Paris-Madrid race
The Paris–Madrid race of May 1903 was an early experiment in auto racing, organized by the Automobile Club de France and by the Spanish Automobile Club, Automóvil Club Español.
At the time in France there was a great interest in international car races: in 1894 the Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 – Rouen
Rouen , in northern France on the River Seine, is the capital of the Haute-Normandie region and the historic capital city of Normandy. Once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe , it was the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy in the Middle Ages...

 was the first car race in the world, followed by races from Paris to Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne River in the Gironde department in southwestern France.The Bordeaux-Arcachon-Libourne metropolitan area, has a population of 1,010,000 and constitutes the sixth-largest urban area in France. It is the capital of the Aquitaine region, as well as the prefecture...

, Marseilles, Dieppe
Dieppe, Seine-Maritime
Dieppe is a commune in the Seine-Maritime department in France. In 1999, the population of the whole Dieppe urban area was 81,419.A port on the English Channel, famous for its scallops, and with a regular ferry service from the Gare Maritime to Newhaven in England, Dieppe also has a popular pebbled...

, Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the largest city and the capital of the Netherlands. The current position of Amsterdam as capital city of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is governed by the constitution of August 24, 1815 and its successors. Amsterdam has a population of 783,364 within city limits, an urban population...

, Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 and Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...


Problems in getting authorizations

The French government was against the idea of races held on public streets. After the Paris–Berlin of 1901, the minister of internal affairs M. Waldeck-Rousseau stated that no other races would be authorized.
The Paris–Madrid
Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain. The population of the city is roughly 3.3 million and the entire population of the Madrid metropolitan area is calculated to be 6.271 million. It is the third largest city in the European Union, after London and Berlin, and its metropolitan...

 was strongly supported by King Alphonse XIII of Spain, and French media suggested that France could not withdraw from the competition, being the owner of the most advanced technology in car manufacturing.

Baron de Zuylen, president of the ACF, managed to overcome opposition by the Prime Minister Émile Combes
Émile Combes
Émile Combes was a French statesman who led the Bloc des gauches's cabinet from June 1902 – January 1905.-Biography:Émile Combes was born in Roquecourbe, Tarn. He studied for the priesthood, but abandoned the idea before ordination. His anti-clericalism would later lead him into becoming a...

 stating that the roads were indeed public, but the public wanted the races, and many local administrator were eager to have a race pass in their towns.

Many French car manufacturers supported the request, strong of over 25 thousand workers and 16 million Francs per year of export alone. Since races were necessary to promote the brand
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers."...

s, they interceded with the government who finally agreed with the race. The Council of Ministries and the President gave their support to the race on February 17, 1903, while the ACF had accepted applications since January 15.

The setup

In just 40 days over 300 drivers enrolled, much above the expectation. The net worth of the cars involved in the race surpassed 7 million Francs.

The race was to span over 1307 kilometers, in three legs: Versailles – Bordeaux (552 km), Bordeaux – Vitoria (km 335) and Vitoria – Madrid (420 km). The rules were published on the three biggest motor sport magazines of France: France Automobile, La Locomotion, La Vie Automobile.

The rules called for four weight categories: less than 250 kg, 250 to 400 kg, 400 to 650 kg and 650 to 1000 kg. The weight was intended as dry weight
Dry weight
Dry weight is the weight of a vehicle without any consumables, passengers, or cargo.It is one of the two common weight measurements included in road vehicle specifications, the other one being curb weight....

, excluding the driver, fuel, batteries, oil, spare parts, tools, food and water, driver's luggages, headlights and lights harnesses, horns and eventual external starter.

The subscription cost ranged from 50 to 400 Francs, depending on weight. The two heaviest classes were supposed to have a driver and a mechanic (weighing no less than 60 kg, the same for the whole race), while the two lighter ones required only a driver.

The starting order was to be drawn at random between the cars enrolled in the first thirty days, and in progression for the drivers enrolled after February 15. The race start was established for the 3.30 AM of Sunday May 24, from Versailles Gardens, les Jardins de Versailles. As in many raids before, the cars were supposed to leave one by one, with two minutes delay.

The "Absolutely Close Parks" rule was introduced: at the end each race leg, the cars were to be taken by a commissioner to closed pens, were no repairs or maintenance were allowed. Any refuel or fix had to be done in the race time. While in transit to the pens, the cars had to cross the towns in parade, accompanied by a race officer on a bicycle who was supposed to record the exact time of the crossing, that was later deduced from the overall driver's time. The time records were written on time slips and kept on sealed metal boxes on every car.

