Thursday, January 23, 2003

Gordon Bennett Road Race 1903

Gordon Bennett! The name of an eccentric American millionaire, or if you like that of an international road race for motor cars. But not only that. It was also an expression of disbelief which was particularly popular during World War I with those who felt that the more common expressions were either blasphemous or vulgar. James Gordon Bennett, the man, was a colourful American born in 1841 in New York City. His father, also called James Gordon Bennett, founded the New York Herald and the wealth generated by the Bennett publishing empire enabled Gordon Bennett Junior to lead an interesting and varied life. He financed Stanley’s famous expedition into Africa in search of Livingstone, as well as a polar expedition and a transatlantic yacht race. It was however his involvement with motor racing that Gordon Bennett’s name is recalled today. Bennett donated a silver cup as a prize for a road race between cars at a time when the motor industry was still in its infancy. Originally known as the Coupe Internationale, the prized silver cup was everywhere called after its owner, “The Gordon Bennett Trophy”. The first Gordon Bennett Motor Race took place in 1900, starting in Paris and ending in Lyons and the following year the race was from Paris to Bordeaux. In 1902 the winner of the Paris to Innsbruck race was an English man, Selwyn Francis Edge, and as a result the 1903 race was required to be held in England. However, as motor racing was illegal on public roads in that country it was agreed to hold the race in Ireland. Legislation had to be passed in the House of Commons to exempt those taking part in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race from the speed limits of the day. The speed limit on Irish roads at that time was 12mph but by March 1903 it had been raised to 14mph. The Light Locomotive (Ireland) Act, 1903 passed in March 1903 and which was to remain in force until 31st December of that year provided that “the Council of any administrative county may on the application of any private persons or club by order declare that any public roads within the county may be used for races with light locomotives during the whole or part of any days specified in the order not exceeding three days in the year”. Kildare, Leix and Carlow County Councils received applications from the Irish Automobile Club to stage the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race on a circuit of public roads in those counties. The circuit commenced in county Kildare and extended into Leix and Carlow in a figure of eight, centered on the town of Athy, taking in Kilcullen, Castledermot, Carlow and Athy on one circuit, with Kilcullen, Kildare, Monasterevin, Stradbally, Ballylinan and Athy forming the second circuit. The race which was to start and finish at Ballyshannon consisted of three circuits of the figure of eight, with an additional circuit of the Kilcullen / Monasterevin / Athy circuit. The total distance to be covered was measured at 307.75 miles. The race which was run off on 2nd July 1903 included twelve international competitors representing England, America, France and Germany. The English drivers who drove Napier cars painted green for the occasion stayed with Harry Large at Castle Rheban just outside of Athy. His son Willie Large writing 70 years later claimed that his father had come into contact with Selwyn Edge while he, Harry, had been cycle racing in England for Dunlops. Edge and his fellow driver, J.W. Stocks, were originally cyclists of note before they got involved in motor racing. Charles Jarrott was the third English driver and staying with them in Castle Rheban in the weeks leading up to the race were the car manufacturer Mr. Napier and his mechanic Cecil Bianchi. Willie Large who died some years ago once told me that the legendary Percy French visited Castle Rheban during the week of the Gordon Bennett Race and entertained the English visitors with a number of his famous songs accompanied on the piano by Mrs. Large. The American drivers, Alexander Winton and Percy Owen stayed in the Timolin Rectory in Ballitore while their colleague Louis Moens stayed with the Cole family in Moone. The American cars were a Peerless and two Wintons which were painted red for the race, the Wintons having been designed by Alexander Winton. The German team of Baron de Caters, Foxhall Keene and Camille Jenatzy, all of whom drove white coloured Mercedes cars booked into the Leinster Arms Hotel. Their cars were garaged in the hotel yard directly opposite the hotel itself in Leinster Street. Ferdnand Gabiel of the French team stayed in Loughbrown Lodge on the Curragh, while his colleagues Rene de Kynff and Henry Farman stayed in Bardons Hotel, Kilcullen. Their cars were two Panhards and a Mors which were coloured blue. On 2nd July 1903 the competing drivers gathered at Ballyshannon with the first driver off at 7.00am. That was Selwyn Edge, the previous years winner, driving a Napier, accompanied by his cousin who travelled as his mechanic. The starter was Major F. Lynsey Lloyd and he let the remaining eleven drivers off at intervals of seven minutes. The last man away was the American driver Alexander Winton whose car developed carburetor trouble at the start. When Major Lloyd gave him the order to go he had to push his car over the starting line and then spent the following 40 minutes in carrying out repairs before he could drive away. He did not finish the course, a fate which also was to befall his two American colleagues, as well as two of the German drivers and two of the English competitors. Only five of the twelve competitors finished the race. The race was won by Jenatzy driving a Mercedes for Germany at an average speed of 49.25mph. Jenatzy described as a small man with red hair earned for himself the nick name “The Red Devil”. A recently published book called “Triumph of the Red Devil” by Brenda Lynch tells the story of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Its a magnificent read and hopefully will be the subject of a book launch in Athy during the new year. This year we celebrate the centenary of the Gordon Bennett Race and Lynch’s book is an excellent record of what was Ireland’s biggest ever sporting event up to then. I understand that various events will be held during the year to celebrate the Gordon Bennett Centenary. Indeed it has been the subject of commemoration rallies for many years and in 1967 a plaque was unveiled at the Moate of Ardscull at the end of the Veteran and Vintage Car Rally of that year. I can recall the 1953 commemoration which was organised by the Leinster Motor Company. The local papers of the day reported that “over 3,000 people gathered at Emily Square on Saturday, to see the 39 “old crocks” that halted in the town for a lunch interval during the 80 miles run over part of the old circuit to mark the golden jubilee of the Gordon Bennett Race of 1903. Present in the crowd were several persons who witnessed the famous race won by Jenatzy fifty years ago. The period costumes worn by drivers and passengers were a source of wonder to the younger generation present. Parked under a row of beautiful trees by the banks of the Barrow the veteran cars and their occupants made a delightful picture. Among the cars which attracted greatest interest was the 1903 Benz owned and driven by Mr. Charlie Taylor, Forest, Athy. The marshalling carried out by the men from the district were excellent. Athy Fire Brigade under Mr. John Creed, County Fire Brigade Officer and Mr. Robert Webster, Athy rendered very valuable assistance in erecting a barrier along the square and in controlling the crowd. Other helpers included Athy FCA Members, Athy Knights of Malta under Mr. Eamon McAuley and representatives and employees of the motor trade in the town.” As to the origin of the expletive “Gordon Bennett” with which I opened this piece it is believed to have originated around the time of the 1903 race. Some locals saw the Gordon Bennett Race as an opportunity to make a lot of money in the shortest time possible and apparently had no compunction whatsoever in asking extraordinary prices for services required by those attending the races. “Gordon Bennett” came to be a favoured expression of disbelief, recalling the days of 1903 when an American mans name became forever associated with an Irish motor car race.

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