A Bet

The origins of the Gordon Bennett Cup can be traced back to a bet Alexander Winton made in 1899. A Scottish immigrant, who settled in Cleveland he first offered bicycles from 1891. Later his interest was piqued by self-propelled four-wheeled vehicles – automobiles. In 1896 he presented his first prototype and set up Winton Motor Carriage Company a year later. It became arguably the first American company to sell an automobile to the general public with the introduction of the Winton Six in 1898. The Six was the most powerful and technologically advanced vehicle of its time.

Like many of his contemporary colleagues, Winton raced his cars. He even made a an endurance drive from New York to Cleveland. It took 11 days to complete the 800 mile journey with over 3 days of time spent behind the wheel. When his average speed of 17.6 mph (28.32 km/h) was compared to recent city-to-city races in France, Winton said that the comparison was unfair due to the poor quality of America’s roads in the same publication.

In order to prove that his automobiles were superior to the cars from Europe, Winton sent a challenge to Fernand Charron, winner of the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris and the 1899 Paris-Bordeaux races in France. A mediator was brought in to negotiate the terms of the race, Gordon Bennett.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.

James Gordon Bennett Jnr (born New York, 1841, died Beaulieu, France, 1918) was a very rich, ‘gilded-age’ playboy, sportsman and newspaperman, who lived out his larger-than-life personas. internationally. As a young man he threw himself into the pastimes of his age: alcohol, sex, gambling, horses, yachts. Spending the first half of his life in New York, with a handful of adolescent years in Paris, a scandal in his personal life in 1877 left him persona non grata in Mrs Astor’s New York salon society, and he chose to spend the greater part of his time in France, although this ‘exile’ was not as complete as certain authors have implied.

Neither France nor America was a big enough arena to contain his vision or ambitions, and his career as a press baron and promoter of sports in France, Europe and worldwide gave him an international stage on which to play out his ceaseless inventiveness.

As a newspaperman, Bennett was an early internationalist: in the late 1860s in the United States, he took over the ownership and directorship of his father’s New York Herald, America’s top daily, famously sending the explorer Henry Stanley to find Dr David Livingstone (1869−71) in ‘darkest Africa’. Another equally ambitious but less successful international venture intended to promote both international discover and his paper’s prosperity was sending his boat Jeannette, in
1878, on the ill-fated expedition led by George Washington De Long to the Arctic in search of a ‘geothermic gateway’ to the open polar sea through the Bering Strait. She was slowly crushed in the ice, and two-thirds of those aboard perished in the winter of 1881.

In 1887, now based in Paris, he founded a distinctively separate paper, titled the ‘European Edition of the New York Herald’, making it the most technologically advanced paper of its day, at least in Europe, with an international audience, international coverage and international values. Bennett was a technological innovator, introducing new techniques to French and European media, as well as ‘creating’ the news through the promotion of new sports and competitions. He constantly sought new ways of speeding up news-gathering and news distribution on an international scale.

Bennett was instrumental in causing the second direct telegraph cable between the USA and Britain and France (1884) to be laid, with the objective of breaking Western Union’s then monopoly, and later employed the hitherto little known Guglielmo Marconi to report on the 1899 America’s Cup races by ship-to-shore wireless telegraphy, giving his papers a potentially competitive edge in sports reporting, or at the very least a big publicity coup. As well as using innovative technologies as a means of gaining an edge on his competitors in more standard rubrics of current affairs news and reporting, Bennett’s contributions were crucial in ‘internationalising’ sport and society through the Paris Herald as it developed into a leading site of internationalism.

As skipper of his own yacht, Bennett the sportsman had won the first ever transatlantic race under full sail in December 1866. From 1870 onwards, as the youngest ever vice-commodore, then commodore, of the New York Yacht Club, he was instrumental in setting up the defence of the America’s Cup as a race between US and British representatives, now one of the great international races. He also sponsored many nascent sports in the US and Europe by founding competitions through donating expensive challenge cups, and in 1895 he organised both the first undisputed US amateur tennis championship and the first US open tennis championship at his Newport Country Club.

He died aged 77, virtually bankrupt, having spent an estimated $40 million during his lifetime.

(taken from Hugh Derek Dauncey and Geoff Hare: Cosmopolitanism united by electricity and sport: James Gordon Bennett Jnr and the Paris Herald as sites of internationalism and cultural mediation in belle epoque France. In: French Cultural Studies, February, 2014)

The Gordon Bennett Cup

For the Winton-Charron race Gordon Bennett offered a special cup, a ‘valuable  objet d’art”, depicting a racing Panhard steeered by the Genius of Progress, with the Goddess of Victory upright upon the seat. It was created André Aucoc, a well-known Parisian jeweller.

The Winton-Charron match never realised, but Gordon Bennett decided that the cup should be given to the winner of a forthcoming ‘Coupe Internationale’ instead. He presented Aucoc’s masterpiece to the Automobile Club de France to whom he also entrusted the drafting of the rules, and the staging of the first contest of the new series.

The Gordon Bennett Cup for cars was held between 1900 and 1905.

By 1906 Gordon Bennett’s interest had shifted to above the ground and he established the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning (Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett) and three years later Bennett offered a trophy for the fastest speed on a closed circuit for airplanes.