While Versailles – Bordeaux was a mainstay of road races (the Gordon Bennett Cup
Gordon Bennett Cup in auto racing
As one of three Gordon Bennett Cups established by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., millionaire owner of the New York Herald, the automobile racing award was first given in 1900 in France....

 has been kept there in 1901), while the Bordeaux – Vitoria leg presented more uncertainty: it was full of sharp turns, climbs, narrow bridges, rail crossings, stone roads and long, paved stretches where high speeds could be possible.

The participants

315 racers enrolled, but only 224 were present on the start line, subdivided as follows:
  • 88 cars in the heaviest class (650 to 1000 kg)
  • 49 cars between 400 and 650 kg
  • 33 voiturettes under 400 kg
  • 54 motorcycles

Many famous racers and brands joined the race.
René de Knyff
René de Knyff
Chevalier René de Knyff was a French pioneer of car racing and later a president of Commission Sportive Internationale , now known as FIA....

, Henri and Maurice Farman
Maurice Farman
Maurice Alain Farman was a French Grand Prix motor racing champion, an aviator, and an aircraft manufacturer and designer.-Biography:...

, Pierre de Crawhez, Charles S. Rolls were racing with Panhard Levassor, mighty 4-cylinders cars capable of 70 hp and 130 km/h

Henry Fournier
Henry Fournier
Julius Henry Fournier was a pitcher in Major League Baseball. He played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1894.-External links:...

, William K. Vanderbilt, Fernand Gabriel and Baron de Forest enrolled for the Mors brand, who presented a daring new wind-splitting radiator on the classic bateau frames. The car was very powerful, with 90 hp and a maximum speed of almost 140 km/h

Mercedes (car)
Mercedes was a brand of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft . DMG which began to develop in 1900, after the death of its co-founder, Gottlieb Daimler...

 deployed 11 cars, ranging from 60 to 90 hp. De Dietrich
De Dietrich
De Dietrich is a holding company based in France which traces its history back to the early 17th century. It was active in the automobile, railway and industrial machines industry. It sold it holding stake in De Dietrich Ferroviaire to Alstom in 1990...

 and many other French brands such as Gobron Billiè, Napier
-People:* Napier * John Napier -Australia:* Electoral district of Napier, a state electoral district in South Australia* Mount Napier, a dormant volcano in Victoria...

 and Charron Girardot shunned the lightest classes and raced only with their most powerful and heavy models. The smallest cars from those brands were still presents in the hands of amateurs and private racers. Other French brands included Darracq
Automobiles Darracq S.A. was a French motor vehicle manufacturing company founded in 1896 by Alexandre Darracq.Using part of the substantial profit he had made from selling his Gladiator bicycle factory, Alexandre Darracq began operating from a plant in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes...

, De Dion Bouton, Clément
Clément is a town in French Guiana....

, Richard
The first or given name Richard derives from German, French, and English "ric" and "hard" , therefore it means 'powerful leader' as well as 'King's Court'...

, and Décauville
The Decauville manufacturing company was founded by Paul Decauville , a French pioneer in industrial railways. Decauville's major innovation was the use of ready-made sections of light, narrow gauge track fastened to steel sleepers; this track was portable and could be disassembled and transported...


Renault S.A. is a French automaker producing cars, vans, and in the past, autorail vehicles, trucks, tractors, vans and also buses/coaches. Its alliance with Nissan makes it the world's third largest automaker...

 joined the race with two cars driven by Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault was a French racing car driver and industrialist, co-founder of the car maker Renault, and the brother of Louis and Fernand Renault....

 and Louis Renault
Louis Renault
Louis Renault may refer to:* Louis Renault * Louis Renault * A character from the film Casablanca...

, two founders of the brand and experienced pilots.

Italian manufacturer Fiat
FIAT, an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino , is an Italian automobile manufacturer, engine manufacturer, financial, and industrial group based in Turin in the Italian region of Piedmont. Fiat was founded in 1899 by a group of investors including Giovanni Agnelli...

 presented only two cars, but could count on two of the best drivers of the time, Vincenzo Lancia
Vincenzo Lancia
Vincenzo Lancia was an Italian pilot, engineer and founder of Lancia.Vincenzo Lancia was born in the small village of Fobello on 24 August 1881, close to Turin...

 and Luigi Storero
Luigi Storero
Luigi Storero was an Italian racecar driver and engineer from Torino.He joined his father, Giacomo Storero's company , which in 1884 started making bicycles. Luigi Storero was a winner of bicycle races in 1887, and was involved in the selling of foreign makes...


