1903 Gordon Bennett Cup

Gordon Bennett race in Ireland, July 2, 1903. Camille Jenatzy at the wheel of the 60 hp Mercedes Simplex. Source: Mercedes Classic

The 1902 race was won by S.F. Edge in his Napier car. Therefore in accordance with the competition rules, England was to host the 1903 race. And they made sure the Gordon Bennett Cup got the treatment it deserved. As road racing was forbidden in England, the organisers looked to Ireland for a suitable racecourse.

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”.

The Race created a circuit, rather than the city-to-city races that had preceded it. The course chosen for the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup was centred on Athy. It consisted of an Eastern circuit of 40 miles (64 km) which the competitors tackled first followed by a Western circuit of 51 7/8 miles (83.5 km). The road from Athy to Ballyshannon where the start and finishing lines were located was common to both circuits. Each circuit was lapped three times with an extra lap of the Western circuit so that the racing cars passed through Athy seven times.

For the first time in the history of the Cup Elimination Trials had to be held in England and France as there were too many applicants.

Eventually twelve competitors representing Germany, France, England and the USA took part in the race on Wednesday 2 July 1903. At that time there were just 250 cars in Ireland, so many of the spectators may never have seen a car before, certainly they had never seen a racing car.  Tented villages were established round the course for the benefit of spectators. Hotels were full and some 700 people spent the night before the race in tents at a “canvas village” near the course. Enterprising locals also erected viewing stands at suitable locations around the course. A number of the viewing stands took the shape of bridges across the road with seated accommodation, including a special viewing box for the Lord Lieutenant, the chief representative of the King of England in Ireland, along with his party.

The race began at Ballyshannon, Co. Kildare, where a grandstand was provided to accommodate 1,000 spectators. The course distance was 327.5 miles with four laps of a circuit taking in Ballyshannon, Kilcullen, Kildare, Monasterevin, Stradbally and Athy alternating with three laps of a smaller circuit in Kilcullen, Carlow and Athy. Each car passed twice through Athy on each circuit.

