James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918) was born in 1841 of an Irish mother and a Scottish father, who owned the New York Herald Tribune. Born into a wealthy family he did not experience the need to have to make do and to work hard for the basic necessities to survive. With easy money available to him, he was able to enjoy the rich life of social entertaining, sporting and gambling. Having reflected on the events of his past, he decided with the blessing of his parents to relocate to Paris and head up the New York Herald Tribune paper there. To promote his Tribune, he hit on the idea of promoting various sporting and expedition events, such as a balloon and an airplane race along with a yacht race.
In 1900 he sponsored the first ever international motoring competition – The Gordon Bennett Cup Race: the first to be held on a closed circuit. He sponsored six races in total, the first three and the sixth were held in France. The fourth was held in Ireland and the fifth was in Germany. The Gordon Bennett Cup Race paved the way for modern Grand Prix racing. The first French Grand Prix in 1906 was testament to the growing commercialisation and international trend on motorcar manufacturing. The Gordon Bennett Cup Race is often referred to as the race that saved motorsport.
Daimler and Benz were the earliest car manufacturers but it was the French that took the lead in developing the motorcar and motoring in the 1880s due to their good road network. In the early 1900s, France had over 350 car manufacturers, so it was easy to see how motor racing became a major sporting event, especially with the foresight of a wealthy paper magnate like James Gordon Bennett. The rules laid down for the races were that each country could enter three cars which had to be made in the country they represented. The victorious country would keep the trophy for one year after which it would be put up again for competition. The winning country would host the next race in the series. France won the 1900 and 1901 races. In 1902, in the race from Paris to Vienna it was decided that the Gordon Bennett Cup Trophy would be won by the first car to reach Salzburg
An English man by the name of Selwyn Francis Edge was the only competitor to reach Salzburg. All the other cars broke down or failed to finish. The French now realised that the next race would not be on French soil so they set about getting a team together to win that race and get the cup back to France. The English, Germany and the USA also decided to organise teams for the 1903 race. This race should have been held in England but the rulers of the day were not interested in having noisy, smelly mechanical vehicles tearing along their roads frightening the public and horses drawing coaches and buggies. The Isle of Man and Ireland were considered as they were under English rule. The Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (ACGBI), Mr Claude Johnson suggested Ireland as a suitable venue. Another well known Irishman who was co-publisher of The Motor News and The Cyclist by the name of Richard J. Mecredy, was also working behind the scenes to get the race to Ireland.
Mecredy and the Du Cros (pronounced “du crow”) brothers among others were very involved in cycle racing in Ireland and England and had competed many times in England with great success winning many races. On the English team at that time were Selwyn Francis Edge and Charles Jarrott, who now were involved in motorsport. Both had been over to Ireland on car tours organised by Mecredy, who by now could see the benefits of motor racing over cycle racing, having been taken for a drive by Edge in his car. They were not slow in seeing the opportunity in organising the 1903 event to be staged in Ireland through the counties of Kildare, Carlow and Laois, or Queens County as it would have been known then. The Polish-born racer Count Eliot Zborowski who had lived in Ireland was also a keen supporter. He is credited with having the English cars painted emerald green in honour of the race being staged in Ireland. This colour eventually became as it is known today as British racing green. Claude Johnston canvassed the MP’s of the day such as John Redmond, Tim Healy and Sir Edward Carson who were very supportive along with many others. One local nationalist MP was William Delaney who was born in Roskeen (Queens County) Co Laois in 1855. He was a large landowner in Laois and Offaly. He was also known as the Lion of Ossory. He was a member of both county councils as well as being a Justice of the Peace for each county. His estate is on the borders of Laois and Offaly near Killeigh. Although a landlord, he was a supporter of the land league, eventually selling out to his tenants under the Ashbourne Act. He was a member of Mountmellick District Council, also Chairman of Mountmellick Board of Guardians. He died in 1916 and is buried in Castlebrack Cemetry.
The support was also sought from three hundred newspapers, thirty county councils, four hundred and fifty hotels, thirteen Parish priests and one Bishop – Dr Foley. Almost 2,500 policeman were selected to guard the course of 327 ½ miles. This was the first properly organised race and was very successful. The previous three races were badly managed town to town affairs with loss of life to drivers and spectators. The race was held on the 2nd of July in 1903 on a course of two parts forming a figure of eight over 104 miles through the counties of Kildare, Carlow and Laois held over five stages:
Stage 1. Ballyshannon to Carlow.
Stage 2. Carlow to Athy.
Stage 3. Athy to Kildare.
Stage 4. Kildare to The Heath.
Stage 5. The Heath to Athy .
All cars had to travel behind bicycles through the six towns designated as control centres to ensure compliance with speed limits. Four countries was represented, Germany in white cars, England in green cars, France in blue cars and America in red cars. The race was won by Camille Jenatzy driving a Mercedes car for Germany. He was known as the Red Devil due to his fearless reckless driving. He met his death a few years later not in a car but boar hunting. The English failed badly with Jarrott crashing going down The Rock of Dunamaise hill writing of the car. He and the mechanic escaped with minor injuries. Stocks failed to finish, Edge came in 5th but was disqualified. This event changed the Irish people’s perception of motoring and they were not slow when circumstances allowed them to change their mode of transport from the horse and humble donkey to the mechanical propelled motor car which was a lot faster and more fun to drive In Ireland during that period.
Extracts from various journals of the day
ON PORTLAOISE (MARYBOROUGH)
“Maryborough, so called in honour of Queen Mary, who visited the town in company with her husband Philip of Spain, is not a town in which the visitor will find much of interest. Its’ prominent institutions are a large lunatic asylum, a grey convict prison and possesses one of the most inconveniently situated railway stations in the country, perched on top of a high embankment.”
THE CUNNING IRISH
In Charles Jarrott’s book “Ten years of motors and motor racing” he wrote: “I could fill a book with experiences we had from practising over the course prior to the race. One thing we discovered was that the roads in Ireland were used as farm yards for the breeding of chickens and other birds and beasts. Whenever we killed a chicken we made a point of finding the owner and compensating him for his loss. A price was paid and the owner kept the carcase. But the number of chickens killed rose daily which led him to suspect that he paid more than once for the same chicken.”
THE WIT OF THE IRISH
“A visitor stopped to ask directions to Kilcullen, the farmer replied ten miles Sir but in one of those yolks it should be less, which was a change from a mile and a bit which could be any distance.”
For its time in 1903 it was a great success and Ireland, as usual, was fortunate in having the right people of influence to make this event happen. Today this event is promoted as a tourist attraction bringing visitors to the Midland through vintage and classic car tours over the June bank holiday weekend by the Gordon Bennett Irish Classic Car Run committee, who promote this event at the international classic car show held annually in the N.E.C in Birmingham.