The First Motor-Race

It is little known that motor-racing is an off-shoot of bicycle-racing, indeed that the modern automobile is part-derived from bicycle technology.

The horseless carriage dates back to the Cugnot Steam Trolley in 1769, a carriage with a steam-engine. In 1806, Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz, devised a vehicle with an internal combustion engine fuelled with hydrogen and oxygen. Early such vehicles relied on hydrogen or coal gas until 1870 when Siegfried Marcus of Vienna attached a gasoline/petroleum spirit engine to a handcart.

It was Karl Benz that is credited with inventing the modern automobile. Following lack of success in an earlier business, 1883 saw Benz joining with two owners of a bicycle-repair shop to start Benz & Cie producing industrial machines and in 1885 creating the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Unlike it’s predecessors, it had not wooden wheels but wire-spoked wheels and was essentially a tricycle chain-driven by a four-stroke ~0.8 hp engine. By 1888, after modifications (including wooden spoked wheels), it became the first commercially available car leading to the development of the motor-car industry.

The first city-to-city bicycle race was Paris-to-Rouen in 1869, sponsored by Le Vélocipède Illustré (The Bicycle Illustrated; French fortnightly newspaper). This event was curtailed by the Franco-Prussian War before returning as an amateur race still held annually. (Other examples include the Bordeux-to-Paris race that ran from 1891 to 1988 and the Paris-to-Robaix that started in 1986 and is still held as a round of the road-racing World Cup.)

Motor-racing got off to a false start with an 1887 event, also supported by Le Vélocipède Illustré, which saw a 2 km ‘race’ except it attracted only one entrant, Georges Bouton driving a de Dion-Bouton (with de Dion as passenger).

(Georges Lemaître’s winning Peugeot)

Most consider the first motor-race was the, “Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux” (Competition of Carriages without Horses) held from Paris-to-Rouen on 22nd July, 1894. Some of the competitors were cyclists and some event officials were from cycling. It was sponsored by the Paris magazine, Le Petit Journal. The organisers ordained that the cars were, “not dangerous, easy to drive, and cheap during the journey”, and held a 50 km heat which selected the twenty-five to enter the 128 km main race from 102 entrants. A jury judged on the cars’ handling and safety attributes but the main prize was for the best time. The fastest finisher was Comte Jules-Albert de Dion with a de Dion. It says much about motor-racing that he was disqualified from this first race on a technicality – because de Dion’s steam-car required a stoker which the judges considered outside their objectives. This gave the win to Georges Lemaître in a Peugeot.


1    Jules-Albert de Dion    de Dion    6h48m00s, 18.66 kph
2 Georges Lemâitre Peugeot 6h51m30
3 Doriot Peugeot 7h04m30
4 H Panhard Panhard 7h21m30
5 Emile Levassor Panhard 7h43m30
6 Kraeutler Peugeot 7h46m30
7 Mayade Panhard 8h09m00
8 Le Brun Le Brun 8h12m00
9 Michaud Peugeot 8h25m00
10 Dubois Panhard 8h38m00
11 Louis Rigoulot Peugeot 8h41m00
12 Vacheron Vacheron 8h42m30
13 De Bourmont de Bourmont 8h51m00
14 E. Roger Benz 10h01m00
15 M. Le Blant Serpollet 10h43m00
16 Gautier Gautier Wehrlé 12h24m30
17 Ernest Archdeacon Serpollet 13h00m00

Some historians discount the Paris-to-Rouen race because it was part reliability trial, part time-trial and part-judged for other prizes. The first event that saw a simultaneous start was the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trial. This was a distance of 1178 km starting on 25th February, 1895. The first to finish was Émile Levassor. He overtook early leader, de Dion (who was refilling the water tank of his steam car) and his Panhard reached Bordeaux much earlier than expected so the relief driver was still asleep in an unknown hotel. Thus Levassor (after pausing for sandwiches and champagne) drove back finishing in 48 hours 47 minutes, six hours ahead of the next competitor. The result information seems to be incomplete and states that the first two finishers were ineligible for prizes for being in two-seater not four-seater cars. That would give first prize to A. Koechlin.


1    Emile Levassor    Panhard    48h48ms, 24.54kph
2 Louis Rigoulot Peugeot 54h35m
3 A. Koechlin Peugeot 59h48m
4 Doriot Peugeot 59h49m
5 Thum Benz 64h30m
6 Mayade Panhard 72h14m
7 Boulanger Panhard 78h07m
8 E. Roger Roger 82h48m
9 Amédée Bollée Bollée 90h03m

City-to-city races led to The Gordon Bennett Cup for nations that ran from 1900 to 1905. As speeds grew, racing moved to closed public or private road circuits and subsequently purpose built circuits.

(Comte Jules-Albert de Dion lead a group of wealthy individuals that set up L’Auto newspaper in France. In 1903, L’Auto instigated Le Tour de France to reverse flagging sales.)

12 Responses to “The First Motor-Race”

  1. Hal Elk Says:

    I must say, I enjoy this site. Could tell me how I could keeping up to date with it? By the way I found this blog through Yahoo.

