When Jules-Albert de Dion crossed the finish line five minutes ahead of everyone else in the world’s first motor car competition in 1894, he wasn’t very happy. And it wasn’t just because the first prize went to the guy behind him.
The previous year, Louis Lépine became the top civil servant at the Seine police department, covering Paris and the surrounding countryside. He wasn’t long in the job when he decided the new-fangled machines gracing the streets of the capital needed regulating. And so, on 14 August 1893, the Paris Police Ordinance took effect.
The new regulations required drivers to have number plates on their cars and adhere to a speed limit of 20km/h on country roads and 12km/h in built-up areas. It also created two other world firsts: driving tests and driving licences – the certficat de capacité de conduit d’un véhicule à moteur.
The new speed limit wouldn’t have worried you much – at least not at first. Jules-Albert de Dion averaged 20km/h over the 79 miles from Paris to Rouen – and he was in a hurry. That said, the first woman to gain a driving licence, the duchess of Uzès, was also the first person to get a speeding ticket in 1898.
The early driving tests wouldn’t have cost you much sleep either. You just had to prove you could pull away, steer, stop and have a vague idea of why you broke down. Of course, you wouldn’t have had any formal lessons – those appeared in 1917. But it wasn’t until 1935 that driving tests arrived in Britain.
Driving licences didn’t go down well with these early motoring enthusiasts. Perhaps fearing government meddling in their hobby, they formed themselves into groups.
One such group was led by the aggrieved Jules-Albert de Dion, who in 1895 founded the Automobile Club de France – a Paris gentleman’s club still in existence today.