautier-Wehrlé, the Jeantaud electric car (which had to change its batteries every 20 kilometers) and the Millet motorcycle (propelled by a five-cylinder planetary motor built into the rear wheel). Angoulême (at 446 kilometers) was the end of the line for the Belgian Vincke & Delmer (it collided with a cart), the de Dion-Bouton tractor of the Paris-RouenParis run (it had been lagging since the start) and the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller motorcycle.
This leaves what might be called the serious contestants. They were the two Benzes (coming from Mannheim and driven by Germans), the second Serpollet the three Peugeots (all of which had participated in the Paris-Rouen-Paris run) and two classic Panhard & Levassors (also veterans of Paris-Rouen-Paris). The Panhard & Levassors, the two-seat No. 6 and the four-seat No. 7, were equipped with an oversize Daimler motor, a Maybach jet carburetor (on which Levassor had exclusive rights) and a new transmission with steel-toothed gears and two chains.
Then there was La Nouvelle, the doughty relic from 1880, and four protoype veliicles. One was the Peugeot-Michelin, a machine developed by the brothers André and Édouard Michelin for the purpose of demonstrating a remarkable innovation: the pneumatic automobile tire. Called l'Éclair (Lightning), it was a combination an ancient Peugeot chassis and a Daimler marine engine. It had no differential gearing, which accounted for the zigzag trajectory that had given the car its name. Behind the two occupants of the car was an immense compartment carrying not only tool kits but also some 30 tires.
The second prototype also foreshadowed a future development. The Panhard & Levassor No. 28 was a heavy six-seater with an eight-horsepower rear motor that was a giant for its time. The last two prototypes represented the most advanced techniques in the two contemporary power plants: steam and gasoline.
The de Dion-Bouton No. 3 carriage repeated the technical features and construction of the Paris-Rouen-Paris tractor but in more modest proportions. Its motor developed only 11 horsepower instead of 20, but the entire machine weighed only 538 kilograms (about 1,200 pounds). This meant that it could be mounted on light wheels with steel spokes and solid rubber tires. It was as fast as the de Dion-Bouton tractor and much more maneuverable. Moreover, it was self. sufficient for 70 kilometers because it had a water reserve of 200 liters.
The Panhard & Levassor No. 5 emerged as the first grand touring car in automobile history. It duplicated the structure of the classic Panhard & Levassor, but it was more elegant in its proportions. Among its assets were a weight of barely 604 kilograms (compared with 650 for the classic two-seater), the first complete gearbox (with the gears bathed in oil and protected from road dust) and a secret weapon that calls for a fuller description : the Phoenix motor.
The Phoenix was the newest creation of Daimler and Maybach, a perfectly functioning two-cylinder in-line engine that weighed only 20 kilograms per horsepower compared with 40 kilograms for the most recent version of its predecessor: the two-cylinder V-type motor. More precisely, it developed 4.2 horsepower at 800 r.p.m. for a weight of 83 kilograms instead of 3.5 horsepower at 720 r.p.m. for a weight of 140 kilograms.
The Phoenix had been produced by Daimler and Maybach outside the firm of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft; Daimler had founded the company, but he was now in a state of cold war with it. That was why the motor did not carry the name of Daimler, which belonged by contract to Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. And since the motor did not bear the Daimler name, Levassor had been able to use it exclusively, as he had done with the Maybach carburetor, instead of having to share it with Peugeot on the terms of their contract on the Daimler motor.
Car No. 5 could attain the formidable speed of 30 kilometers per hour, and Levassor did not hesitate to plan his race on the basis of an average speel of 20 kilometers per hour. Several days before the race he refined his estimate to 9) kilometers per hour. In entering cars with only two seats Lerassor had imposed on himself the serious limitation of having available in case of breakdown only two men instead of four. Moreover, since in order to be eligible for the first prize a vehicle had to carry four people, he had also forfeited winning the first prize. He had not forgotten the lesson of the Paris-Rouen-Paris run. He understood very well that the public, whose favor it was essential to court, would accept as the real victor only the driver who crossed the finish line first. Panhard & Lerassor's entry of two two-seaters had caught Peugeot's attention, and he included a two-seater among his entries.
With the advantage of hindsight one can say that the Great Paris-BordeauxParis Race was destined to be fought out by the de Dion-Bouton No. 3, the Panhard & Levassor No. 5 and the ancient Bollée (whose performance was not dependent on untested new equipment). This was not perceived in the newspaper dispatches of the time, perhaps because the journalists believed it was impossible to predict the reliability of any mechanical device. Instead they confined themselves to estimating the respective chances of steam and gasoline (which showed that they had not understood the verdict of Paris-Rouen-Paris) and coming to the conclusion that steam-driven cars were speedier than gasoline-propelled ones but that the latter required less upkeep on the road. They were careful, however, not to take sides.
Prediction was further complicated by a tactical question. The organizers of the Great Race had never entertained the idea that the entire distance was to be covered with one man at the wheel. Article 11 of the regulations had recognized in advance that crews would have to be changed in the course of the race. How were the relays to work?
The Panhard & Levassor, de Dion-Bouton and Benz entries had adopted the simplest system : divide the course into three sections. A first crew would go as far as Ruffec (40.5 kilometers), a second would go on to Bordeaux and back to Ruffec while the first crew rested, and the first crew would take the vehicle back to Paris. The Peugeot entries attempted to be more methodical. They divided the course into six sections of about 200 kilometers; at each stage half of the crew would be replaced, so that there would always be someone present who had been able to observe the performance of the machine over the preceding section.
The Serpollet entries chose sections of 150 kilometers; when one team was relieved, it would take the train to rejoin the vehicle for the next section. Finally there was Amédée Bollée père, whose vehicle had six seats. He decided to cover the entire route with the same team, its members taking turns at sleeping during the race. He had therefore installed in La Nouvelle a kitchenette and a toilet. In addition there was a device of his own invention fastened to the wheels that ran a paper tape on two spools announcing such pertinent information (by means of symbols) as the irregularities of the terrain, changes in level, sharp turns and dangerous downgrades. In order to set up this tape with rigorous précision, Bollée's son Léon had surveyed the entire route in advance with a bicycle that carried the same contraption. The bicycle was now perched on the roof of the vehicle: it would enable someone to go for help in case of need.
The race was to start at the Palace of Versailles. The route ran to Bordeaux by way of Étampes (38 kilometers), Orléans (118 kilometers), Blois (17.5 kilometers), Tours (235 kilometers), Poitiers (338 kilometers). Ruffec (40.5 kilometers), Angoulême (146 kilometers) and Libourne (551 kilometers), each of these towns serving as a checkpoint. The first section, from Paris to Étampes, was over a second-rate road and involved climbing three steep hills. The total distance of the round trip (back to Versailles and then to Paris) was 1,183 kilometers.
At 10 o'clock on the morning of June 11. 1897, the entrants met at l'Are de Triomphe at the head of the Champs Élysées and set out in a procession for