One of the earliest forms of motorsport involved planes, not cars

Photograph Courtesy BMW

The wonderful thing about studying automotive history is that any in-depth research ultimately leads to more detailed information and even previously unknown facts, some often unexpected and controversial. 

In the early 1900s, the beginning of our motorsports era, the overlapping interests among those passionate about automobiles, motorcycles and airplanes naturally had a common focus on engines. Much of urban Europe was far ahead of what was developing in America, but it was the ultra-competitive Parisian engineering community who were perhaps the most innovative because the roads in France were better developed and thus encouraged accelerated development of the internal combustion engine.

In a more comprehensive article–to appear in a future issue–regarding three young racers from Peugeot, whose combined talents created the basis for every modern high-performance engine, I’ll go into more detail. But first I need to present an important point on another related subject: flight. 

The greatest invention of our modern world didn’t really originate here in America as we were taught in school. The Wright brothers’ early experiments with gliders gave them vital information in terms of flight control, but they lacked the mechanical thrust to get their first powered aircraft off the ground.  

The reason we have so much documented evidence of early flight in Europe is that the highly organized French–the patrons, builders and enthusiasts of heavier-than-air devices–early on had seen the importance of establishing formal parameters to define real “flight.” 

The Aero Club de France (later to become the FAI or Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) was already documenting attempts some three years prior to word of the secretive Wrights’ “first flight” at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903. There were good reasons for the Wrights’ self-imposed secrecy, which we won’t cover here, but it was this reluctance to disclose specific details of their accomplishments which slowed their development and public acceptance here and in Europe. 

The Aero Club’s requirements to qualify as “flight” were simple. 1) Publicly announce any attempt 24 hours in advance. 2) Such attempts were required to take place on a military parade ground in Paris. 3) The flying machine, with pilot aboard, had to take off under its own power, 4) fly a circular 1-kilometer flightpath and, finally, 5) land undamaged. A prize of 50,000 francs awaited the winner.

The Wrights had been flying their gliders quite successfully for some two years before attempting their first powered flight. During this development period, they discovered and refined the principle of altering wing shape to make controlled turns. In Europe, everyone else was struggling just to get off the ground. Between trips to North Carolina to test, the Wrights were also developing their own engine in Dayton, Ohio.

The Wrights’ much-self-publicized “first flight” hardly qualified under FAI rules because their engine didn’t have the thrust to get their Flyer off the ground. Look closely at photos of the event: A tower, rigged with a weight-assisted catapult, aided the attempt to leave Earth for a few seconds. Even then, the Wrights’ “flight” was shorter than the wingspan of a modern airliner.

In France and Germany, the competition was intense. Numerous glider flights in Germany as early as 1870 were recorded, as was a less-successful attempt in France using steam power before 1900. But it wasn’t until October of 1907 that Anglo-French sportsman Henry Farman, flying a French Voisin, beat Brazilian contender Santos Dumont by a day to win the prize.

With little belief or support for their efforts in America, the Wrights finally brought their Flyer to France. There, in 1909, they installed a French-built engine and flew successfully for the first time before thousands at the premiere LeMans Exposition of Flight.

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