The public

French newspapers were overexcited and covered the race with much enthusiasm. The race was presented as the biggest race since the invention of the car, and over 100.000 people managed to reach Versailles at 2 o clock a.m. for the race start. The first hundred of kilometers of the race track were overcrowded with spectators, and rail stations were swarmed with people trying to reach Versailles.

The crowd and the darkness convinced to delay the race start of half an hour, and to reduce the delay between cars to just one minute: the day was expected to be very hot, and the officials wanted to avoid the heat of the late morning.

Start line and first checkpoint

The starting point was in front of the Eau des Suisses at the gardens of Versailles
Gardens of Versailles
The Gardens of Versailles occupy part of what was once the Domaine royal de Versailles, the royal demesne of the château of Versailles. Situated to the west of the palace, the gardens cover some 800 hectares of land, much of which is landscaped in the classic French Garden style perfected here by...

. In the early morning of May 24, 1903, participants started at one minute intervals for the first leg to Bordeaux via Saint Cyr, Trappes
Trappes is a commune in the Yvelines department in the Île-de-France in north-central France. It is located in the western suburbs of Paris from the center in the new town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.-Transport:...

, Coignières
Coignières is a commune in the Yvelines department in the Île-de-France region in north-central France.-Geography:Coignières is situated southwest of Versailles...

, Le Perray, Rambouillet
Rambouillet is a commune in the Yvelines department in the Île-de-France in north-central France.It is located in the suburbs of Paris southwest from the center...

, Chartres
Chartres is a commune and capital of the Eure-et-Loir department in northern France. It is located southwest of Paris.-Geography:Chartres is built on the left bank of the Eure River, on a hill crowned by its famous cathedral, the spires of which are a landmark in the surrounding country...

, Clayes
Clayes is a commune in the Ille-et-Vilaine department in Bretagne in north-western France.-Demographics:Inhabitants of Clayes are called Clayens.-References:* ;* -External links:*...

, Tours
Tours is a city in central France, the capital of the Indre-et-Loire department.It is located on the lower reaches of the river Loire, between Orléans and the Atlantic coast. Touraine, the region around Tours, is known for its wines, the alleged perfection of its local spoken French, and for the...

, Ruffec
Ruffec may refer to the following places in France:*Ruffec, Charente, a commune in the Charente department*Ruffec, Indre, a commune in the Indre department...

, Angoulême
-Main sights:In place of its ancient fortifications, Angoulême is encircled by boulevards above the old city walls, known as the Remparts, from which fine views may be obtained in all directions. Within the town the streets are often narrow. Apart from the cathedral and the hôtel de ville, the...

, Chevanceaux
Chevanceaux is a commune in the Charente-Maritime department in the Poitou-Charentes region in southwestern France.-Population:-External links:* * *Map and aerial photos:**Street map: , or or **Satellite images: or - image now available...

, Guitres
Guîtres is a commune in the Gironde department in southwestern France.-Population:-References:*...

, Libourne
Libourne is a commune in the Gironde department in Aquitaine in southwestern France. It is a sub-prefecture of the department.It is the wine-making capital of northern Gironde and lies near Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.-Geography:...

. The first car was expected to arrive at Bordeaux around noon.

The soldiers deployed to manage the crowd proved insufficient, and people swarmed the streets. The first racer to leave, Charles Jarrott with his mechanic Bianchi on a 1000 kg, 45 hp De Dietrich, tried to slow down to 40 miles per hour, to give people time to evacuate the road in front of the car, but it only worsened the problem since people just waited more to move away.

De Knyff on his Panard Levassor left as second, followed by Louis Renault on a 650 kg, 30 cv Renault. Théry on Décauville (640 kg, 24 cv), another De Diétrich, a Mors, a Panhard and a light Passy Thellier, (400 kg, 16 cv) were the next. The start took until 6.45 a.m., almost three hours.

The race proved to be very difficult for the drivers: the dangers from the crowd added to the thick dust cloud raised by the cars. The weather had been dry for the last two weeks, and dust covered the roads. Officials watered down just the first kilometer of road, and the short delay between cars worsened the problem. Visibility dropped to few meters, and people stand in the middle of the road to see the cars, becoming a persistent danger for the pilots.

