Edwardian Racing – Too Fast To Survive

At the Goodwood Members’ Meeting this year (when it happens) we will, as always, be treated with a wealth of different types of motor racing. Much of the event’s unique appeal is the breadth of machinery in action from NASCAR to Group C, Specials to Spridgets, Group 1 to CANAM, it’s a veritable and irresistible assault on the senses. There is no getting away from the fact though that some disciplines draw a little more attention and this year two of the crowd favourites look set to be the exciting return of Groub B rally cars to the circuit and the ever popular S.F. Edge Trophy. On paper these two strands of the sport surely couldn’t be more different. However, leave aside the turbos and short denim and you might be surprised to learn that Group B shares some interesting similarities with the pioneering period of motor racing. Not least their irresistible appeal and their ultimate fates.

Even for those without first-hand experience of Group B; historic rallying events, online video and the testimony of excited uncles provides tantalising proof of its appeal. For those of us fortunate enough to remember the sight and sound of Group B cars ripping through a Welsh forest the memory is visceral and immovable. There are few cars that inspire such broad support and childlike excitement as a battle-hardened Lancia S4 or a chirruping Quattro S2. Group B talks to the petrol head in all of us, the liveries, the scoops and skirts, the moustaches, the floating Finnish airtime, the popping flames, the dancing left-foot and the sideways. It seems nothing draws a crowd like Group B and as it gathered momentum in the early 1980s the numbers of fans grew to seemingly unprecedented proportions. The familiar footage of 037s and T16s charging through parting crowds seems unbelievable today and despite desperate calls from drivers to curtail the freedom of spectators on the stages, the madness continued mostly unchecked. 

Consequently, although Henri Toivonen’s tragic death in 1986 brought Group B rallying to a timely end, the writing was most definitely already on the wall. Indeed, with hindsight, it seems strange that the series wasn’t cancelled following the awful deaths of three spectators and the injury of a further 30 in Portugal two months before Toivonen’s wreck in Corsica. Add to that Attilio Bettega’s fatal crash in 1985 and even the most ardent Group B fan could see that the subsequent ban was inevitable – the volume of spectators clinging to hillsides, ditches and kerbs left absolutely no room for driver error and the speeds reached meant that any accident was certain to be appalling. Group B truly was a victim of its own success, it was too fast and too exciting.

Motorsport and rallying in particular did learn from the mistakes of Group B rallying, but it would be a mistake to think that this was the only time in the sport’s history that fever-pitch excitement led mobs of electrified spectators to risk life and limb to see man explore the limits of speed. Neither was Group B the first discipline to be banned because of the danger of the massed, uncontained crowds, or indeed because of the tragic deaths that inevitably resulted. 

Motor racing was in its infancy in the early 1900s. The first widely recognised motoring contest was the Le Petit Journal Horseless Carriages Contest of 1894 that saw 19 cars make their way, at a civilised pace, from Paris to Rouen. The exciting novelty of these new machines was not lost on the locals and even at this earliest of moments crowd control proved to be troublesome. In Gerald Rose’s extraordinary record of these early years he notes that when the 26 cars appeared for eliminating trials ‘the crowd of interested spectators of all ranks was so enormous that the cars arriving late could hardly force a passage through.’ During the contest itself the drivers also had to suffer the burning indignity of a delayed luncheon at Mantes ‘by the presence of an immense crowd.’

The following year a race from Paris to Bordeaux and back was conceived. It was the first of the city-to-city races and in ambition reached far beyond the contest of the previous year.  In contrast to the 79 miles of road between Paris and Rouen the 1895 race was to cover some 732 miles non-stop over two days. It was a fantastic success and cast the die. These races tested speed, efficiency, reliability and were great tests of endurance. It’s worth noting that even in this seemingly naïve period of racing the spirit of competition was already fierce and drivers were already making heroic efforts in search of victory. For the Paris-Bordeaux race each team had its own system of driver changes but Emile Levassor drove the entire route himself, his most significant rest was only 22 minutes during a 48 hour, 48 minute trial. He was rewarded with a four hour lead and victory – but the win was stripped from him on account of a technicality.

Just seeing a car at this time was exciting, so seeing them race at full speed against one another was irresistible and crowd control was a persistent problem over such massive distances. The tension was felt keenly in 1896 when, as a result of heaving crowds, a man was run over in the Avenue de Paris before the start of Paris-Marseilles race, thankfully he was not badly hurt but it was an augury of things to come. Hardly surprising when it is estimated that some 50,000 spectators lined the start of the return leg from Marseilles back to Paris. It wasn’t long before the first serious accident  occurred. In 1897 the collision of two passing cars caused the deaths of the Marquis de Montaignac and his mechanic. It was the first fatal incident of its kind and was a sobering wake up call for the wild enthusiasts of motor racing’s infancy.

