As readers may have noticed I tend to shy away from writing on the blog on non-Grand Prix weekends. This is so that I can enjoy just a little bit of “real life”, whatever that may be. The problem with that is that motor racing has very long tentacles and, like an octopus, can grab you back whenever it so pleases.
Yesterday, I went to a brocante (or rather a brocante came to me). For those of you not familiar with the concept, a brocante is basically a jumble sale, or a flea market usually in the open air, although there are different degrees, ranging from a vide-greniers (literally, attic-emptying) to something more akin to a antique fair. This one was a mixture of the two and we happily wandered about, looking for something and nothing. In the we bought a bottle for one Euro and a postcard or two. But there were moments of weakness…
One of the first was when I spotted an original hand-coloured lithograph by Ernest Montaut, who was the first real automobile artist. The picture was damaged, but I wondered for a while whether the man selling it had any idea what it was, as it seemed rather forlorn laid out on the pavement. So I asked the price. Alas, he knew exactly what it was and proceeded to explain that this was a real bargain – because it was damaged. He wanted €300 for it, and said that at auction it would cost €750, if it was not damaged. I checked later, he was about right. But the damage was a liitle too much for me, and although he came down 50€ in the course of our two minute conversation, I was not convinced. Montaut produced only around 100 prints of each of his lithographs, and this was an historic one too, for it depicted a scene from the Paris-Madrid in 1903. This was a race which shaped the entire future of motor racing, because there were so many deaths that the racers were banned from using the open road and had to turn to using circuits instead.
In the end, I wandered off, admittedly with several backward looks.
A little later, in a different part of the market, we found a postcard stall. These are always great and so I waded through the automobile section and then took a quick look at snaps from around my neighbourhood. I was amazed to discover a postcard from 1908 with a Sizaire & Naudin racing car, swerving around a corner I know very well, in the shadow of the vast Chateau de Pierrefonds. I buy bread there. Knowing that the road in the picture led to my house, I began to wonder what this race might have been, because in those days events were few and far between. So it was soon back to the Internet to discover about a motor race in Pierrefonds in 1908.
The year had begun with a race from New York to Paris, by way of San Francisco and then by various different routes to Vladivostok, Siberia and Russia. The first two entries were still en route to Paris (where they would arrive at the end of July and then argue over who had won because they had taken two different routes) when the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the major event of the year, was held on a course near Dieppe in early July. Funnily enough, I know it well as a old F1 pal of mine lives up there. The 1908 race was famous as the first victory for Mercedes in a major race, the winning driver being Christian Lautenschlager, a man with the kind of moustache that would make current Mercedes boss Dr Dieter Zetsche jealous. The race was also notable as it was the very first Grand Prix to include a fatal accident when Henry Cissac and his mechanic Schaube were killed during the race.
The next major race in France that year was at the end of September when the Third Coupe des Voiturettes took place on a 31-mile road circuit around Compiegne. Ah ha! Surely this was the race I was looking for… It had a decent entry with Lion-Peugeots for Jules Goux, Georges Boillot and Giosue Guippone, plus a pair of Sizaire-Naudins for Louis Naudin and Georges Sizaire. But what route did the track take. It had clearly passed through Pierrefonds, but did it pass my house as well? It took a while more searching on the Web before I found a map and, to my astonishment, I discovered that yes, Chez Saward was indeed on the route taken by the racers 104 years ago.
It is amazing what you can find in jumble sales… I remembered the story of Miranda Seymour, who a few years ago bought a basketful of documents in a market and found that she had the life story (sketchy at best) of Helle Nice, the celebrated lady racer of the 1930s. This would later become the basis of her book “Bugatti Queen”.
That evening I was mulling over the Compiegne race and it struck me that there was an obvious reason why that route had been chosen. The mayor of Pierrefonds at the time was Adolphe Clement, who had been born there, but went on to build a huge industrial empire, including a very successful automobile company, which sold cars in England under the Talbot name. The firm went racing from 1903 onwards, with Adolphe’s son Albert as its chief driver. Sadly, he was killed in an accident while preparing for the 1907 Grand Prix in Dieppe.
Adolphe went on being the mayor of Pierrefonds until the war in 1914, when he handed over the role to Carlo Bugatti (father of Ettore). The Clement-Bayard company eventually went out of business and the assets were absorbed into Peugeot.
Clement died in 1928 and is buried on the family property, which is now a hotel.
I must look him up…
Oh well, a day away from racing… not quite as intended!