Features - News Feature

NOVEMBER 4, 2001

If you happen to be in Paris...


Paris was the cradle of motor racing and there are still plenty of signs of that fact if one looks around the French capital.

Paris was the cradle of motor racing and there are still plenty of signs of that fact if one looks around the French capital.

The place is start looking is just down the road from the Arc de Triomphe on the wide boulevard known as the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Wander down towards the Porte Maillot and you will be entering the neighbourhood where the motor industry began. It was at the Porte Maillot that the first race began, heading off to Rouen on July 22 1894. There are some who argue that the first motor race actually took place in Bois de Boulogne on April 28 1887. The only problem with this was that there was only one entry, a De Dion-Bouton steam car entered by Georges Bouton himself. But if you want to check out the Bois de Boulogne, it is right there at the Porte Maillot.

As you pass along the Avenue de la Grande Armee you will pass brasseries which indicate the history of the area: one is called the l'Auto, the next is Le Touring. A little further down the Avenue is the imposing modern headquarters of Automobiles Peugeot. But cross the road there and nip down the Rue Denis Poisson and you will arrive in the Place St-Ferdinand where you will find a large statue in memory of Leon Serpollet, one of the pioneers of steam automobiles. On your left is the Rue du Debarcadere where for many years Ettore Bugatti had his experimental department and where his prototypes were regularly tested up and down the road. Go north from a here a few blocks and you would reach the weirdest ever venue for an event involving Grand Prix cars. Where the rue Pierre Demours meets the Rue Theodore de Banville there is a huge building (now transformed into offices). In 1928 it was the world's first multi-storey car park. And it was more of a club than a garage and in 1925 the opening featured a race between 15 Grand Prix cars which took part in a speed trial from the ground to the roof, going up the ramps inside the garage! Later, just to spice the place up a bit the World Champion of 1927 became the Manager of the Garage Banville.

If you head from the Porte Maillot up the Avenue de Malakoff. You will see a restaurant called the Phaeton (one of the early names used for the automobile) and then you will get to the Rue Pergolese. It was along this road that Baron Albert de Dion, Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux set up their first workshops to build steam cars in 1881 (Trepardoux incidentally later left the business convinced that gasolene engines were a waste of time and that steam was the future).

It was on the rue Pergolese that Edouard Ballot set up his workshops just after World War I and built a series of impressive Grand Prix challengers. If you walk down the rue Pergolese towards the west you will pass the rue Weber, home for many years of "Williams" the winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix.

When you get to the end of the rue Pergolese you will be on the Avenue Foch. A few houses down on the right is 82-84 Avenue Foch which is a place which few Parisians like to remember. This building was the headquarters of the Gestapo's security service and "Williams" and his fellow racer and resistant Robert Benoist both ended up in there during World War II. That was a fate that their resistance colleague Jean-Pierre Wimille managed to avoid. He jumped out of a window when the Germans came to get him in 1944. Walk down to the Place at the end of the Avenue Foch and you will see a statue of Wimille and a sports ground named after him.

It was here on September 2 1945 that the first post-war motor races were held on a 1.72-mile circuit laid out in the Bois de Boulogne. The very first was called the Robert Benoist Cup and Ettore Bugatti turned up in his personal Bugatti Royale to pay homage to his old friend, who had been executed in Germany. It was won by Amedee Gordini. Wimille won the main race of the day, called the Coupe des Prisonniers.

Across the Bois de Boulogne are the suburbs of Suresnes where Georges Boillot and the Charlatan Racing Team built the amazing 1912 Peugeot GP car in the Gnome & Rhone aero-engine factory and where the original Talbot factory was located; there is Saint Cloud where Raymond Sommer scored a famous victory for Ferrari against the Alfa Romeo team in 1946; and there is Puteaux, once the home of the second De Dion-Bouton factory and Sizaire-Naudin. And to the south is Boulogne-Billancourt, home of Renault. You cannot go far in Paris without bumping into automotive history.