It soon became customary that each year a great city-to-city race would be held to demonstrate to industry, to potential customers and to a sceptical public the magnificent future that dawned with the rise of the motor car. They varied in size but many stretched over a number of days and ran over hundreds – or in the case of the 1899 Tour de France – thousands of miles.  These were titanic tests of endurance. By 1900, however, there were growing pockets of resistance to the city-to-city races, indeed the first ‘circuit’ road race was run in 1900, as forward-thinking organisers sought more sustainable ways of staging a race. The appetite for motor racing was peaking, competitor numbers were strong, more and more manufacturers were entering the fray with both touring and racing versions of their cars and the spectators travelled for miles to catch a glimpse. There still remained very few restrictions on the organisers and in many instances local authorities were not even granted the courtesy of a heads-up that columns of enormous, barely controllable and often disintegrating machines were soon to hurtle through their sleepy villages. Gerald Rose describes the friction:

“In general, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in which the race was held took the temporary invasion of their territory in good part, and looked upon the speed of the cars as excellent entertainment. The wholesale destruction, however, of their straying livestock by unrecognisable personages who did not seem to notice any requests to stop and who were quite beyond any hope of identification, somewhat altered their view. At this time almost every local club felt itself called upon to organise a race for its members, and whilst the experts did very well, yet the danger to the public from the inexperienced man, let loose upon the road to get to a certain spot in the smallest possible time, was quite sufficient to make those other users of the highways whom he forced into the ditch feel a certain dislike of him and his fellows.”

As early as 1900 the tide began to turn. Following a serious accident that injured several spectators during the Paris-Roubaix race the sport’s first ban came into effect. As two cars approached a particularly good viewing spot, the ‘Croix des Noailles’, that was thronged by some two or three hundred spectators, the cars collided, veered off the road, bounced off a pile of abandoned motorbikes and launched into the scrambling crowd. No one was killed but a number suffered serious injuries including the wife of a local Deputy. The Prefect wasted no time in not only banning all motor racing from his Principality but also prosecuting the organisers for criminal negligence. The competitors were also prosecuted and not just those that crashed – the entire entry list! The Minister of the Interior extended the ban and all subsequent requests were to go directly to central government. In reality the ban only lasted just over a month, but it was an augury of things to come.

1908 Panhard Levassor

By 1901 the distinction between touring car and racing car was more defined than ever, and with no limits on weight cars began to grow to enormous proportions as manufacturers built more and more powerful engines. Despite the inherent risks of heavier and more powerful cars – or perhaps because of them – the popularity of these big city to city races continued to grow. Paris-Berlin was the ‘big race’ in 1901, Gerald Rose describes the start line:

‘Throughout the night thousands of cyclists, with the Chinese lanterns in which the Parisian so much delights, gave a picturesque touch to the procession as they threaded their way in and out of the cars and carriages. Pedestrians too were in great force, and it was all that the racers could do to get through to the start in time. The police, numerous as they were, proved quite inadequate to cope with the crowd, and the cars had to plough their way through the masses of people, who just parted sufficiently to let them go on by and then closed up again. At Aix the crowd had begun to assemble long before the cars could possibly arrive and from nine o’clock onwards the road for some way outside the control was black with people who refused to pay the least attention to the strenuous efforts of the police to clear the course… So unwieldy did the crowd become that the control officials and timekeepers invaded a bedroom in a neighbouring house and conducted their duties thence.’

As with so many of these races, the number of incidents was high. The two main obstacles to success were tyre failure and dogs, neither of which were conducive to maintaining control at speed. Trees, ditches, level-crossings, walls, cows, slower cars, sign-posts and bridges also proved bars to progress. Changing a wheel on those early cars was hard enough – but image doing it 14 times in one 6 hour stage. These races really were tests of endurance, both of man and machine.   Not unlike rallying 80 years later, stages were started in the wee, small hours of the morning, went on for many hours and ran over two or three days. They ran in every type of weather, although it often seems as if there were only two types; either wind, rain and mud or baking sun and thick dust. Roads were often not more than dirt tracks and the metalled sections were sometimes more treacherous as speeds peaked and outstripped mechanical grip and driver reaction. Mechanical failure was a constant threat and drivers and mechanics were compelled to service cars on route, as there were no support vehicles. Many modern rally driver has made hasty and resourceful repairs to their cars to reach the next service area but how many modern drivers could replace broken wheel spokes by scrounging timber and whittling to fit with pocket knives? Are there any that would work for 15 hours to free a seized engine and then carry on with two more days racing? 