After the first control point in Rambouillet
Rambouillet is a commune in the Yvelines department in the Île-de-France in north-central France.It is located in the suburbs of Paris southwest from the center...

, and the second in Chartres
Chartres is a commune and capital of the Eure-et-Loir department in northern France. It is located southwest of Paris.-Geography:Chartres is built on the left bank of the Eure River, on a hill crowned by its famous cathedral, the spires of which are a landmark in the surrounding country...

 the crowd became less dense. Just after Rambouillet, Louis Renault's wild race style allowed him to overcome both De Knyff and Jarrott, who were struggling for the first place but keeping a more prudent stance to avoid the crowd. Thery and Stead followed at distance, while Jenatzy's Mercedes and Gabriel's Mors were leading an incredible recovery, surpassing 25 cars and achieving a spot in the first ten drivers.

Another incredible feat was achieved by Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault was a French racing car driver and industrialist, co-founder of the car maker Renault, and the brother of Louis and Fernand Renault....

, who starting in the 60th position managed to almost reach the race leaders at the control point of Poitiers
Poitiers is a city on the Clain river in west central France. It is a commune and the capital of the Vienne department and of the Poitou-Charentes region. The centre is picturesque and its streets are interesting for predominant remains of historical architecture, especially from the Romanesque...


Outside of the leading positions, the accidents continued throughout the day; cars hit trees and disintegrated, they overturned and caught fire, axles broke and unexperienced pilots crashed on the rough roads.

The finishing line

Louis Renault reached Bordeaux at the first place at noon, while Jarrott, who was racing with a defective clutch and was troubled by mechanical problems to the engine and exhaust, arrived half an hour later followed by Gabriel, Salleron, Baras, de Crawhez, Warden, Rougier, Jenatzy and Voigt. All the drivers were physically exhausted: the cars were heavy, and required a great deal of force to maneuver. Dust made their eyes sore, and many of them had issues with the engines and got burns on their hands while fixing them. Gabriel, who left as 168th and arrived third, was later recognized as the winner when the time slips were added up.

A few big names had to withdraw, and news slowly started coming to the finishing line. Vanderbilt broke a cylider on his Mors, and had to leave the race. Baron de Caters's Mercedes, hit a tree, but was unhurt and probably was fixing the car to keep racing.
Lady race car driver Camille du Gast (Crespin) was placed as high as 8th until she stopped to help fellow driver E. T. Stead who had crashed. She finished 45th.

Rumors of accidents

News of an accident at Ablis
Ablis is a commune in the Yvelines department in north-central France.-History:During the Franco-Prussian War, when a German unit moved to take Ablis on October 7, 1870 they were ambushed and routed by about 1,500 French militia soldiers who were supported by the citizens of Ablis. In revenge, a...

 arrived: a woman was hit by a car, and wounded. This later resulted to be not true.

Someone started talking about an accident involving Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault
Marcel Renault was a French racing car driver and industrialist, co-founder of the car maker Renault, and the brother of Louis and Fernand Renault....

; with his incredibly fast pace he should have already arrived by that time, but was still missing. News arrived stating that he had an accident at Cohué Vérac, and lost consciousness. He would die 48 hours later, never leaving coma.
There is a memorial at the place where his accident occurred on the RN 10 road in the Poitou-Charentes region of France.

Porter's Wolseley was said to have been destroyed at a rail crossing: the bar was unexpectedly down, and the car hit hit, then capsized killing his mechanic.
Georges Richard hit a tree in Angoulême, trying to avoid a farmer standing in the middle of the road, and news came that in Châtellerault Tourand's Brunhot hit the spectators while avoiding a child who crossed the road. A soldier named Dupuy intervened and saved the kid, but was killed and the car lost control killing a spectator.

Further south another car left the road and went into a group of spectators. Two people were said to be killed in the crowd.

Sead, on the massive De Dietrich, lost control while overtaking another car in Saint Pierre di Palais, and got wounded. The third De Dietrich driven by Loraine Barrow crashed into a tree and was said to have blown up, wounding the pilot and killing the mechanic. Barrow was in bad health since before the race, but had to leave nevertheless since the rules forbid a pilot change.

Rolls's Panhard Levassor, Mayhew's Napier, Maurice Farman's Panhard, the Wolseleys of Herbert Austin and Sidney Girling, Béconnais's Darracq all had major technical issues, and had to retire.

Overall, half the cars had crashed or retired, and at least twelve people were presumed dead, over 100 wounded.
The actual count was lower, with eight people dead, three spectators and five racers.

