The name Gordon Bennett had a very special ring to it in the early years of the last century. Staged for the first time on June 14, 1900, it was the world's first major automotive competition – and always a most exciting event.
One of the rules was that the winning car’s country of origin was to be the venue for the next race one year later. So Camille Jenatzy not only clinched a superior victory at the wheel of a 60 hp Mercedes in 1903 but also brought the race to Germany where it provided the go-ahead for motor sport activities in Germany.
The race was staged on June 17, 1904, and the German emperor had personally decreed that it was to take place in the Taunus hills. The race was started in Bad Homburg and, as was customary at the time, public roads were selected for the 141-kilometer route via Saalburg, Usingen, Grävenwiesbach, Weilburg, Limburg, Idstein, Esch and Königstein back to Bad Homburg.
The participants had to complete four laps on this route, covering a total distance of 564 km. It was a winding route with altitudes between 105 and 550 metres above sea level. This meant that it provided "ample opportunity to test not only the speed of the cars but also, and above all, their resistance and easy maneuverability – in short, the robustness of their design," it said in a contemporary report which continued to explain that "an incredibly heated battle will be fought because the French are feverishly working on their cars, determined to snatch the trophy from the Germans."
It should be added that the Gordon Bennett trophy was awarded by the Automobile Club de France (ACF). It had been donated in 1899 by the American James Gordon Bennett, a founding member of the ACF.
Some 20 cars from seven countries lined up at the start. Germany had to defend the trophy against the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. Each country was allowed to enter up to three cars.
The German contingent competed in 90 hp Mercedes models, driven by the Belgian Camille Jenatzy, his compatriot Baron de Caters and John Warden. The four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 8.7 liters and modern magneto ignition drove the rear wheels via chains, and it was combined with a four-speed transmission. Despite its front-end design, high and angular by today's standards, the car reached a top speed around 160 km/h. Additional Mercedes cars competed outside the official rankings.
Jenatzy was considered the favorite, having acquired the reputation of being a fast and successful driver in numerous races. However, things developed other than expected. Frenchman Léon Théry who had started from fifth place, drove his Richard-Brasier to third place on the first lap. Jenatzy continued racing out in the lead until he was struck by bad luck on the third lap, just outside Usingen: he ran out of fuel and had to go very slowly to reach the finish on the reserve quantity. After 5:50:11 hours, Théry was the first to cross the finishing line, past the German emperor watching from his box. Despite his mishap, Jenatzy arrived only 11 minutes later, after a total driving time of 6:01:28 hours and having reached an average speed of 93.6 km/h. The driver in third place, Henri Rougier, was far behind. It took him 6:46:31 hours to complete the race at the wheel of a Turcat-Mery.
Jenatzy was rewarded for second place with a 40 hp Mercedes by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft; victory would have earned him "a free car at his choice". Incidentally, Baron de Caters had had his own piece of bad luck, but unlike Jenatzy, he had had too much gasoline in the engine, causing a short circuit and preventing him from finishing in the top rankings. He nevertheless managed to cross the finishing line in fourth place.
Théry received the trophy for the winner, an automobile crafted from solid silver and steered by the genius of progress with a torch in his hand, ready to receive the palm from the goddess of victory. It was the challenge trophy for "awakening and promoting interest in automotive racing," as its donator had phrased it.
The Gordon Bennett race was an international competition with clearly defined rules: participation was open to national automobile clubs, and the cars they entered had to be entirely produced in the country concerned. A club having won the trophy challenged the other clubs to compete in the next race the following year. The race had to be staged between May 15 and August 15 on a route that had to be between 550 and 650 km long.
National colors for the cars were recommended but were not used before the race in Ireland in 1903: white for Germany, red for America, yellow for Belgium, blue for France and green for the United Kingdom. Only two-seater cars were allowed, and both seats had to be occupied during the entire race. Drivers and mechanics had to weigh at least 70 kilograms each; if anyone remained below this limit, the difference had to be made up by ballast weight. The cars' unladen weight had to be at least 400 kilograms and not more than 1,000 kilograms.
The competition assumed outstanding importance for the motor manufacturers: in the early days of motoring, victory in the Gordon Bennett race had an extraordinary advertising effect and boosted sales. Jenatzy's superior victory at the wheel of a Mercedes in 1903 had indeed caused the sale of Daimler vehicles to skyrocket.
The race in Bad Homburg was the scene for yet another historical moment. The clubs assembled there founded the predecessor of today's Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) which is still the official racing authority today.
It was not given to the Gordon Bennett race to enjoy a long history. It was discontinued as early as 1906 by the ACF in favor of the French club's own Grand Prix. The donator, however, gave his name to a balloon race he had initiated, the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett, which is still being staged today.
About James Gordon Bennett
James Gordon Bennett Jr. was born in 1841, the son of well-to-do parents; his father was editor of the New York Herald. James was an avid sportsman, interested not only in motor racing. In 1886, he initiated the first transatlantic yacht race between Sandy Hook, New Jersey/USA and the Isle of Wight. Gordon Bennett moved to Paris to represent the New York Herald in France. What's more, he proved to be an innovator: he introduced wireless telegraphy for the transmission of news as well as daily weather reports in his newspaper. Above all, however, he had an extraordinary feel for attractive newspaper topics. The colloquial expression "Gordon Bennett!" goes back to him, meaning "Good Lord!" and expressing surprise and astonishment, for instance when one opens the newspaper and reads yet another almost unbelievable story. Ironically, he never drove a car himself and never attended any of the event he sponsored. James Gordon Bennett died in 1918.