As 1903 approached however, much like the 1986 Group B season, a set of conditions had developed that would combine and seal the fate of the great city-to-city races. 

In an attempt to curtail the runaway growth of engines and the frames in which they were carried, the ACF limited the weight of the ‘heavy’ cars to 1000kg for the 1902 season. Not for the last time in motorsport did a rule change have almost the diametrically opposite effect. The new weight limit was a bid to reduce engine size, speed and rolling mass and thereby hopefully prevent the worst consequences of the many incidents that occurred on the long city-to-city races. Engineers, however, sought to fit their vehicles into the new weight restrictions not by reducing engine sizes but by ‘adding lightness’ many years before Colin did – and with similar outcomes. As the 1903 season opened cars were travelling just as quick, with massive and more powerful engines but now carried within much lighter and more fragile chassis. At the weighing-in for Paris-Madrid the creativity of the engineers became apparent: ‘Most were riddled with holes, every possible part being lightened to the utmost extent. Piston walls were drilled out, beadings were taken of f seats, bolts were chipped and filed away, frames and levers were slotted until they became a mere network of metal.’ Cars were just as fast and arguably more dangerous as structural failure became so much more likely, especially on the punishing, rutted tracks on which they had to compete.

1912 Cottins-Desgouttes

Since the first ban in 1900 there had been growing resistance to motor racing on the public roads, for obvious reasons. As a result, organisers habitually found their requests for authorisation rejected and, for reasons other global pandemic, entire events cancelled and permissions withdrawn. The capricious nature of these authorisations delayed and complicated the organisation process which often meant that the running of the event itself, especially in terms of safety, was sub-optimal at best. Indeed the noteworthy events were those that were organised well. In the run up to the Paris-Madrid race the death of the famous and talented Count Zborowski on La Turbie hillclimb cast further doubt on the running of the race, delayed its authorisation and choked its effective organisation. 

Despite the concerns of officialdom, the public’s appetite for these leviathan contests was ravenous. Not only that but it was becoming increasingly clear to manufacturers that racing was an ideal means of showing off their product to a growing and lucrative market and there was no shortage of drivers eager to get a foothold in this exciting new sport. The results of course were massive entry lists and massive crowds. The final entry for the Pari-Madrid race was 112 heavy cars, 64 light cars, 40 voiturettes and 59 motorcycles; 275 vehicles in total. So many entries were received that the organisers were forced to start the race at 3:30am in order to get all of the cars to Bordeaux in one day. To maximise the number of people that could spectate, cars were to leave Versailles on Sunday morning, the result was an unprecedented number of people, estimated at over 100,000 for the start of the race alone and approaching 3,000,000 along race’s 342-mile course.

Rose describes the beginning of the race: ‘Charles Jarrott shot down the road disappearing into a solid wall of spectators, which opened out just enough to allow the car to pass through and then closed behind… From the Palaces of Versailles to the spires of Chatres, from the grey roofs of Tours to the winding roads of Libourne, all is tension, excitement, strain. From end to end the dusty highway is lined with crowds, unmanageable, heedless, reckless folk who pay scant attention to the half-hearted attempt to guard the road. There is no thought of danger – nothing except a wild desire to get closer and yet closer to the hurtling cars.’

Charles Jarrot rather poetically, describes the conflict he felt: 

“Three forty-five at last. On with the switch and away went the motor. A hundred handshakes and a mighty roar from the crowd and I was off. It seemed impossible that my swaying, bounding car could miss the reckless spectators. A wedge shaped space opened out in the crowd as I approached and so fine was the calculation made that at times it seemed impossible for the car not to overtake the apex of the human triangle and deal death and destruction. I tried slowing down, but quickly realised that the danger was as great at forty miles an hour as at eighty. It merely meant that the crowd waited a longer time on the road; and the remembrance of those hundreds of cars behind me and the realisation that the hunt had commenced made me put on top speed and hope that Providence would be kind to the weak intellects which allowed their possessors to run such risks so callously.”

