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Roland Garros/Black Bess Bugatti Part 1: Roland Garros

by pete on January 9, 2013

By Gijsbert-Paul Berk

In collaboration with the French Tennis Federation and the Louwman Museum at The Hague, the organizers of the 38th edition of the Rétromobile show in Paris – from 6 to 10 February 2013 – will pay tribute to the French World War I hero Roland Garros.

Among the many fascinating exhibits the visitors to Rétromobile 2013 will be able to admire are the Morane-Saunier type H plane – part of the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis collection – which was the first plane ever to cross the Mediterranean 100 years ago. In addition, the famous 5-litre ‘Roland Garros’ Bugatti or ‘Black Bess’, now in the Louwman Museum Collection will be part of the show. (See color photos of ‘Black Bess’.)

This particular Bugatti has a wonderful history that spanned the English Channel and created legends in both France and England. We begin with Roland Garros, its first owner.

The Roland Garros Bugatti
The Rolland Garros Bugatti was first delivered on September 18,1913 as chassis number 474, to the French aviator Roland Garros who was a personal friend of Ettore Bugatti. It was the fourth of a series of seven chassis that Bugatti produced of this four-cylinder five-liter model (encoded by Bugatti historians as the Type 18). However, after the aviator purchased the car, the name “Roland Garros” would thereafter always associated with the model.

Roland Garros was already famous when he was introduced to Ettore Bugatti. Not, as many today think, because he was a French tennis champion; while he did play tennis in school, his fame came as a record-setting aviator. Rolland Garros, as we shall see, was quite an extraordinary person.

Roland Garros
Roland was born on October 6th, 1888 at Saint Denis on the isle of La Reunion, a French Territory just of the African east coast. His father, Georges Garros, moved his family to Saigon when Roland was four. At twelve young Roland was sent back to France to the Stanislas Collège in Paris. He became ill with pneumonia and was sent to a sister school in Cannes. In the mild Mediterranean climate he soon recovered and besides seriously studying, he trained to become an all-round sportsman. He finished his college education at the lyceum Janson-de-Sally in Paris, then applied and was accepted at the HEC, the renowned French Commercial High school.

Car enthusiast
After graduation from the HEC, he found a job with the car manufacturer Grégoire and participated in motor sport events. His father, who wanted him to become a lawyer like himself, cut off his allowance. Thanks to the financial help from the family of a fellow HEC student, Roland started “Roland Garros automobiles – voiturettes de sport” and became an agent for Grégoire, with a showroom and workshop near the Arc de Triomphe.

Discovering aviation
In 1909 Garros attended an air show near Reims. It was a revelation; Roland immediately decided that he wanted to be a pilot. With the money he had saved, he bought a small Demoiselle Santos-Damos. Accompanied by Edmond Audemars, who also owned a Demoiselle, they taught themselves to fly on a military exercise field at Issy-les-Moulineux, later to become known as the ‘cradle’ of French aviation.

The 1910 Demoiselle-Santos similar to the aircraft in which Garros learned to fly.

American adventure
On July 19th, 1910 Garros earned his pilot’s license (no. 147) from the Aero Club de France. American Hart O. Berg then engaged him and Audemars to take part in an aviation festival at Belmont Park, New York. There, Garros met John Moisant, a Canadian pilot, who asked him to join the Moisant Flying Circus. The plan was to travel with a bunch of young ‘barn storming’ pilots all over the U.S.A. and give exhibitions. It sounded like a dream come true. What a challenge and what better training could one wish for! Eventually the Moisant Circus not only went to a lot of places in the States, it even visited Mexico and Cuba.

Roland returned to France in May 1911, and as an experienced pilot entered in three important air races; the Paris-Madrid, the Paris-Rome and the Circuit Européen, an ambitious event covering a 1600 kilometers long route from Paris, Liege, Utrecht, Brussels, Roubaix, Calais, London and back to Paris.

On September 4th, 1911 Charles Voisin, brother and business partner of aircraft designer and manufacturer Gabriel Voisin, organized the First Altitude Record flight on the beach of Cancale. Garros broke all previous records by climbing with his machine up to 3,950 meters.

Raymond Saulnier with Leon and Robert Morane had founded Aéroplanes Morane-Saulnier, and they now approached Garros to be their test pilot. Roland took the Morane-Saunier Model H to Tunis and December 1912. Flying from Tunis back to toward Italy, he made an intermediate landing at Trapani (Sicily), but at the airport of Rome he was received by a huge and enthusiastic crowd, who gave him a tremendous applause; he was the first to fly solo from Africa to Europe.

First flight across the Mediterranean
One hundred years ago, on September 23rd, 1913 he taxied his Morane-Saunier on the marine airstrip at Fréjus in the south of France, and flew over the sea. After about one hour flight one of the nine cylinders of his engine failed, due to a broken valve spring. Fortunately the other eight cylinders kept going.

Garros, in suit, after arriving safely in Tunisia.

Garros decided to change his course and fly to Ajaccio on Corsica, and then over the isle of Sardinia, thereby prolonging his flight. Seven hours and fifty-three minutes after take-off, Garros landed safely at Bizerte on the northern coast of Tunisia. According to the legend, his plane had only 5 liters of petrol left in its tank. But he had accomplished what he intended to do: he was the first pilot who had flown straight across the Mediterranean Sea.

Technical adviser
At the start of World War I, Garros joined the French Armée de L’Air. As an officer in the Escadrille Morane-Saulnier MS26, he helped Raymond Saulnier develop and test an invention that would permit a machine gun to shoot through a turning propeller.

Garros testing the machine gun.


Roland was one of the first to use the synchronized machine-gun firing system in combat. Unfortunately in 1915 he was shot down during a mission over Germany and taken prisoner before he could set fire to his machine. The story goes that the Dutchman Anthony Fokker examined the wreckage of Garros’s Morane-Saulnier before adopting a more or less similar solution on the Fokker M.5 single-seat planes.

Prisoner of War
In February 1918, after three years of being regularly transported from one POW camp to another, Garros managed to escape in the company of Lieutenant Anselme Marchal; both men were disguised by wearing stolen uniforms of German officers. After his escape, Roland stayed for some time in his apartment on the 3e floor at 7 rue Lalo in Paris to recover from his ordeal.

Death of Rolland Garros
Although his health was seriously affected by his long imprisonment, Garros insisted to return to active duty and rejoined his old squadron, now flying with Spad XIII fighter planes. SPA26 was part of the famous Escadrille des Cigognes (Stork Squadron) and stationed at La-Noblette-en-Champagne.

Garros with medals posing with the SPAD XIII.

Tragically, on October 5th, 1918, just a month before the Armistice and on the eve of his 30th birthday, Roland was killed when his plane exploded in mid-air during a battle with a Fokker D.VII in the Ardennes above the borough of Saint Morel, near Vouziers where he was buried.

Roland Garros Tennis Stadium

The Roland-Garros stadium was built in just a few months to host the 1928 Davis Cup final, with France against the United States. To help with the realization of the project, the Stade Français (founded by a Rugby club) gave up 7.4 acres located very close to the Porte d’Auteuil. Emile Lesieur, then president of the club, set only one condition; that the new stadium would be named after Roland Garros, his much admired friend with whom he had studied at the HEC. Hence, the name of Roland Garros, who only played amateur tennis when he was young, is closely linked to the most prestigious of France’s tennis courts and international tennis tournaments.

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