1904 Gordon Bennett Cup

Following the cessation of city-to-city races in 1903 after the tragical Paris-Madrid run, the 1904 season saw several major events on closed circuits taking place successfully: the Circuit of the Ardennes in Belgium, the Florio Cup in Sicily and the Vanderbilt Cup in the United States. But the race that proved to be the most popular, the most awaited and the most coveted undoubtedly remained the Gordon Bennett Cup.
As Camille Jenatzy won the 1903 edition for Mercedes the baton was passed to Germany to host the event, which attracted the attention of Emperor Wilhelm II.
The Emperor, himself a keen motorist, saw in this the possibility of placing the German industry at the forefront; he made it a question of prestige, as much for his country as for himself.
Therefore Germany set up a Gordon Bennett Committee with 15 people, headed by His Highness Adolf Friedrich Duke of Mecklenburg. Possible routes were devised. The Emperor chose his place of summer residence – the Taunus. The emperor, an “amateur archaeologist” one might say, had recently had the Saalburg Roman fort rebuilt there. At his request, a grandstand in the style of a Roman circus was built there. The construction costs for this grandstand alone amount to 95,000 gold marks, which is equivalent to around 350,000 euros today. 2500 spectators were able to sit on this grandstand. Below the rows of seats are restaurants, a post office, press rooms, the fire station, flower and souvenir shops. At one end, a bridge with a scoreboard spans between the stands, on which a painter writes down the times, according to the telephone operators. In the middle of the west, about two metres above street level, the Emperor’s Box was erected. Admission to the grandstand costs 50 marks (about EUR 240 today).
100 of the most modern and accurate chronometers have been purchased, electric wires for contact timing are installed in the race track. There were 1000 assistants, police and military personnel who were ready to close the track.
Schools are closed on race day by order of the Emperor. For eight days, 20 sweepers and 150 street sweepers are on the road. “Westrumit”, a mixture of oil and asphalt, is sprayed at local and spectator passages to prevent dust formation. The process alone swallowed up around 120,000 gold marks (roughly EUR 570,000). As there are no petrol stations, 27 “petrol and oil stations” are set up and the standard price for petrol is set at 1.36 marks per litre, which corresponds to around 6.50 euros per litre.

The Route
The route in the Taunus was driven counter-clockwise. The start is at the Saalburg fort, near Bad Homburg. The course is 137.5 km long, of which 127.24 km are classified (neutralisation in Usingen, Weilburg, Limburg, Idstein, Esch, Königstein, Oberursel, Homburg), making a total of 508.96 km which are classified. The difference in altitude is 445 metres. A great deal of effort is put into improving the course, such as filling in road ditches, elevating curves, bypassing railway crossings (Oberursel), widening roads, building overpasses and subways, setting up 20 km of wire mesh barriers for spectators, building 17 makeshift bridges for pedestrians, which are also boarded up man-high so that potential spectators do not strain them to bursting point.
In the eight neutralised towns, 115 cyclists ensure slow travel to guarantee the same passage time for all racers (56 minutes in total for all neutralisations). It’s a very simple system, because the rider is simply not allowed to overtake the cyclist assigned to him/her in the town passage.
During winter, 1903 Goerges Prade (Paris) and Henry Fournier check out the route. Their comment: “A real mountain route, partly wrested from the rock faces. Terrible climbs and descents, …curves and double curves that are constantly repeated … that a bad car can’t win here at all…. This will be a race of brakes”. On 19 May 1904 – as a last resort, so to speak – a motorcade of seven cars with ministers, government presidents, district councillors and mayors drove the course, and barely four weeks before the race, the district administrator cleared the course for a training session. Jenatzy, however, has been learning the route by heart for eight weeks.
The run-up to the race
Naturally Elimination Trials were held in France, England and the USA. In France Leon Thery driving an imposing 80-hp Richard Brasier signalled an era of change. He was accompanied by Henri Rougier (Turcat Méry) and Jacques Salleron (Mors). ” Mercedes was out in full force: there were two German-built Simplex racers and three others put together in Austria by the local Daimler subsidiary – as the rules stipulated that all cars had to be made in a certain country, but the origin of design was never specified. The third German entrant was Friederich “Fritz” Opel with an Opel Darracq.
In addition to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, wearing yellow and black, there were contestants from Italy (black) and Belgium as well. Altogether 19 entries were registered.

