At 3:45 a.m. on Sunday, May 24, 1903 a bomb went off amidst 200,000 people gathered at Versailles, just outside Paris. It signaled the beginning of an automobile race, not a revolution, but the results were similar. Before the day was over, eight persons had been killed, many more badly hurt, and wreckage strewed the road from Paris to Bordeaux. The French government went into emergency session, followed by that of Spain. Almost incidentally, the surviving cars set new speed records and inaugurated modern auto racing.
Newspapers had billed the Paris-Madrid race of 1903 as one of the great spectacles in sports history. Scheduled to be run in three stages (Paris-Bordeaux-Vitoria-Madrid), it drew cars and drivers from all over Europe and America, including, for the first time, several factory teams. Two hundred and five cars made it to the starting line, ranging in size from 550 to more than 2,200 pounds and in horsepower all the way up to the 90-hp behemoths entered by Mercedes of Germany. Most had huge wooden artillery wheels with skinny high-pressure tires, rudimentary springing and, since they were chain driven, brakes only on the flywheel.
The first car off was a French Diederichs driven by an experienced English racer, Charles Jarrott. It was scheduled to start at 3:30, but Jarrott prudently delayed for a quarter of an hour until it was at last light enough to see the road. Spectators jammed it, and Jarrott quickly decided that "the danger was as great at 40 miles an hour as at 80; it merely meant that the crowd waited a longer time in the road." He drove one-handed, as he had to use the other to keep the clutch lever engaged, while his mechanic needed both hands to operate the emergency lubricating oil pump throughout the race. All the while, the spectators exhorted Jarrott to drive faster, to keep ahead of the hated German cars. Jarrott complied, hurling the Diederichs into curves he had never seen before at 80 mph, even after the spokes of his front wheels shrank in the heat and pivoted in their sockets. At least Jarrott could see where he was going; the other cars, started at one-minute intervals, had to negotiate the graveled road in blinding dust.
Although Jarrott had to stop several times for repairs, he was passed only by Louis Renault, who forced his little 30-hp car to an incredible 88.75 mph and averaged 62 mph for the 343 miles from Paris to Bordeaux. (At the time the world record for the flying kilometer was only 77.13 mph.) Less than an hour later Renault's record was smashed by M. Gabriel in a 70-hp Mors which averaged more than 65 mph. Gabriel's was a truly magnificent piece of driving: starting in 81st place, it was necessary for him to weave his way through cars, wrecks, dust and wandering spectators.
The crowd in Bordeaux was ecstatic, as the first three cars to finish the initial day's run were all French. But the festive mood changed as rumors, then official reports, came in of many wrecks, injuries and deaths. This was something new; the eight-year-old sport of auto racing had had no previous fatalities and few serious wrecks. Louis Renault's brother Marcel had smashed into a tree. Louis rushed to his brother's deathbed, announcing that all Renault team cars were withdrawn from the race. Near Ch√¢tellerault a child had dashed in front of another car; a soldier tried to rescue her, but the machine struck them both, plowed into the crowd and overturned, killing a mechanic and several spectators. An English driver's car hit a dog, then a tree at 60 mph and simply disintegrated, killing both driver and mechanic. The gala celebration Bordeaux had planned for the evening was quietly called off.
Within a few hours the French government canceled the remainder of the race. Incredibly, some drivers decided to proceed to the Spanish border and there take up the race anew, but the Spanish government added its prohibition. Thus ended the greatest auto race the world had yet seen.
In the aftermath the American sportsman William K. Vanderbilt seemed concerned mainly that his courage would be questioned; he informed reporters that mechanical difficulties, not the carnage on the highway, made him quit. The New York Times editorialized that Vanderbilt's concern showed a certain lack of perspective. Truer courage was shown by the only woman driver in the race, Mme. du Gast. Starting 17th, she fought her way up to 12th by the time she reached Chartres. Then she abandoned the race to give first aid to one of her injured competitors.
The bloodletting was probably inevitable. Although the French government had provided 10,000 soldiers and policemen for crowd control, these were far too few to handle the two million spectators who lined both sides of a road nearly 350 miles long. And the road itself was built for horses, not autos. Shortly after the race was canceled the president of the Middle European Automobile Association, the Count of Talleyrand-Périgord, said it was madness to drive on most roads at more than 18 mph, and no road in the world was capable of speeds of 60 mph. Furthermore, few of the drivers had ever driven the course before, and even fewer were in any sense professionals.
The first great road race, run over the same Paris-Bordeaux route in 1895, had been won with an average speed of 15 mph. Very different, noted the Scientific American, was the 1903 race, where any wealthy amateur could run a "veritable locomotive...at speeds of 50 to 80 miles an hour." English newspapers called it the "race to death," and The New York Times claimed that the United States, because it had speed limits, had proved itself "more civilized" than France. Inevitably there were calls for the abolition of auto racing.
Yet the shock of the May 24 slaughter quickly wore off. The Gordon Bennett Trophy race was held on July 2 as scheduled and, as Munsey's Magazine noted, its lack of fatalities and bad wrecks "silenced the croakers." But it was held in a lightly populated part of Ireland, over a closed circuit, with spectators expertly controlled by the Irish police. And all drivers had to qualify before being allowed to race.
There was really little danger that auto racing would be prohibited, for by 1903 the prestige of too many manufacturers and too much national pride were involved. Besides, within a short time the public was, to say the least, quite used to deaths among automobile race drivers and spectators.