“Long avenues of trees, top-heavy with foliage and gaunt in their very nakedness of trunk; a long, never-ending white ribbon, stretching away to the horizon; the holding of a bullet directed to that spot on the sky-line where earth and heaven met; fleeting glimpses of towns and dense masses of people – mad people, insane and reckless, holding themselves in front of the bullet to be ploughed and cut and maimed to extinction, evading the inevitable at the last moment in frantic haste; overpowering relief, as each mass was passed and each chance of catastrophe escaped; and beyond all, the horrible feeling of being hunted. Hundreds of cars behind, of all sizes and powers, and all of them at my heels, traveling over the same road, perhaps faster than I, and all striving to overtake me, pour dust on me, and leave me behind as they sped on to the distant goal of Bordeaux.”

It is worth noting at this point the speeds that the cars were achieving. Whilst a direct comparison with Group B rally cars is absurd, taken in the context of the enormous weight of the cars, the wooden-wheels, the agricultural steering, the towering centres of gravity and the absence of any real brakes, damping, or other safety considerations, then top speeds approaching 100mph on dirt roads loaded with spectators must have felt quite invigorating. Over the 342 mile course Gabriel Mors achieved an average speed of 65.3mph. At the 77th Members’ Meeting the very talented Mark Walker averaged 66mph on Duncan Pittaway’s Monarch Special on a very fast modern asphalt surface for 15 minutes. Imagine maintaining that pace for over 5 hours whilst avoiding dogs, cows, humans and scenery. The quickest route that Google Maps can find suggests a journey time, in 2020, of 5 hours 18 minutes, Gabriel Mors managed it in 5 hours 14 minutes. Direct comparisons are perhaps meaningless, but it provides a frame – its a long way to go, flat-out on dirt roads with no brakes being heckled by lunatic spectators. Racing speeds had almost quadrupled in just eight years.

This heady cocktail of speed, fragility, adrenalin, unruly crowds and sloppy organisation began soon took a terrible toll. The first victim was Marcel Renault who was crushed beneath his car. Then Lorraine Barrow ran into a tree at 80mph, having made efforts to avoid a stray dog, killing him and his mechanic instantly. Stead and Salleron having swapped places for 150 miles collided, Stead being badly crushed by his overturned car. Leslie Porter’s mechanic was killed when Porter crashed into the wall of a house. Another ran into a level crossing barrier, the steering of a Napier broke crashing it into a tree and numerous accidents occurred as drivers desperately tried to avoid careless spectators. Tragically, and perhaps just as in 1986 inevitably, the deaths were not limited to competitors. At Chatellerault a startled driver attempted to avoid a child that had darted into the road and in doing so charged into the crowd, three people were killed including the boy and the soldier that had tried to save him. The number of incidents was unprecedented and the number of injuries intolerable. By the time the race was cancelled it is known that 8 people had died, 5 competitors and 3 spectators – countless more were badly injured. The French Government wasted no time in banning racing on French territory. Astoundingly, the organisers hoped to continue the race in Spain – but the Spanish Government retracted their permissions and the competing cars were packed onto trains and hauled away. Racing on open public roads never returned to France. Road racing did return to Italy in 1927 but the curtain had certainly fallen on the opening act of motorsport’s long and colourful history. City-to-city racing in 1903 was too fast and too exciting.

Lesson’s were learnt and racing on closed road circuits took up the mantle. Only four years after the demise of city-to-city racing Brooklands showed to the world what closed circuit racing could look like and the rest, as they often say, is history. 

That boundary between glory and disaster, which has defined so many great races, was gossamer thin in the forests of Finland and the hills of Portugal during the early 1980s. Whilst no one is drawn to death and destruction, a car and driver on the limits of control and adhesion in search of a hard fought victory are the elements of brilliant motorsport. It is exciting to witness speed but more so to know the danger inherent in its achievement. Group B rallying provided and an abundance of both speed and danger and the punters couldn’t get enough of it. The hundreds of thousands of spectators in 1903 were drawn by the same promise of adrenalin.

The S.F. Edge Trophy is loved, I think, for its unlikely novelty. There have been some close races and the passion of the drivers and mechanics is contagious, but on the Goodwood circuit there are many faster races. However, when they line up for the next instalment, I invite you to see these cars in a new light. I invite you to become one of those Parisian onlookers, jostling for position, wide-eyed with amazement as car after enormous car thunders away through the early morning light on some wild and untested 800 mile oddesey. Witness them tearing through villages at 90mph with pilots and mechanics peering through thick dust, furiously clinging onto to their rattling machines, as they try to wrestle their huge frames past dogs, livestock, houses, ditches and mad crowds of people. See the desperate roadside repairs, the exhaustion, the crashes and heroic saves and remember that only a few years ago nothing like it had ever existed! I like to think that it excitement I remember as my dad and I watched Hannu Mikkola blasting through Woollaton Park on a dreary morning in 1985.