Here is a report from The Automotor Journal: “As Edge, who was appointed to start first, took up his position in his car at four minutes to six a volley of clapping greeted him which drew general attention to the imminent starting of the great race. At seven to the second Major Lloyd gave the send-off, the firing of the pistol speedily bringing the few who were not already watching the scene intently up to the nearest point of advantage, and with set and determined face the holder of last year’s cup shot under the grand stand at good speed to work up to a splendid pace before the end of the oiled portion of the course was reached, the car disappearing in a cloud of dust over the extreme point of the rising ground on which the start was made. Then came a wait of seven minutes, which seemed four times as long. A shake-hand from a compatriot and the Chevalier de Knyff on the first Panhard was off. He was not as quick to pick up speed as Edge, but fine travelling was made before he was out of sight. Owen on the first American car then wheeled into place so quietly that its exceptional power of making itself heard by means of its exhaust could hardly be thought possible. There was a sportsmanlike “God speed” from Jarrott, and the next moment Owen had slipped in his clutch, moving slowly away in strong contrast to the previous competitors. The intervals, although in each case the full seven minutes, seemed to grow shorter as each car came up to the line.
It seemed as if No. 3 had hardly got away before the first German Mercedes car was in place. Jenatzy was the driver of No. 4, he receiving a tumultuous send-off from his good-wishers. As with the other competitors, a salvo of applause greeted his departure, which, so far, appeared the best “get-away”.
Following the lead of one observant individual, the occupants of the Grand Stand as each car passed under turned as one man (or woman) and peered through the spaces left between the planks to watch the disappearing racer over the top of the rise as it seemed to plunge head first into a belt of trees. The sight was a very remarkable one.
Jarrott was soon settled comfortably and listening to the last warning words of the starter, and with eyes fixed on his straight path, merely to be turned aside momentarily as a crash on his right announced the collapse of a huge branch of a tree which, being loaded beyond reason with human freight, had taken this drastic method of signifying its objection, Jarrott was on his way, with a splendid start. Gabriel, the hero of Paris-Madrid, then wheeled into place on the Mors car, and at the word “go,” surrounded by a halo of exhaust, he literally jumped away and seemed to score the quickest start up to that moment. Mooers, on the wire-bonneted Peerless, with a tiny American flag pinned over his heart, was instantly in place ready for his turn. A turn of the starting handle tested the ignition. Then, as the time drew near, another try and stoppage caused a momentary cloud of anxiety to pass over the American’s face. At the word “go,” with the pushed assistance of his mechanician, he got away poorly. Two or three seconds lapsed before he was fairly under way, and then, greeted with ringing cheers as his engine settled down to work, he moved slowly away. With a last look over the car for a little final adjustment, Baron de Caters, on the 8th car, another Mercedes, was sent on his round—a grand start. By this time 55 minutes had been consumed, and the turn of the last representative of England came. Stocks, the selected driver, was instantly ready for his share towards endeavouring to ensure that the Cup should remain in the British Islands, and, as far as a look of human determination could Indicate, his part in the day’s triumph – or the reverse as the case might be – was to be reckoned with. After a rather halting start he made up for loss of time before he reached the top of the rise, and speed was expressed in the bumping of the car as it passed out of sight, the density of dust beyond the oiled portion of the road by this time having considerably abated. Congratulations from all sides were waiting for Henry Farman, on the second of the Panhards, as his engine, impatient to get to work, fired off volleys of explosions. His official number in the race was 10, but his old Paris-Madrid number, 51, was still faintly visible upon the radiator. Then canie a second of keen disappointment as his engine stopped. A rush of help, a fresh turn of the handle, and Farman had disappeared from view, almost before the echoes of the encouraging hurrahs had died away.
Rumours of something wrong with Winton’s big car caused a sympathetic murmur to pass round the intensely interested onlookers, intensified, as his car, No. 11, was pushed to the side of the starting line where he on one side of the car, and his mechanician on the other, set to work with a will to remedy the evil – ignition troubles. Although Winton declared he could not start, he and his assistant worked on manfully, and a sigh of sympathy was heard from those in the immediate neighbourhood of the car who knew the ill-luck with which he had been visited. By then the word was passed for Foxhall Keene to come forward as the last German representative and the last of the competing cars. He was away – slowly – by 8.17, after a stop and re-start of the engine, losing thereby some 17 or 18 seconds. The starting of the eleven cars altogether occupied 1 hr. 17 mins. With the disappearance of the last car over the ridge the spectators turned their thoughts to matters of much interest to them, to wit—refreshments. Meanwhile absolute clearance of the course was enforced, and it was hardly grasped by the public that Edge in the first car was already in sight on the long straight stretch, finishing up at the Club Enclosure. At 8.23, Edge simply flew past, his front wheels leaving the ground a full half foot at the slightest inequality of the road. But Britain’s champion was travelling fast, and it could hardly have been possible for him to hear the ringing cheers which were literally hurled at him as he again disappeared on his round of the Western Circuit, almost, it seemed, before he had been sighted.
And still Winton worked on steadily, his engine coughing huskily at each fresh attempt to start it. “ Car in sight, car in sight,” came a stupendous shout, at 8.33 a.m., and De Knyff, on his Panhard, was upon us, and was then gone after Edge who, however, had already close on four minutes in hand. Hope for Britain retaining the Cup was strong, especially as De Knyff was not traveling so fast. And still Winton stood to his guns. An official suggestion that he should change his position from the course to a side road brought from him a reminder that he was “in the race,” “on the course,” and “ doing time,” and competitors must pass round him as best they might, as he would have to get round them. Well deserved applause followed Winton’s sally, as he had placed his car as near the bank edge as it was possible to force it, and by way of further reply his engine began to cough more vigorously. Nos. 3 and 4 – the small Winton and Jenatzy’s Mercedes – passed within 30 yards of each other about a quarter of an hour after De Knyff, the Mercedes drawing further upon the small difference dividing them before the pair disappeared in the distance. As they were passing, Winton’s stranded car gave forth a continuous volley of explosions, as if urging on its sister car. Possibly encouraged by the efforts of the smaller member of the family, Winton’s new “Bullet” at last, at 8.58, answered to the persuasion of his owner, and passed away on the first round to the encouragingly vociferous cheers of the masses, who thus gave vent to their admiration of the American’s pluck. Within 3 1/2 minutes, Jarrott, travelling in grand style, followed up the Winton. A good rest came before the next car was signalled, and then, with the aid of glasses, Gabriel was sighted on the straight, passed at 9.5, and was out of sight under f of a minute, 7 minutes to the bad on Edge’s time for the first round. De Caters-received the next greeting, and with calm sang froid he waved his arm in courteous acknowledgment of the cheers. The honour of admission to the contest for the much-coveted Cup is well bestowed upon such men.
