The Inventor, An Engine, A Love Story & The First Ever Race

Emile Levassor

If you are passionate about a particular topic then it is only natural that you become interested in the history and pioneers of your chosen subject. Motor racing is full of these pioneers. It is also full of urban myths, legends, dramatic stories and personal opinion.

I was interested to know when the first ever motor race took place and being interested in history (across all manner of subjects) I decided to have a look. Even in this area of motor racing history there is divided opinion, of which the reader really has to make their own mind up. Some say the first ever motor race was the Paris-Rouen race on 27th July 1894. I’ve looked into this a little bit and in my own personal opinion I don’t regard this as a race. Yes, the competitors had a start line and a finish line, but even the official announcement stated that this was “not a race”, but more of a contest or exhibition for manufacturers to showcase their cars.

Louise Sarazin

This brings me to 11th July 1895 and what I regard as The First Ever Motor Race – “The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail”. It had a back-story fit for the silver screen.

In 1886 Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, working independently of each other, invented the automobile. This particular story centres around Daimler.

It would be two years before Gottlieb Daimler would see a breakthrough with his revolutionary invention, with the help of a woman called Louise Sarazin. Sarazin herself was able to promote the Daimler car through Europe with the help of an engine manufacturer called Emile Levassor, who went on to marry Louise Sarazin and then win the first ever motor race. Just that introduction had me nodding my head and thinking, great story. So I did a bit of research….actually a lot of research….and if you’re sitting comfortably, then I shall begin.

Emile Levassor was born in Marolles-en-Hurepoix in the north of France. After graduating from Ecole Centrale Paris he began his career in manufacturing in 1872 with a company which produced wood-working machines and built gas engines. It was whilst working for this company he met and struck up a friendship with Rene Panhard. When the owner of the factory where they worked died, the two friends decided to set up their own company Panhard & Levassor, building engines.

Louise Sarazin was married to Belgian industrialist, Edouard Sarazin and when Daimler began sales in France, Monsieur Sarazin struck up a cordial relationship with Gottlieb Daimler. After some tests and experiments the two agreed, with nothing more than a handshake, that Sarazin would acquire the conditional rights to market all future inventions in the French territory.

In 1886, Panhard and Levassor were by now running one of the largest machine shops in Paris. Edouard Sarazin, who knew the pair from his studying days, visited them and persuaded them to build an engine for Daimler, under the licence that Sarazin had obtained in his agreement. Before the talks could be completed, Edouard Sarazin died from kidney disease later that year.

Louise Sarazin wrote to Gottlieb Daimler, “You will now be looking for a new representative for France,” she wrote in her first letter. “But since I am familiar with all the negotiations that have taken place up to now, and am fully informed about all the details up to the present day, I am completely at your service to help with your work until you find a suitable replacement for my husband.”

Daimler wrote back to Madam Sarazin, “As regards business matters, I am in no hurry to look for a new representative for Paris, and am glad to hear that you are fully acquainted with our business affairs and wish to assist me. I gratefully accept your offer. In addition, I perceive that you believe in my engine, just as Monsieur Sarazin did, and I can well understand that you would not like to see the fruits of your husband’s work pass into other hands. With these few lines, I wish to say that I hope to act as your husband would have wanted when I assure you that you will remain involved in the business, even if I am unable to say exactly how. At any rate, I shall not undertake anything in the near future without first seeking your advice.”

Shortly afterwards, Emile Levassor contacted the widow to ask if he should go ahead and build the engines under the Daimler patent as her husband had ordered. He received the answer to continue, and in February 1888 Louise Sarazin travelled to Cannstatt to take a closer look at Gottlieb Daimler’s invention. She was so impressed by the demonstrations that she concluded binding agreements with the German inventor on the sale of the Daimler automobile in France. She also brought a one-cylinder engine home with her.

One source was quoted as saying “Generally speaking, she travelled home with the conviction that Daimler’s attitude and the state of technology would provide the necessary basis of trust to ensure a successful future. The fact that Daimler clearly recognised the exceptional talents of this woman is an indication of how reliable his instincts were.”

Although Emile Levassor’s response to Louise Sarazin’s plans was initially somewhat guarded, she eventually managed to infect him with her enthusiasm. In October 1888, they travelled together to Cannstatt and the visit proved a great success. Emile Levassor and Gottlieb Daimler quickly hit it off and over time developed a close friendship based on mutual respect.

On 5 February 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Louise Sarazin concluded an agreement that finally paved the way for the introduction of the automobile in France. According to this, Daimler would receive 12% of the purchase price for each engine produced under licence, or whose production was authorised, by Madame Sarazin. For her part, the Frenchwoman had assigned the rights to the Daimler patents to the company Panhard & Levassor 20%, leaving herself with 8%.

