When talking about the beginnings of competitive motor racing, one name stands out above many, Gordon Bennett. The Gordon Bennett Cup was a trophy that was used for several different types of race, from yachts to airplanes, the trophy became the revered prize for any go getting racer. The cups for each sport hold their own merits and all of them were catalysts in the early growth of international motor racing at the start of the 20th Century.
These cups were commissioned by James Gordon Bennett Jr., born May 10th 1841 and known simply as Gordon Bennett in order to distinguish himself from his father. Bennett himself was an avid sportsman, in fact he organised the first ever tennis game and first ever polo match in the United States.
It would however be his love of Yachting that lead to his racing legacy though, in 1866 he took part in and won the first trans-oceanic yacht race in his boat, the Henrietta. Interestingly this was the same ship he had commanded four years earlier during the American Civil War as part of the U.S. Revenue Marine Service. Henrietta was even part of the fleet that that had captured Fernandina in Florida. The race of 1866 began in New Jersey setting off from Sandy Hook and heading all the way to The Needles which is the most western point of the Isle of White. Bennett completed the course in 13 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes.
The first of the Gordon Bennett Cups would be his trophy for a single yacht race held off the coast of Nice, France on 29th March 1895. The race took place over a triangular course measuring at 30 miles in length with a total of eight turns. The race was held between only two competitors, the first was Andrew Barclay Walker of Glasgow’s boat Ailsa and the second being the Prince of Wales’s own Britannia. Naturally enthusiastic sailing fans and socialites flocked into Nice harbour, which was apparently filled with boats, in order to view this marvellous spectacle. The race was a close one but the Ailsa came out on top with a narrow lead of 2 minutes and 1 second.
In 1899 Bennett offered a new cup, this time one for auto racing, to the Automobile Club de France. The first race for the cup was run in 1900 and was done so annually until its final race in 1905. The Gordon Bennett Cup auto races drew in contestants from all over the western world, the races included entries from France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, USA, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy. Each race was set in a different location and rules stated that the course had to run a distance between 340 and 400 miles in a car built with two seats for both a driver and a mechanic. The majority of the races were held in France however two were held elsewhere, the first held in Ireland in 1903 and the second was held at the Taunus Mountains in Germany in 1904.