The race is over

The French Parliament reacted strongly to the news: an emergency Council of Ministers was called, and forced the officers to shut down the race in Bordeaux, transfer the cars in Spanish territory and restart from the border to Madrid. The Spanish government denied permission, and the race was declared officially over in Bordeaux.

The race was called off, the cars impounded and towed to the rail station by horses by order of the French Government, and transported to Paris by train. Newspapers and experts declared the "death of sport racing". It was a common thought that no other races would be allowed, and it was right: the next race on public streets would be only in 1927 (Mille Miglia
Mille Miglia
The Mille Miglia was an open-road endurance race which took place in Italy twenty-four times from 1927 to 1957 ....


The race had a wider backlash in the automobile regulations: motions to outlaw car speeding at over 40 km/h were proposed, some of them calling for the ban to be enforced in races, too.

Public opinion is mixed

While some newspapers, such as Le Temps, used the disaster in a demagogic way to attack the car fashion and the race world, other (such as la Presse) tried to downplay the issue: just 3 "involuntary" victims, the spectators, were sacrificed on the altar of Progress.

La Libertè repelled the call for ban on sport races, since automobile manufacturing was a French pride, the socialist Petite Republique defended the car as a mean of mass empowering and freedom from work fatigue.

Le Matin supported the opinion first stated by the Marquis de Dion: speed races were useless, both as a publicity stunt and as testbed for technological improvement. The only useful races were the endurance and fuel efficiency ones. There was a bit of truth in the opinion that race cars had very few in common with common commercial cars, with their oversized engines and extreme solutions.

A specialized magazine, L'Auto, tried to reach consensus on a new set of rules for sport races: less pilots and cars, classes based on speed and power (not just weight), public placed far away from the race course.

Inquiry on the causes

The first fair and authoritative analysis came from La Locomotion Automobile, who identified the causes of the disaster. The massacre was due to a few concurrent factors:
  • Speed. Car raced at over 140 km/h, a speed not reached even by the fastest trains of the time.
  • Dust, which worsened the driving conditions for pilots and was direct cause of a few accidents.
  • Excessive and bad managed public, worsened by an inadequate crowd control and a general underestimation of the danger involved in a car race.

The police force was accused of being more interested into the race than the public safety, forgetting to intervene when people crossed the road or stand in it. The organization was kept responsible for bad choices: the random start order was a mess, since faster and more powerful cars were mixed with slower and smaller ones, causing lots of unneeded overtakes. Some pilots (suche as Mouter on De Dietrich) managed to climb almost 80 places, just because they started in the last places and had lot of small cars and amateur pilots ahead. The interval between starts was reduced to one minute only, worsening the dust problem and randomly mixing up motorcycles, voiturettes and race cars.

The rule preventing a pilot change before the race start was under scrutiny: some pilots, it was said including Marcel Renault, had health problems at the start line but had to race because the brands could not retire a vehicle, and no pilot change was possible.

Causes of accidents

The London's weekly magazine The Car verified the death claims, discovering that some of them were only rumors, and investigated the actual causes.
In the Angoulême accident killing the soldier and a spectator, it was discovered that the kid was to be blamed, having crossed the road after escaping his parents.

The accident at the rail cross occurred to Porter was a fault of the organization, since the cross was not attended: the leading hypothesis about a loss of control due to a mechanical failure was dismissed

Barrows car did not blow up: it hit a dog while avoiding another one, and crashed on a tree, but did not blow or burn. The idea of an engine exploding had great appeal on the public, but was a product of ignorance.

Marcel Renault's and Stead's accidents were the only true racing incidents, and were both due to the excessive dust impairing visibility during an overtaking. The blame was to be put only on the officers and the rules, and the death toll was deemed surprisingly low given those premises.

Political consequences

Émile Combes
Émile Combes
Émile Combes was a French statesman who led the Bloc des gauches's cabinet from June 1902 – January 1905.-Biography:Émile Combes was born in Roquecourbe, Tarn. He studied for the priesthood, but abandoned the idea before ordination. His anti-clericalism would later lead him into becoming a...

, was accused of being partially responsible, because he at last agreed to have the race held. He tried to explain that he did not know cars could be so fast and dangerous.
He said to be against any restriction on the automotive makers, and bot Parliament and Senate agreed with a formal vote.

Just a few days after the disaster, the newspaper lost interest in the Paris–Madrid race: the sport pages were all about another race, at the Ardennes racetrack the next June 22.


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