Daimler’s principal designs were shown at the World Exposition in Paris between May and October 1889 and attracted considerable interest. Subsequently, bicycle manufacturer Peugeot became involved in automotive design, using the Daimler engines from Panhard & Levassor. In the report on the World Exposition published in 1890, the high-speed Daimler vehicle engine was described as a “most remarkable design”.

Other businesspeople were of the same opinion. After the exhibition, other French engineering works offered to utilise the Daimler patents under licence. But Gottlieb Daimler kept his word. On 1st November 1889, he gave Louise Sarazin a written assurance that she alone had the rights to commercialise all French and Belgian patents, on condition that they featured the Daimler name.

After that, the relationship between the businesswoman and the French carmaker deepened. They would be seen out to dinner together often, always appearing at ease with one another. Friends would comment on how happy they were, not only with the business venture going so well. Rumours began to spread that through all the time they had spent together, deeper feelings had surfaced. It had been some time since Edouard Sarazin’s death and friends of Louise hoped that she would find happiness once more. And so on 4 May 1890 Louise Sarazin and Emile Levassor married.

It was a stroke of luck for Gottlieb Daimler that the manufacturers Panhard & Levassor, and Madame Sarazin-Levassor held the Daimler licence in France. The business partners met regularly to exchange ideas. It was actually Emile Levassor who wasted no time in producing the vehicles. He was convinced that the speed of the automobiles would be the best form of advertising for Daimler engines. These proved hugely successful at the contest held between Paris and Rouen in July 1894: of the 21 vehicles in the starting field, 15 successfully reached the finish line, and nine of these were equipped with Panhard-Levassor engines built under the Daimler licence – including a 3-hp Benz Vis-à-Vis.

The First Ever Motor Race

On 11th July 1895, 30 entrants were received for the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail, which would cover a distance of 1,178km. Emile Levassor would be driving the Daimler powered by the engine he and Rene Panhard had built, the 1205cc Panhard & Levassor.

Hans Thum In His Benz/Roger Car Which Finished 5th In The Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Trail

Emile began the race sensibly. He carefully weighed up the opposition and once he was sure of the machinery he had at his disposal he quickly overtook Marquis de Dion, who had stopped to take on water for his steam powered car.

Emile Levassor And His Winning Car

Although he stopped at times to check the components of the car, Levassor arrived in Bordeaux, several hours before any driver had been expected. There was no welcoming committee or people on the streets cheering him on. The streets were quiet and everybody was in bed.

He tried in vain to find his co-driver who would be taking the car back to Paris, but he was asleep and nobody knew which hotel he was in. Levassor then woke the event organisers to prove that he had arrived and what time he had arrived at. Once these details had been recorded he sat down for a sandwich and champagne, as you would in the middle of a race, went for a walk and once refreshed he got back into his car to begin the journey back to Paris.

Whilst travelling back from Bordeaux he came across Baron Rene de Knyff, still driving to Bordeaux, who was so surprised at seeing Levassor and the time he had travelled that he nearly crashed.

After two days and two nights at the wheel, Levassor entered Paris to a much bigger reception. He averaged a speed of 24.5km/h on his journey. After the race he is quoted as saying “Some 50km before Paris I had a rather luxurious snack in a restaurant, which helped me. But I feel a bit tired.”

No podium celebration, no spraying of champagne. Levassor finished the race as calmly as he had began.

Levassor Takes Victory

It was the engine’s speed, however, that finally also proved fatal for Louise Sarazin-Levassor’s husband. At the Paris–Marseille–Paris race in September 1896, Emile Levassor was thrown from his vehicle near Avignon and seriously injured. He died from his injuries barely six months later, on 14 April 1897, at the age of 54.

Today, Emile Levassor is known in France as the ‘father of the automobile’. However, the contribution made by his later wife to the success of the invention is often ignored. Yet this businesswoman was the first Daimler licensee in France, a woman who believed in the success of the automobile, who convinced sceptics of the value of the revolutionary German invention, and who introduced Emile Levassor to Gottlieb Daimler. Such were her achievements.

A Restored Daimler-Panhard & Levassor

Race classifications:

1st – Emile Levassor (FRA) – Panhard & Levassor – 48hrs 48mins
2nd – Louis Rigoulot (FRA) – Peugeot – 54hrs 55mins
3rd – Paul Koechlin (FRA) – Peugeot – 59hrs 48 mins
4th – Auguste Doriot (FRA) – Peugeot – 54hrs 49mins
5th – Hans Thum (GER) – Benz/Roger – 64hrs 30mins
6th – Emile Mayade (FRA) – Panhard & Levassor – 72hrs 14mins
7th – Boulanger (BEL) – Panhard & Levassor – 78hrs 07mins
8th – Emile Roger (FRA) – Roger – 82hrs 48mins
9th – Amedee Bollee (FRA) – Bollee – 90hrs 03mins

See You At The Chequered Flag

Neil Simmons

Twitter: @world_racing

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