In the summer of 1894, the world saw its first fully fledged automobile race, the Paris-Rouen ‘Competition for Horseless Carriages’. The race was organised by Pierre Giffard, the Editor of Le Petit Journal; a Parisian daily newspaper than ran from 1863 to 1944. The paper was known for setting up competitions to help boost sales of certain products, though none were likely as successful as this one. There were prizes for placing anywhere up to fifth place but the point wasn’t necessarily to sport the fastest vehicle, rather something that was easy, safe and relatively cheap to operate. The idea was to elevate the progress of the motor vehicle and help bring them into everyday life once and for all.
To enter there was a fee of 10 francs, 102 people entered in hopes of getting their hands on the prizes. First place scored you 5000 francs, second scored 2000, third 1500, forth 1000 and fifth 500. Of those 102 competitors only 26 actually turned up to the qualifying stages. The entrants that never made it relied on some rather dubious technologies at the time such as compressed air, hydraulics, propellers, liquid and even gravity powered vehicles. Most other entries, including all of the qualifying racers were powered by either steam or petrol.
The Qualifying race was treated as one big publicity event to get people excited for the race and to let them know that Le Petit Journal was the place to read about it. Routes were littered in and around Paris to maximise the awareness for the event and it worked. The final heat began on Sunday, July 22nd, 1894 and crowds of people turned out to see this automotive race, a world first.
According to the provided route, starting at Port Maillot the drivers would have to follow the course through the Bois de Boulogne, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Courbevoie, Nanterre, Chatou, Le Pecq, Poissy, Triel-sur-Seine, Vaux-sur-Seine, and Meulan, to Mantes where they stopped off for a lunch break, after that they set off to Vernon, Eure, Gaillon, Pont-de-l’Arche, and ‘Champ de Mars’ at Rouen. The villagers were thrilled to see the drivers go by, some hoisted flags, some handed out flowers to the competitors and apparently there were even cannons fired in celebration.
Count de Dion finished the race first with an average speed of 12mph however he only received a prize for second place as his steam powered engine required a stoker onboard which was deemed as breaking the competitions ‘ease of use’ rules. First place prize was awarded “to the competitor who came closest to the ideal” and was shared between the Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor manufacturers who were praised for turning petrol power into a viable solution.
After the Paris-Rouen race, others like it started popping up all over the world, from Germany to the United States. By the early 1900’s cars were racing at speeds of around 80mph. Not only was the event a catalyst for motor advancement but it helped make huge strides towards the car being part of everyday life.