Skip to main content

Paris -Bordeaux-Paris Motor Race of 1895: The First Ever Real Road Race.

Director & MDO at Midlands based heritage railway museum. Local historian/ researcher/ archivist and cataloguer of The Hollick Collection

'The Paris -Bordeaux – Paris race of 1895.'

Emile Levassor, was to become a motor racing legend, and a national hero. But his journey towards this lofty position got off to a somewhat inauspicious start. this is the tale of the making of his epic myth.

Towards the end of July in 1894, there had been a motoring event, organised by Le Petit Journal, which covered the 80 miles from the French capital to Rouen – a town in the north east of Normandy more famous for its links to the 'Maid of Orleans' [ Joan of Arc ], rather than any motoring heritage. From the outset this event was always officially referred to as a 'trial' or 'run' and never as a motor car race. Emile Levassor had finished fourth in this 'run'.

A few months later, as he took up his place in the great cavalcade of motor vehicles that were to compete in the 'race' of 1895, Emile was determined to improve upon this position.

The competition was sponsored by several wealthy parties, among them were two Americans; William K. Vanderbilt, and the newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett. The prize fund totaled nearly 70,000 French francs, which was well on the way towards three thousand pounds sterling. Almost half of which would go to the race winner.

This famous race took place between the 11th and 13th of June, and covered a distance of 1178 kilometres { 732 miles }. There were a total of twenty competitors, thirteen of whom were in petrol driven machines, six in steam powered vehicles and one electric car. { yes we had electric cars well over a hundred years ago }. The regulations for the entrants were kept to a minimum.

  1. Competing vehicles had to capable of carrying more than two persons.
  2. Any repairs had to be carried out by either the driver or the riding mechanic, using only the spares that the vehicle was carrying.
  3. A time limit of 100 hours was set to complete the course.

The competitors drove in procession from the Arc De Triumphe to the Place des Armes at Versailles where the race was to start from a proper. A Peugeot driven by M.Rigoulot was the first away, but the steam car of Count Jules de Dion, the unofficial winner of the Paris-Rouen trial of 1894, soon took the lead.

Following on closely behind was a second steam powered racer; that of Bollee's seven-seater omnibus. Both of these steam vehicles had broken down before the race was a quarter over, and by the time that the remaining field had reached Tours, Emile Levassor, driving a Panhard et Levassor, had taken the lead.

The middle-aged Frenchman arrived at Tours at 6.45pm, and continued on into the night. It was a clear evening and he managed to attain an average speed of some 15 m.p.h., despite having only oil lamps to show the way.

Stopping occasionally to re-fuel and fill up with water, he reached Ruffec at 3.30am in the morning, some 190 kilometres { 120 miles } north of Bordeaux. He had a sizeable lead over his nearest rivals; Rigoulot and Doriot, both of whom were driving Peugeots.

His relief driver was still in bed, and Levassor was unable to locate the hotel in which the man was staying. He did however locate one of the event officials who recorded that Emile had reached the town. Rather than wait for his relief driver to be located Levassor chose to drive on. He finally reached Bordeaux at 10.40am the following morning, after driving for some twenty-two hours. He was three and half hours ahead.

Scroll to Continue

By the time his pursuers arrived at the halfway point Emile was well on his way back to the French capital city. The rapport that the Frenchman had built up with the car, with its 1.2 litre two cylinder engine, designed by his partner Rene Panhard, and was known as the Phenix bearing the number 5, developing nearly 4 h.p., influenced his decision to complete the return leg alone.

News of this epic drive travelled somewhat faster than he did, and as Emile entered the Port Malliot in Paris, after 48 hours and 47 minutes at the tiller, he was greeted by a tremendous reception. He had won the first motor race in history.

Eleven cars had reached Bordeaux but only nine of the original field made it back to Paris. The second competitor to cross the line, nearly six hours adrift of the winner, was Rigoulot in his Peugeot, arriving at 6.30pm. The last finisher, that of the repaired Bollee omnibus, trundled into Porte Malliot at six the following morning.

The Panhard won the race by so much distance, not because it went faster that the other competitors, but more because it kept on going. Over the whole race distance of 732 miles, Levassor made only one involuntary stop, lasting twenty-two minutes.

Although first to arrive in Paris, Levassor was penalised for infringing the seating capacity rule, and placed second. The technical winner of the race was the Peugeot driven by Koechlin which crossed the finish in third. However the kudos of winning went to the Panhard et Levassor, and rightly so.

1st – Koechlin – French – driving a Peugeot – 31,500 French francs prize money.

2nd – Levassor – French – driving a Peugeot – 12,600 French francs prize money.

3rd – Rigoulot – French – driving a Peugeot.

The Fickle Finger Of Fate

In 1896, when competing in the Paris – Marseille – Paris race, a loose dog ran out in front of him and as he swerved to avoid the animal the unstable car overturned, throwing Levassor out of the vehicle. He was badly bruised and shaken, and upon arrival in Avignon was admitted to hospital. He never really recovered from this incident, and continued to suffer from severe headaches.

Shortly after attending the Auto Club de France's event from Marseille to Nice, at which he was able to help promote the Panhard et Levassor company but was unable to compete, he was admitted to a hospital in Paris. Here on 14th April 1897, Emile passed away.

So ends the man - So begins the myth.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 David Reynolds

Related Articles