Did 1870 loss to Germany make France a racing powerhouse?

Some American automobile journalists thought so a century ago

In 1870 the French went to war with Prussia, and lost. Fifteen years later, a German engineer created the first gasoline automobile, but the cars that took the honours in races afterwards were mostly French. Mors and Panhard-Levassor were the Ferrari and McLaren of their day. Could the French automobile engineers and drivers have been trying to assuage the national hurt through racing?

It seems a far-fetched idea but some American journalists thought so in 1902. The French regarded racing as a matter of national glory, a journal said. After 1870, France had “feverishly sought opportunities for demonstrating that her people are not a decadent nation.”

The feeling seemed to run through French manufacturers and buyers alike. Leaders of the French automobile industry, said the journal, “feel it to be their principal duty to impress the public outside of France with the superiority of their products. The French public is already won over, and will not easily buy automobiles made elsewhere.”

The Germans were not too keen on racing; American Automobile Association and Automobile Club of America opposed racing on public roads, but the French were always raring for an international race, such as the 749-mile Paris-Berlin in 1901 that was won by a Frenchman in a French car, of course.

When plans were being drawn up for the 1902 Paris-Vienna race, 106 of the 111 French municipalities on the route promptly “replied favourably to the requests for permission made by the Automobile Club of France.”

Even the French road cars were made for speed, with silencers that did little to muffle their exhaust. When the organisers of the Staten Island speed trials of May 31, 1902, made it mandatory for all cars to run with their mufflers on, a journalist observed: “This ruling will be somewhat in favour of the machines whose mufflers are least efficient to deaden noise and therefore most economical of power…” Some of the American cars were “almost noiseless” and were estimated to sacrifice 30% of their power to their exhausts. “These vehicles would naturally gain most in speed by opening the mufflers, while in French machines the gain would be comparatively slight.”

The attitude of the leading French manufacturers to racing is also telling. Adolphe Clement of Panhard-Levassor company: “It seems to me that to ask a manufacturer, whether he is in favour of the Paris-Vienna race, is the same as to ask whether he wishes to enlarge his business volume or not.”

Georges Huillier, of Mors: “The race has always been our school of progress and the basis of our success.” After its success in the Paris-Berlin race, Mors had doubled production capacity.

Darracq: “At the present moment it is especially the foreign field which must be cultivated. My opinion on Paris-Vienna is simply that this is the race which must be won, and to be won it must be run.”

Serpollet: “We were accused of being good for speed only. We triumphed in endurance and reliability. Paris-Vienna seems to offer an opportunity for receiving further confirmation in regard to this quality, which I consider the most important in automobiles, viz, their reliability and durability.”

The chief exception to this aggressive competitive spirit was French automobile journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier who called racing cars “useless monstrosities”, and racing, “the curse of factories.”

When we have seen, as in the Paris-Nice race, scarcely one-half the vehicles started reaching the goal, it goes without saying that manufacturing firms of high standing should have something better to occupy their designers than moonbeam chasing. They should build vehicles and drop all nonsense,” Saunier wrote.

Few in France heeded his advice.

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