Personally using the phrase “Gordon Bennet” whenever a profanity cannot be justified, his name became almost mythical. But just who was Gordon Bennet? And what can be the relevance to this site?
Mr Bennet could quite easily be compared to one Bernard Charles Ecclestone for ideas and plans concerning motor racing. Whereas Ecclestone made his money (though the means are not for here), Gordon Bennet was gifted the wealth. Employing nothing but his interest in the ways and means of transportation, Bennet wanted to sell newspapers, he being the owner/ editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Conjuring up the plan to sponsor races by boat, balloon and a little later into the future, aeroplanes.
Naturally our gaze falls upon the auto side of racing. Bennet had moved to Paris, bringing his newspaper with him and witnessed the growth of the motor industry. With France at the forefront of it all, Bennet saw and seized the opportunity to sponsor races over huge distances with an additional twist to making involvement an international affair. With three cars from each entering nation, the winner would hold the following year’s event.
France won the cup in 1900 and ‘01. The initial run started at the public friendly hour of 3am and was almost a photo-finish; the victor crossing the line a full ninety minutes ahead of second place.
1902 and the race started in Paris with the finish line being Salzburg, a distance nearing 600km. One Selwyn Francis Edge was the winner, thus the coming years Cup would be held on British soil. Notice not English; the British government were still not too keen on this new automobile controversy. Fine for the gentleman to own and run one but tearing up the highways, well, that’s just not cricket.
But what if it could go over the water? Ireland would be far better suited to this racing lark as The Secretary of The Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (ACGBI) decreed.
France with its many (admittedly mainly small in size) manufactures, along with the Germans wanted the Cup rather badly. National pride being at stake, the best cars, mechanics and racers were sought. SF Edge had become a hero, garnering his entry immediately. Edge along with Charles Jarrott had been invited to Ireland to see the course first-hand by Richard J Mecredy, a bicycle and car enthusiast, keen to bring racing to the ‘land of saints and scholars’.
Roads through the counties of Kildare, Carlow and Laois, known then as the ‘Queens Counties’ were chosen for straightness and crowd safety; previous Cup runs sadly suffering fatalities for entrants and spectators.
Another fellow with racing aspirations was the Polish Count Elliot Zborowski (Louis’ father) who arguably gave the world British Racing Green as a national racing colour. Initially Shamrock Green, which over time shaded darker in deference to the host nation. The Germans had white, the French blue, yellow for Belgium and the Americans had red. The Italians? As red was taken and with no other references found, no idea! Black? Bare metal?
To the race then: July 2nd 1903 and 330 miles to go. Mecredy had drummed up support from every possible quarter, anticipation was naturally high for home victory. With Thousands of policemen guarding and ‘making safe’ the course for the large crowd, disappointment begat the British contingent. Jarrott crashed, Stocks suffering mechanical maladies and Edge was disqualified leaving one Camille Jenatzy from Belgium piloting a white Mercedes.
Jenatzy, known as the Red Devil for his flamboyant and reckless driving style would die the death of a racing driver a few years hence in an incident hunting wild boar. Germany had won.
But in many ways so had Ireland. Prior to the Cup Run in 1903, a mere handful of cars were in Ireland. With quiet roads and the chance to legally race on them, car ownership blossomed. As for the Gordon Bennet Cup, it ran for another two years, won in 1904 by the French in Germany and in 1905 by the French en France. Holding legitimate claim to having the best drivers and cars, France became the regulatory dons of the sports rules with the inauguration of the FIA in 1904.
We need to fast forward through time, a century in fact. The Classic version of the Gordon Bennet Cup Run was first run in 2003 to broadly the same route as that of the original. Open to vehicles at least thirty years old, more of a tour than a flat out, balls to the wall sprint, it has become a must-do event. One drastic change being the modern tour no longer has to follow cycled marshalls through the villages like the 1903 entrants had to adhere to.
The late Pat Dunlea, a county Kildare car dealer for many years, had gone to Sweden for the launch of the then new Volvo S80. The theatre area for the launch had obtained a batch of S80 seats from Gothenburg, which afterwards were to be disposed of. Ever the opportunist, Pat managed to persuade Volvo to donate these 120 soft, cream, height, rake and lumber adjustable leather seats for Kilcullen’s recently refurbished town hall, free of charge. And the competitors in the modern Cup Run are highly encouraged to sit on them as the tour passes through Kilcullen town.
Seats worth £60k at the time, Dunlea quipped he’d have to sell a lot more Volvo’s to keep their sales staff happy. Which, if he were still selling them today would probably be two half decent spec S90’s.
We conclude with an anecdote of local cunning and wit. In 1903, Stocks and Jarrott would compensate a farmer if they killed a chicken whilst on route. Frequently they became unsure if they had paid for the same killed chicken more than once. And on enquiring about route distances, Kilcullen could be ten miles away, less in that flying machine of yours.
Dunleas of Kilcullen are now a Kia agent