22 July 1894: Paris to Rouen motor car competition

Cover image of Le Petit Journal Illustrated Supplement © Getty images
Paris to Rouen without horses

If you’ve ever negotiated the Périphérique around Paris, you’ll know that wishing to see more cars around the French capital is masochistic. But that’s exactly what Le Petit Journal set out to do on this day in 1894.

The previous December, the newspaper’s editor under the nom de plume of Jean sans Terre (real name Pierre Giffard) announced with fin-de-siècle pomp a “concours des voitures sans chevaux” from Paris to Rouen. This competition for ‘cars without horses’ is often cited as the world’s first motor race.

Only, it wasn’t really a race at all. It was a competition for engineers – both professional and amateur – to showcase “the vehicles of the future”.

Ten thousand gold francs were up for grabs, with 5,000 francs going to the car that was judged to be closest to the ideal standards set by the newspaper: not dangerous, easy to drive and cheap during the journey.

One hundred and two readers answered Le Petit Journal’s challenge, of which only a handful made it to qualifying, each paying ten francs.

At one minute past eight on the morning of 22 July 1894, the 21 qualifiers set off on the 79-mile-trip to Rouen. Roland, the newspaper’s reporter, waxed lyrical on the fine weather and the great crowds thronging the pavements and, much to the consternation of the police, the roads too.

Riding in the lead car, Roland noted the amazement on the faces of spectators as the cars left Paris, winding their way through the French countryside. Old men waved from windows, pretty girls threw flowers, whilst “braves paysans” came up to offer fruit to the drivers.

Averaging a blistering speed of 12mph, Jules-Albert de Dion was first to cross the line in his steam-powered car. But as his vehicle required a stoker, it wasn’t deemed easy to drive, so he had to make do with second prize.

Five minutes later, Albert Lemaître came pootling along in his petrol-powered Peugeot to claim the 5,000 francs, which was shared with Panhard – today a maker of armoured cars.

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