  2. Daniel Says:

    great post, thanks for sharing

  3. Karl A Petersen Says:

    Very good. I like the Serpollet references, but the Wisconsin race was earlier and the first prearranged race seems to be 1867 in England.

    • Sebastian X Says:

      Do you have references for the Wisconsin race and the 1867 event, please? 1867 seems to pre-date Karl Benz’s first car. I am sure there were at least informal contests between earlier steam-powered vehicles but my research did not uncover any previous organised road-racing type events. My knowledge of early American car-racing only goes back to the first Vanderbilt Cup, held at Long Island, New York initially in 1904.

      Thank you.

  4. Karl A Petersen Says:

    What is it? How fast will it go? Those are the two questions any self propelled vehicle builder will likely hear until the end of time. Speed fascinates. Racing, especially horses and dogs, has a long history, and it takes at least two to race, otherwise it has to be called a time trial. Since there were probably not two motor driven road vehicles operable on the same day in the same county until about 1833, it would not have been possible to even consider a race between them. Those would have been steam carriages or carriages pulled by steam drags or steam omnibuses or perhaps a railway locomotive. Lobbying and writing to the press about the horrors of steam on the roads effectively killed road vehicle development in Britain for over sixty years, and road trials of personal steam carriages were rarely during normal daylight hours. You can read William Fletcher’s two books to get a feeling for the era, the promise, the bitter reprisals of the coaching trade, and the medieval period of neglect.

    The two Richard Trevithick biographies by son Francis Trevithick and that of Dickinson and Titley note that Cap’n Dick “won a large bet” on 3 August 1808 in London when he pitted his “Catch-Me-Who-Can” against any and all comers, horses or whatever, for a 24 hour run. Lots more was wagered on the side. This appears to be the First Motor Race, though only one participant was a “motor,” and the novelty of pitting steam power against horsepower was to continue irregularly for a century.

    For sixty years, steam vehicle development, manufacture and application progressed apace, but in going through the technical and popular literature of the period, there are any number of speed trials and advances in performance, but so far zero competitions between two or more vehicles. This does not seem logical. Certainly there were pairs of railroad tracks over which a match race could have occurred.

    Eventually we come to the record of a prearranged match race of two self-powered road vehicles over a prescribed route at 4:30 A.M. on August 30, 1867, between Ashton-under-Lyne and Old Trafford, a distance of eight miles. It was won by the carriage of Isaac Watt Boulton, one of six he was reported to have built over the years, perhaps driven by his 22 year old son Philip. The race was against a Daniel Adamson carriage, likely the one made for Mr. Schmidt and perhaps driven by Schmidt. The reports do not indicate who was driving, perhaps because the red flag law was fully in force. Boulton’s carriage was developed from a scrapped W. Bridge Adams light-rail vehicle. This is recorded in the contemporary press and in several books. I have IWB’s own notes on the matter in front of me at my desk, and wish he were rather more wordy. So, two “motors” racing appear to make the First Motor Race.

    On July 16, 1878, contesting engines lined up in Green Bay, Wis. for the start of a highly anticipated race for $10,000 posted by the Wisconsin legislature. A 200-mile course had been laid out, starting in Green Bay, running south to Janesville then north to Madison. The Oshkosh covered 201 miles in 33 hours 27 minutes. Eventually the legislature awarded the crew of the Oshkosh $4,000 and the crew of the Green Bay $1,000. This is the prime candidate for The First Motor Race in the USA. THE GREAT RACE OF 1878. Richard Backus, May/June 2004

    Racing continued to be somewhat dangerous and strictly illegal in many places. When the laws opened the roads in Europe to the automobile, it took some time for someone to think about pitting them against one another. Magazines had promoted bicycle events and, with the new automobile in the news, if not much on the streets, the editors would certainly catch the readers’ eyes and coins with something new: a motor reliability trial in 1887. Reliability was such a problem only one entrant started, Georges Bouton driving a de Dion-Bouton, taking de Dion as passenger. He finished the run and won the award. Certainly it was not a race, and neither was the Paris-Rouen Reliability Trial in 1894. Daimler-Benz has called it a race ever since and claims to have won it, though Daimler-Benz did not exist at the time. This is a particularly good reason to research and inform the world about the First Motor Race.

    There is the 1896 race, nearly postponed into 1897, which Duryea won from Chicago to Evanston. He embarrassed the Benz powered cars. Many more races, demonstrations and time trials followed.

  5. Karl A Petersen Says:

    I see you have mulled this one over for a year and are still confounded by it. Perhaps after Easter the thread will be revived.

    • João C. Says:

      Loved your text about the first motor competition.

      I would like, if you don’t mind, to exchange some ideas with you about this subject. Can you give me some kind of e-mail so i can get in touch with you?

      Thank you very much.

  6. Karl Petersen Says:

    I guess I killed the thread by giving carefully researched data rather than settling for the enthusiasm of creative journalists. I have grown old waiting for someone to find earlier examples with hard evidence.

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