The race was set to take place on the 17th of June. On the 16th the technical scrutineering and weighing took place on the municipal scales in front of the fire station in Elisabethenstrasse in Bad Homburg. Dr Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing is in charge of the scales. He asks the drivers to make a “declaration of honour” about the origin of the vehicles. He reports: “The vehicles must have a horizontal exhaust, two brakes, one of which acts on the rear wheels, as well as reverse running. Having made these observations, each car was numbered, marked on the radiator, respectively sealed, and stamped on the axles, on the frame and on four wheels.” Edge drained petrol on his Napier (into the gutter!!) before the weigh-in, as the car has to be weighed “dry”. A little further down, someone lit a cigar and the fire, started by a match, made its way up to the Napier. Fortunately, it can be extinguished quickly, as the fire station is opposite. The sole entry from Switzerlend, the Dufaux fell off the scales and it broke its steering. Some reports said it was an accident, other talked about sabotage – either way, the car could not have been repaired on time.

The race

On 17 June 1904, the day of the race, the weather was “imperial”. About one million spectators were at the track. Jenatzy was the first to take off at 7 AM. He started in “steam and smoke” and shows a daredevil driving style right from the start. De Caters, also on Mercedes was 14 minutes late due to an ignition short circuit. Fritz von Opel has a false start and has to be pushed back. Another mechanical error put him out of the race after only eight kilometres. One minute before 9.00 a.m. all the race cars have started.
“In many places along the streets enterprising natives have erected small grandstands or covered spectator seats, and there will be merry life there with cool beer fresh from the barrel or cider,” reported Automobilwelt.
The Pipe by de Crawhez and the Turcat Méry by Henri Rougier broke down with puncture. Also both Lancia and Cagno (both F.I.A.T.) had to change tyres already in the first lap. The Austrian Daimler also had punctures. Edge had to repair the ignition, Augières retired after the first lap. The Mercedes makes the Saalburg climb from what is now called the “Horex curve” at an incredible 90 km/h. At the end of the first lap, Jenatzy is one second slower than Théry, the slowest is de Crawhez, now an hour behind.
Second lap: The spectators see the fastest with a top speed of 135 km/h and more! Jenatzy drives unsteadily, Théry lives up to his name “M. Chronomètre”. Edge has a steering failure near Limburg, Jarrott‘s throttle fails, his mechanic switches off the ignition before each corner to reduce the speed. On the straight, the only way to regulate the speed is by shifting gears. The engine over-revs, tooth failure in third gear, radiator pipes break, water has to be topped up at every check. Last but not least, the Wolseley has a broken chain, which injures Bianchi, the mechanic. The latter had been lying under the car in an accident last year. During refuelling, a helper also drops the jerrycan on him. The engine of Gaining’s Wolseley sounds sickly, but it holds. After the second lap, there is already a two-minute gap between Théry and Jenatzy. On the third lap, a fan blade breaks on the Richard Brasier. Théry quickly broke them all off so that the car could run smoothly again. Théry no longer drives, he juggles. He plays with the car, the track and with his life. Jenatzy is annoyed, has starting problems at the control in Limburg, stalls the engine and loses minutes. Storero (F.I.A.T.) drops out (broken sprocket shaft). After completing the third lap, Jenatzy is already eight minutes behind Théry. “Der Motorwagen” later reports: “Jenatzy went through the controls twice where petrol was provided. After a kilometre of stoppage, the mechanic had to run back to get petrol.” On the final lap Edge and de Crawhez fail for good, Cagno loses half an hour changing tyres, Théry sets the fastest lap. Jenatzy arrives at the Saalburg ahead of him with the last drop of petrol in the tank.
But Théry won the prize by eleven minutes. The people cheer, the Emperor congratulates a French delegation including Brasier, the designer of the winning car, and the chairman of the ACF Baron Zuylen. Shouts of “Vive la France!” and “Vive l’ Empereur!” rang out. The two winners drive up, the Emperor applauds. Even before de Caters crosses the finish line in third place at 4.15 p.m., the Emperor leaves the Saalburg for Bad Homburg.
The race began at 7.00 in the morning and ended between 4.00 and 4.30 pm. The drivers had been at the wheel for almost ten hours, including neutralisation. Twelve of the 18 cars that started finished the race. No accident, no injured or dead. The race was a success for everyone: France had the victory and the cup. Germany gave the world a first-class track.