the pioneers who dominated the first motor competitions

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It is 2022 and the news about advances in lithium batteries, in solid-state batteries, in the use of hydrogen or in the possibility of using synthetic fuels to power our cars does not stop happening. And it is not a coincidence, more than a century ago, the automotive industry lived in the same state of boiling.

We are currently looking for a method to replace combustion vehicles in Europe with less polluting technology. One way or another, we are reinventing the automobile and so it’s not surprising that new ideas of how to power cars come and go.

At the end of the 19th century, the fight was the same. Karl-Benz, with the help of his wife Bertha Benz, was immersed in the development of his combustion vehicle and at the beginning of the 20th century artifacts were also seen that even proposed using propellers to move automobiles. Before reaching either of these two milestones, they opted for a technology that was already known to work: the steam engine.

De Dion Bouton Tonneau Type O 1902 Jm63852

A De Dion-Bouton, one of the steam cars that dominated at the end of the 19th century

the steam car

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the steam cars and those of internal combustion fought to become the best technology of the moment. For forty years, both technologies coexisted until, finally, internal combustion propellants ended up imposing themselves at the beginning of the 20s of the last century.

Until internal combustion managed to prevail due to its greater efficiency and comfort, steam vehicles were the reference in a world of competition that was still in its infancy. These cars had the advantage that their engines already had some early development derived from its use in locomotives but they suffered from some defects that were difficult to solve.

There was a time when some cars had propellers.  Time ended up proving them right

One of their great disadvantages was their enormous weight. But, nevertheless, the biggest flaw was the wait time until you can move with them. The normal thing at the end of the 19th century is that a passenger had to wait around 20 minutes until the engine got enough air pressure to start off. The combustion engine, here, was far superior.

There are Lots of doubts about the true inventor of the steam vehicle. It is considered, for example, that the first steam car was invented as early as 1672 in China. The creator was Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit missionary who traveled and lived what remained of his life in the Asian country. It is believed, despite everything, that the first kilometer traveled by a vehicle of these characteristics was made by the invention of Nicolas Joseph Cugnot in 1769, for military purposes.

However, it is considered that the real first steam car was designed by the Frenchman Amédée Bollée, who managed to cover the distance that separates Le Mans from Paris (now it is 209 kilometers by road) in 18 hours and with 12 people on board. The invention could reach 30 km/h once launched. It was 1875.

Jules-Albert de Dion

Count Jules-Albert de Dion during the first competition in history

uncrowned champion

But there is something where steam engines were superior: the competition. At the end of the 19th century, the human being decided that those huge carriages could also be put to the test to show which vehicles were superior and faster than their rivals.

Buoyed by the results of recent years, the 1890s saw an explosion of manufacturers setting out on their own adventure in a booming industry. And what better setting to demonstrate the technical capabilities of their vehicles than facing their rivals.

Thus, a journalist Le Petit Journal convened what would become known as the first race in history of motoring. To prove which “horseless car” was the fastest, three days of competition were devised. In the first, the vehicles would be exposed to be contemplated by a jury. On the second day, qualifying tests were carried out in five 50-kilometre routes starting in Paris. The third day, the big day, would have to cover the Distance from Paris to Rouen (126 kilometres) in the shortest time possible but with some obligatory stops, including a first break for breakfast.

102 participants signed up for the competition, but only 26 of them managed to reach the starting line. After the qualifying tests, 21 vehicles took the start from Paris on the way to Ruen, in time trial mode with 30 seconds of separation between vehicle and vehicle.

The winner was Count Jules-Albert de Dion, with one of the vehicles De Dion-Bouton, a company that the Count had created together with Georges Bouton and Charles Trépardoux, the latter Bouton’s brother-in-law. However, the steam vehicle could not be considered the winner of this first contest despite having spent the shortest time on the route, since had a coal to feed the propellant, which was not allowed under the regulations.

In addition to the purest competition, during the weekend prizes were also awarded to the safest vehicles, the easiest to use and those with the best quality/price ratio at that time. Even a judge who traveled in the vehicle itself was in charge of assessing with a note from 0 to 20 the driving style of the pilot.


Count Jules-Albert de Dion’s steam vehicle was the first to win a race (at least morally) but it was not the only great achievement of the steam vehicle.

In fact, this technology was used in a race that continues today: the quest to invent the fastest car in the world. It is considered that in 1898 the first speed record of history It was carried out by Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat with an electric Jeantaud that shot up to 63.15 km/h.

steam car

Fred Marriott in the first vehicle capable of exceeding 200 km / h

This figure would last very little. In 1902, the Frenchman Léon Serpollet became the first person to exceed 120 km/h. The car used was a steam vehicle. In those early years of the automotive industry, the fever to be the fastest skyrocketed. The figures kept growing and just four years later, in 1906, Fred Marriott became the first person in Daytona to exceed 200 km/h. He managed to reach a top speed of 205.5 km / h at the wheel of a Stanley Steamer nicknamed “Rocket”, a steam car.

Soon after, the steam engine would fall into disuse. The greater ease of use of the combustion engine and its development made it possible for this technology to prevail. However, it remains to his own pride that there was a time when steam cars were the fastest in the world.

Photo: Wikipedia

It is 2022 and the news about advances in lithium batteries, in solid-state batteries, in the use of hydrogen or…

It is 2022 and the news about advances in lithium batteries, in solid-state batteries, in the use of hydrogen or…

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