1902 Gordon Bennett Cup

After two failures in 1900 and 1901, was it really worth continuing to run the Gordon Bennett Cup? The question was seriously debated among the management of Automobile Club de France. It was obvious that an international race in which competitors from all over the world were face another, and in which the French easily won without putting in a very notable performance had little chance of success. It was considered that foreign participation will be kept to a minimum, but the A.C.F. went ahead with the Cup one more time. Just like in 1901 it was to be held within the framework of another event – the Paris-Vienna city-to-city race, which was organised by A.C.F. together with the Österreichische Automobil-Club.  The four day long international city to city race was accompanied by an eight day touristic drive. To adhere regulations the Gordon Bennett Cup was only held over the portion of the longer race from Paris to Innsbruck. While the official route of the Gordon Bennett Cup went to Innsbruck, the racers were free to continue to Vienna and to participate in the full Paris-Vienna  race as well.

Five crews took part in the Cup. There were three French teams (Fournier in a Mors, de Knyff in a Panhard & Levassor and Girardot in a C.G.V.) and two Brits,  Napier and Wolseley.

Italians, such as Fiat, did not yet have a competitive vehicle prepared for the Gordon Bennett Cup. In Germany, only Mercedes had a suitable machine, but they were not interested in participating. There were no serious American candidates available.

Going back to the Brits. Napier wanted to improve on their previous performance, when their Gordon Bennett car was so heavy that the British tires could not cope with the load, so they were forced to use French Michelin tires, which meant that the car did not qualify for the Gordon Bennett Cup.
For 1902, everything was better, the Napier, driven by S.F. Edge was one of the lighter cars in the large class. The engine was quite small with a displacement of 6.5-liters, and the gearbox had to make do with three speeds.
Wolseley built three cars for the race, and all three went to Paris for the start of the race. Two were of the 30 HP model, featuring a 6435 cc, four-cylinder flat engine type, while the third was a 45 HP , featuring a 8340 cc three cylinder engine built in transversely. The “underslung” frame was also very innovative.  As uncertainty hung around the Gordon Bennett race for a long time, it was not decided whether it could be integrated into the Paris-Vienna race, so building the three Wolseley race cars was delayed, as there were supposedly large orders from the Admiralty that had to be completed first. As a result, all three cars were ready just before the race and were driven to Paris at the very last minute. The 45 HP was withdrawn before the start because of serious mechanical problems, so only the two 30 HP cars had a chance to take part in the race.

The start of the race took place on the 26th of June at dawn. Large crowds converged to Fort de Champigny, which was 17 km east of Paris on the road to Nancy, many of them having started the trek during the 25th. People came by train, but they also traveled on bicycles and in touring cars. There were spectators who did not stop at the Fort, but traveled further afar looking for the perfect vantage point. All the restaurants and cafes were open that night, making huge business. Booths were set up all along the course providing food and beverages for the spectators.

Every two minutes another participant started the journey. Altogether, 138 cars and motorcycles set off from the Fort.

For the first 10 kilometers, the course was lined with more than 250,000 spectators, but that didn’t stop the drivers from driving through this wall of people at high speed. Fournier immediately set a very high pace. In Ozoir, 11.5 km after the start, the first retirements occurred.

A journalist from the “L’Auto Velo” daily  had set up measuring points on a 200 meter long stretch about 35 kilometers after the start to record the speeds of the individual participants. The first to pass was Fournier, who needed 6 seconds for the 200 meter-long stretch, meaning his speed was 120 km/h. Fastest on this section was René de Knyff with 5s 3/5, meaning approximately 123 km/h, ahead of the two Farman brothers, who were only slightly slower than De Knyff but faster than Fournier.

The Paris-Belfort railway track was partly alongside the road. Journalists who rode in a special train to Belfort, where the first stage finished, were able to observe that Fournier was going considerably faster than their express train! But his race was cut very short by mechanical problems and he had to retire before the end of the first stage.

As a footnote it is worth noting that the official starting list says that all three Wolseley cars were withdrawn. However it is not true. Herbert Austin’s Wolseley had a broken crankshaft, which was replaced on site. Ten and a half hours after the official start, Graham White and Herbert Austin set off. By this time, however, the starting grid had been vacated, and there was no timekeeper or other official available. They arrived in Belfort at night, and, after a short stop, they drove on to Bregenz. They were not officially in the race, but they pressed on anyhow. It was during the second stage after the Arlberg Pass that the crankshaft broke again, and they had to give up for good.

