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OCTOBER 31, 2001

Ferenc Szisz: The Hungarian railway engineer


It is a little known fact that the winner of the first major motor race to use the title "Grand Prix" was a Hungarian, although in 1873, when Ferenc Szisz was born, Hungary was part of the vast Hapsburg Empire although by then it was virtually autonomous from Vienna thanks to the efforts of politician Ferenc Deak after whom Szisz was probably named.

He grew up in a small village but then served an apprenticeship with an engineering firm in Budapest. In the early 1890s railway- building was all the rage and Szisz ended up working as a railway engineer. By the late 1890s, however, the automobile had become the great new innovation and Szisz was fascinated. After a brief spell in Berlin he moved to Paris, the center of the automobile business at the time. It was there that he was taken on by the rapidly expanding Renault Brothers company, which had begun building De Dion-Bouton-engined cars in 1898. Renault was desperate for engineers as expansion was dramatic. In the company's first six months of business it sold 60 automobiles. In 1900 the company built 179 cars.

Initially Szisz worked as a mechanic but an interest in the company's racing activities led to him becoming one of Louis Renault's riding mechanics in a number of races in 1902. That was the year in which Renault made a breakthrough with its victory on the Paris-Vienna race (with Marcel Renault driving). Early in 1903, however, Marcel won killed in an accident on the disastrous Paris-Madrid race. Louis decided to give up racing and it was not until 1905 that he was convinced to build a new racing machine. This low-slung car first appeared in the Elimination Races for the Gordon Bennett Cup event in 1905 and Szisz (racing under the name Francois Szisz), who was by then head of the Renault testing department, was one of the three Renault drivers, alongside Maurice Bernin and the little-known J Edmond. Only the first three finishers made it through to the Cup itself and Szisz finished fifth on the demanding Auvergne circuit in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand. At the end of the year he was sent to America to race in the Vanderbilt Cup. Once again he finished fifth.

In June 1906 Szisz led the Renault team of Edmond and Claude Richez in the first Grand Prix de l'ACF at Le Mans and in doing so became the first man ever to win a Grand Prix. Renault's interest in racing was again on the wane and Szisz only appeared in the Grand Prix de l'ACF and the Vanderbilt Cup thereafter, finishing second to Felice Nazzaro in the French event in 1907.

With Grand Prix racing then disappearing for several years and Renault not returning to competition Szisz's competition career was effectively over although he did appear on occasion in Alda and Lorraine-Dietrich machinery in other races before World War I. His last event was the GP de l'ACF at Lyon in 1914. He was driving an Alda for his old racing rival Fernand Charron (the owner of Alda) when he was forced to stop to change a wheel. As he was doing this he was hit by on errant Opel and suffered a badly broken arm.

Szisz went on working for Renault throughout the 1920s and 1930s before retiring. He lived in France until his death in February 1944. He is buried in the village of Auffargis, to the south of Paris. His story is rather confused, however, as for many years afterwards someone, rumoured to have been his brother, impersonated him in Hungary. The imposter died in 1970.