On July 22, 1894, nearly two-dozen 19th-century gearheads jumped behind the controls of early steam and gas-powered cars as part of the “Le Petit Journal Competition for Horseless Carriages.” More exhibition than race, the 79-mile jaunt from Paris to Rouen was designed to test the reliability, safety and ease-of-use of early automobiles. The first vehicle would roll across the finish line after several hours and a plodding average speed of just 12 miles per hour, but the history of auto racing was only just beginning.
In the 1890s, cars were still a relatively untested technology. Various steam-powered contraptions had been chugging along the roadways since the late-18th century, but more lightweight, driver-friendly vehicles had only arrived on the scene as recently as 1886, when German inventors Karl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Daimler developed gasoline-powered autos with internal combustion engines. Cars were considered the playthings of the super-rich, and the notion of racing them was almost entirely foreign. A French cycling magazine had organized what would have been the world’s first automotive competition in 1887, but the contest hadn’t come off as planned—while Count Albert de Dion successfully negotiated the course in a steam-powered quadricycle, he was the only driver who bothered to show up.
The 1894 Paris-Rouen race was the brainchild of the Le Petit Journal, a Parisian daily newspaper that had a reputation for staging contests to help boost sales. The paper had hosted a 700-plus mile bike race from Paris to Brest and back again in 1891, and in 1892, it had organized a foot race from Paris to Belfort. In late 1893, Le Petit Journal editor Pierre Giffard announced plans for the publication’s most ambitious contest yet—a 79-mile “Competition for Horseless Carriages” to be run from Paris to the city of Rouen in Normandy. 5,000 francs were to be awarded to the winner, but the paper was careful to note that the event was not a race. Instead, the editors saw the contest as a showcase to test horseless carriages as a viable form of transportation. Rather than speed, cars would be judged on whether they were “easy to operate for the competitors without any dangers and not too expensive to run.”
Though 102 would-be race drivers paid the 10-franc fee to participate, only 26 actually showed at the start of the event on July 18, 1894. Five cars were eliminated during qualifying runs over the next three days, leaving a final field of 21. The competitors were a veritable “who’s who” of early motoring. The Count de Dion—the winner and sole participant of the 1887 race—planned to pilot a steam tractor that towed a carriage behind it; manufacturers Paul Panhard and Emile Levassor came to show off their gas-powered Panhard & Levassor motorcar; and drivers Albert Lemaitre and Auguste Doriot entered cars made by French automotive giant Peugeot. Other vehicles included an 8-seater, 4-ton, steam behemoth driven by a Mr. Scotte, a parcel delivery van and even a steam-powered tricycle. Of all the cars, only one utilized a modern steering wheel—the rest were maneuvered by levers and tillers.
On the morning of Sunday, July 22, 1894, scores of eager spectators watched as the cars lined up near the Porte Maillot in preparation for the final heat. Chief among the onlookers was internal combustion pioneer Gottlieb Daimler, whose engine was being used to power the Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot vehicles. Shortly after 8 a.m., the machines rumbled to life and the world’s first automotive competition got underway. As cars departed the starting area at 30-second intervals, fascinated spectators trailed alongside on horses, bicycles and on foot. Describing the passing motor cars, Gottlieb Daimler’s son Paul would later write, “It was a curious spectacle seeing these disparate vehicle types racing against each other: the stokers on the heavy steamers, dripping with perspiration and covered with soot…and then in contrast to all that the drivers of the petrol- and paraffin-powered cars sitting calmly in the driver’s seat, operating a lever now and again, as if they were simply out for a pleasure trip—an utterly peculiar image of contrasts that has remained with me ever since.”
The field soon made its way into to the outskirts of Paris, kicking up huge clouds of white dust in its wake. The race’s first casualty would come at 8:40 a.m., when a steam-powered Serpollet broke an axle and was forced to retire. The rest of the drivers managed to negotiate the rough road and lumber up a steep hill in St. Germain with the Count de Dion, Lemaitre and Levassor leading the pack. Upon reaching the Parisian suburb of Mantes sometime around noon, the entire field stopped for a 90-minute lunch break. After a leisurely midday meal, the drivers returned to their cars and, at the sound of a bugle, resumed their trek into the French countryside. Although most of the vehicles barely achieved speeds above 10 miles per hour, they proved a spectacular sight for the residents of the villages they passed. Many people had decorated their houses with flags, and others dashed into the road to hand fruit and bouquets of flowers to the drivers. Some towns even fired off cannons to herald the arrival of the convoy.
Most of the cars performed well during the second leg, but the race was not without incidents. Pedestrians, horses and spectator cars often clogged the narrow roads, and reports later noted that seven dogs were run over and one cyclist injured as they competed for space with the racers. The boiler on Mr. Scotte’s giant steam wagon eventually blew and injured its driver, and many competitors’ thin rubber tires were easily damaged or cut on rougher sections of road. Other drivers accidentally ran off the course. According to a correspondent for the British journal, The Engineer, while leading the race, the Count de Dion’s car “mistook the route and mounted a very steep hill, and in turning to descend again, went into a potato field, and aid had to be obtained to get it on to the road again.”
Seventeen of the original 21 racers eventually completed the 79-mile journey, with most arriving on the Champs de Mars in Rouen in the early to late evening. Despite his detour through the potato patch, the Count de Dion crossed the finish line first with a total time of six hours, 48 minutes and an average speed of around 12 miles per hour. Lemaitre arrived five minutes later in his Peugeot, followed by Doriot and then Paul Panhard and Emile Levassor. At the awards ceremony the following day, the judges from Le Petit Journal decided to split first prize between the Peugeot and Panhard & Levassor cars, whose vehicles had demonstrated remarkable reliability. The judges singled out Gottlieb Daimler’s engine for special praise, saying it had “turned petroleum or gasoline fuel into a practical solution” for powering automobiles. While he technically won the race, the Count de Dion only received second prize. His steam-powered tractor required a passenger to serve as an onboard stoker, which meant it failed the “ease of operation” test laid out in the competition rules. Third prize went to Maurice le Blant, for a large Serpollet steam carriage that could carry nine passengers.
In the wake of the Paris-Rouen test, the city-to-city race became a staple of motorsports. 1895 brought the famous Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, a 732-mile rally won by Paris-Rouen fifth place finisher Emile Levassor. That same year also saw motor racing cross the pond to the United States, when Frank Duryea won a 54-mile race from Chicago to Waukegan and back again. Other touring races followed around the turn of the century: Paris-Marseilles-Paris in 1896; Arona-Stresa-Arona in 1897; Berlin-Potsdam-Berlin in 1898 and Paris-Vienna in 1902. Cars and engines grew in sophistication along with the races, and by the early 1900s, drivers were regularly achieving speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour.
The white-knuckle pace of these later competitions made the “Le Petit Journal Competition for Horseless Carriages” look like a Sunday pleasure drive by comparison, but the Paris-Rouen had been an important step in establishing the car as a practical form of transportation destined to supplant the horse and buggy. “How can you travel other than in a motor car?” asked the headline in a Le Petit Journal article published shortly after the event. The New York Times later offered its own endorsement in 1898, writing, “Horseless vehicles have undoubtedly come to stay.”