On this day in 1895, Emile Levassor drives a Panhard et Levassor car with a two-cylinder, 750-rpm, four-horsepower Daimler Phoenix engine over the finish line in the world’s first real automobile race. Levassor completed the 732-mile course, from Paris to Bordeaux and back, in just under 49 hours, at a then-impressive speed of about 15 miles per hour.
Levassor and his partner Rene Panhard operated one of the largest machine shops in Paris in 1887, when a Belgian engineer named Edouard Sarazin convinced Levassor to manufacture a new high-speed engine for the German automaker Daimler, for which Sarazin had obtained the French patent rights. When Sarazin died later that year, the rights passed to his widow, Louise. In 1889, visitors to the Paris exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution were able to admire not only Gustave Eiffel’s now-famous tower, but also a Daimler-produced automobile with one of the new Panhard et Levassor-constructed engines. The following year, Levassor married Louise Sarazin.
By 1891, Levassor had built a drastically different automobile, placing the engine vertically in front of the chassis rather than underneath or behind the driver–a radical departure from the carriage-influenced design of earlier vehicles–and put in a mechanical transmission that the driver engaged with a clutch, allowing him to travel at different speeds. In the years to come, this arrangement, known as the Systeme Panhard, would become the model for all automobiles. In 1895, a committee of journalists and automotive pioneers, including Levassor and Armand Peugeot, France’s leading manufacturer of bicycles, spearheaded the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race in order to capitalize on public enthusiasm for the automobile. Out of 46 entries, Levassor finished first but was later disqualified on a technicality; first place went to a Peugeot that finished 11 hours behind him.
The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race highlighted France’s superiority in automotive technology at the time, and established Panhard et Levassor as a major force in the fledgling industry. Its success spurred the creation of the Automobile Club de France in order to foster the development of the motor vehicle and regulate future motor sports events. Over the next century, these events would grow into the Grand Prix motor racing circuit, and eventually into its current incarnation: Formula One.