Although it would have pleased the public to have seen Stocks, whose turn it was to come next, Henry Farman, as he sped past for the first round on his Paris-Madrid Panhard, was received with as much enthusiasm as if he had been the first to re-pass the starting point. Foxhall Keene, well up to time, arrived by 10.30, driving in perfect. style. Edge, from the big circuit, keeping splendid time and travelling without a waver, flashed past at the stroke of 10, having covered the complete circuit in the net time of 1 hour 53 mins. 26 secs. Six minutes separated De Knyff from Edge on this round. Mooers appeared for the first time from the start at 10.11, having had ill-luck at Athy. Jenatzy, eight minutes later, had completed his full-circuit,, in 1 h. 50 m. 17 s. net. At the time of the cars passing only the gross times were available, and the very uncertainty as to which of the cars were best on net, time, although in a measure it detracted from the enthusiastic interest of the various supporters of each nation, was at the same time compensated for by the lack of general interest which would have resulted from the knowledge that any particular competitor was a long way ahead.
Winton, on the larger car, was timed for the eastern circuit at 10.30, which made his gross time 2 h. 20 m., allowing for the very late start made by him. Taking, however, the time elapsed from his actual start his speed was not such as to make his competition a serious element in the contest. Owen, on the other Winton, after covering the western circuit, had got into the same stretch of road with his “ stable companion,” a “ bunch ” looking likely at Kilcullen Corner when in two minutes Gabriel followed close upon his heels. By this time the fact that Stocks was still missing from his first round of the Eastern Circuit, and that Jarrott had not yet finished the double circuit, gave rise to a feeling of regret that Great Britain had only one good string left to her bow, this feeling was emphasised as at this moment a private wire came through from Stradbally to say Jarrott was knocked out, followed about ten minutes later by a cheer of relief when Baron de Caters stopped his car on his next round to impart the gratifying news that, although Jarrott’s car was smashed up, this popular driver had escaped with only trifling injury. Farman, by 11.8, had finished his complete circuit, and sped away, if anything, more speedily than on his first passing. At 11.23 De Knyff came through, commencing his third circuit, and was followed quickly at 11.34 by Keene, and at 11.37 by Jenatzy driving superbly.
At a tew minutes to twelve Edge revived the flagging British hopes by speeding past in magnificent style. If cheers could have given him victory he would have been adjudged the winner forthwith by the mighty ovation which was accorded him. Gabriel, on the Mors, although reported to have broken down, was, apparently, travelling well when he was timed at 6 minutes past 12. Not one of the least interesting features of the race was the big rush which took place towards the edge of the course from the remotest points of the enclosure and fields adjoining the course as the signal was given that a car was sighted.
About midday a thunderstorm threatened, and the announcement at the same time of luncheon caused a general adjournment to the refreshment tents. An
excellent repast put everybody into a more contented state of mind and body, especially as, fortunately, the threatened storm was a false alarm. Presently, however, the rain started and created an immediate stampede from the Grand Stand and Enclosure. In the meantime the cars were travelling past at short intervals the Mercedes, continuing their steady pace, already indicating one of them as a probable winner of the Cup. At 1.15 the rain started in earnest for a short space of time and the surface of the course began very quickly to show the effect. New interest now in the half-over race was immediately apparent, and speculation rife as to the likely effect the sudden change might have upon the various cars remaining in. By the half hour, Winton who was still pegging away, passed, Gabriel, Edge, de Caters, and Farman following at intervals in the order named. Keene gave up at Kilcullen, after doing three circuits owing to a broken axle. Soon after 2 the sun shone out once more, and mackintoshes and other unsightly wraps disappeared as if by magic, varied-hued sunshades taking their place, the scene once more presenting a brilliant picture of softly blended colours, only, however, to give place later to a gradually increasing wind which made itself felt particularly on the elevated part of the Grand Stand and threatened destruction to the timekeeper’s tent. At 3 o’clock Gabriel finished his fifth circuit, Winton, at 4 minutes past the hour, finishing his third. The drivers still remaining in, steadily persevered with their self-imposed labours, and, watching the bumping and erratic movements of the vehicles as they flew past, one and all marvelled that machinery could hang together under such stress. But the admiration for the men who were able to stand the awful strain of driving the cars for ten or eleven hours on end, relieved only by the short intervals of rest afforded by the controls, was expressed by silent wonder for want of words to convey an adequate appreciation of their endurance. De Caters, at 3.13, passed, followed soon after by Farman, Edge completing his fifth circuit at 3.34. Owen at 3.42 finished his third circuit, and at 3.57 de Knyff started his last and seventh lap, sending his machine along as if he had only just commenced. Jenatzy completed his sixth lap at two minutes past four, and was the second man to start on the last round. Starting with about nine minutes to the good, bar accidents, he looked like lifting the Cup. The other last laps were timed away—Gabriel at 4.43, de Caters 4.51, with Farman a minute after close on his heels, both simply flying over the road, and Edge at 6 o’clock. Owen was again seen at 5.32 with de Knyff only half a minute behind him finishing his seventh and last round. The cheers had barely died away before the winner of the Cup, Jenatzy, was sighted in the distance, he passing the winning post at 5.36. The first to congratulate him was Mr. Gray Dinsmore, the owner of the car and the representative of America on the International Cup Commission. At 5.49 Winton again passed, followed ten minutes afterwards by Edge completing his sixth round, Gabriel starting his last lap at 6.20. Farman at 6.30 finished his race, and six minutes past 7, with Owen not signalled, the International Commission determined to declare the race over”