When the 45 HP Wolseley was withdrawn, it freed up the place for Napier as the third British entrant. After the first stage it remained the only British participant.

In Troyes, about 140 kilometers after the start Girardot had to give up on his C.G.V.. The fuel tank started leaking and a hasty repair only aggravated the problem, which then led to the inevitable conclusion. Fournier had to give up the race during the first stage as well. Both De Knyff and Edge got through the first stage without any major problems. De Knyff had absolutely no problems and was the fastest by the time they got to Belfort. Edge on the Napier, of course, couldn’t match the speed of the much stronger Panhards, but, for the first three hundred kilometers of the stage, the car ran better than ever. A flat tire then led to serious problems. The air pump for the tire did not work. Even the spare pump proved to be broken. Luckily another racer lent him his air pump so he was able to repair his tire and drive on. Since a repair of the gearbox on the way from London to Paris was not entirely satisfactory, Edge drove only in first and third gear. From the puncture on, there were no more problems until Belfort, where he crossed the stage finish line in eleventh place overall.

The second stage of the Paris-Vienna race, saw only De Knyff and S.F. Edge competing for the Gordon Bennett Cup. As de Knyff was dominating the first stage, he was set to be a surefire winner of the Gordon Bennett Cup. He was the first to start from Bregenz in the morning, and he seemed to cross the Arlberg without a problem. However, about 50 kilometers before Innsbruck at Oberinnthal his gears broke in the differential housing, and  it was impossible for him to continue. Jarrott described in his memoirs: “nothing checked our course down the mountain until we came upon a blue Panhard, similar to our own, deserted by the side of the road, and we immediately recognized it as the car belonging to De Knyff who had obviously abandoned the race…. The last hope of France retaining the Gordon-Bennett Cup was lost”.

Jarrott drove on and a short time later met Edge with his Napier at a closed level crossing with several cars waiting to go on. He informed Edge, with whom he had been friends for a long time, that he had but to finish in Innsbruck, fifteen kilometres away, to be declared the winner of the Gordon-Bennett Cup.

The day didn’t start particularly well for Edge. At the start in Bregenz he found out that all four of his cars’ tires were flat. So he had to patch the tires first and, therefore, started late. About 20 kilometers after the start in Bregenz, when he wanted to overtake another car, he did not see a curve in front of a bridge because of the dust cloud, so he drove straight down a small slope into a river bed.  However, there was no serious damage to the vehicle. But Edge faced a problem: the regulations stipulated that no help could be accepted from third parties. Using outside help will lead to disqualification. At this point there were quite a few spectators who were very willing to help. After what Edge later said to the press, he first examined his Napier and found out that no damage had been made and that he only had to bring the vehicle back to the road. As mentioned, there were quite a few people willing to help who would have pushed the car back to the road. The reports state that Edge and his cousin Cecil, his passenger, would have had great difficulty in keeping the volunteers from pushing the Napier back onto the road. The river was not deep at this point and the car had stopped on the bank. The bank was also relatively shallow, so Edge was able to drive the car back up under its own power at the same point where it had left the road. At least that’s what Edge said later during interviews. Other reports claimed that either 40 soldiers pushed the car up out of the river or a large number of bystanders did their best. This incident was reason enough for parts of the French press and also some officials to demand Edge’s disqualification. In Vienna after the final stage, someone suggested that Edge had Michelin hoses with Michelin valves in his car and that, of course, was against the rules that Gordon Bennett competitors could only use parts for their car that were made in the same country. This was investigated, and the car was found to have Dunlop hoses and valves. The valves looked very similar to Michelin valves.

It took a lot of time to announce the winner of the Gordon Bennett Cup. A protest was lodged and S.F. Edge only became the winner when René de Knyff declared that in his opinion Edge had won the Gordon Bennett race, and that he would never appeal against it.

From the French side reasons were sought as to why they lost the Cup to Britain. Companies were accused that their cars were not sufficiently tried and tested. But this was also true for the British cars as well. Neither the Wolseleys, nor the Napier, had any test miles under their belts.

Thus, just as happened during the previous Cup, the 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup was finished by just one competitor! Edge then continued the race as a normal participant in the Paris-Vienna race.