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The 1923 French Grand Prix: Preface to a Great Event

by pete on July 18, 2012


The 1923 Grand Prix de la Touraine (The French Grand Prix at Tours) was not a battle of the “Tanks”, nor were the entries of the unique Voisin and the flat-iron Bugatti of truly great significance to motor racing. Author of the noted biography of André Lefebvre, Gijsbert-Paul Berk tells us why as he recounts the event from the very beginning, from a walk around the course to the final and surprising outcome with the help of a great number of historical photographs. (Above illustration by the author.)

By Gijsbert-Paul Berk (biography at end of this article)

The 1923 Grand Prix de Tours has been labeled ‘the Bugatti-Voisin duel’. But was it? Perhaps not; over the years the press and the ensuing legends have overshadowed the essence of the race itself and even the final outcome. Certainly, the teams of Bugatti and Voisin were adversaries. But the same is true for the teams of Fiat, Rolland-Pilain, Sunbeam and the Delage. It is our goal to review this famous race in a different light.

There were actually two Grand Prix races on two consecutive race days; on Saturday July 1, 1923 the Grand Prix de Tourisme – for three categories of so-called ‘touring cars’ – and on Sunday July 2, the Grand Prix de Vitesse.

This is the preface to a ten part series about the Grand Prix de Vitesse. Not only because it was one of the major European high-speed contests for the best drivers and the fastest cars of that era, but because it was the most talked about and most controversial race event of that season, of that decade, and indeed even into the 21st century as these articles attests.

This was of course mainly due to the participation of Bugatti and Voisin, who both had designed revolutionary and daring new racing cars. The fact that Rolland-Pilain, a manufacturer that produced their cars in the city of Tours, also intended to enter three cars, naturally added to the excitement, certainly among the local population.

The fierce battles between the drivers, the numerous pit stops to refuel, change tires or to make repairs and the many retirements for mechanical failures offered the public plenty of suspense and drama. Of the 17 cars on the starting grid, only five crossed the finish line. The winner was by no means a foregone conclusion; any one of the six different marques could potentially win the Grand Prix.

The British magazine The Autocar, understandably delighted by the presence of a British driver in a British car and the fact that three Sunbeams entered the race, called it: “the most thrilling Grand Prix ever seen”. Their French counterpart Omnia, with no such chauvinistic prejudices, proclaimed it as: “the most beautiful day of motor sport that we have had since the war and also of great interest from a technical point of view”.

Bugatti vs. Voisin?
Ettore Bugatti and Gabriel Voisin were not rivals in a personal sense. On the contrary! It is true that both were strong minded, self-taught personalities with their own ideas and prejudices. But there was mutual respect. Gabriel Voisin was very critical about the products of most other car manufacturers, notably the Americans such as Chrysler and Buick.

Bugatti-T32--chassis

The 1923 Bugatti Type 32 ‘Tours Tank’ had a very low ‘underslung’ chassis. The eight-in-line engine occupied nearly 1/3 of the total length. This photo was first published in ‘The Autocar’ in 1923 and was also used in the book ‘Grand Prix Bugatti’ by Hugh Conway.

But for Bugatti he had nothing but praise. In his contribution for L’Ebé Bugatti’s book, L’Epopée Bugatti, Gabriel Voisin remembers: “Mon Ami Bugatti was in 1908 a weekly visitor to his workshop on the Quai du Point-du-Jour in Paris, where we were building our flying machines. Bugatti and I were both greatly interested in the possibilities of steam power and this brought us together”. Gabriel Voisin concludes: “My friend Bugatti was a born ‘mechanic’, one of the last worthy of that name. He was one of the few technicians capable of designing a complete product; without much effort but with great precision he conceived the most complex machines”. It is also known that when Bugatti started producing cars, Louis Blériot and Gabriel’s brother Charles Voisin both bought one.

In 1923 Gabriel Voisin was just 42 years old and already a wealthy man. Since 1919 he had successfully converted his airplane factory in Issy-les-Moulineaux to producing automobiles. By mid-1923 his company sold nearly 2000 units of their rather expensive sleeve-valve Avions Voisin cars.

Ettore Bugatti.


Ettore Bugatti was a year older than Gabriel Voisin, but at the time he was still financially recovering from WWI. His factory at Molsheim had been occupied by the Germans as enemy property. At the outbreak of the war he went to Milan where his family originally came from, and later to Paris. Here he devoted all his talents and energy to designing aircraft engines; first an eight-in-line, followed by a more unusual U sixteen. This consisted of two eight-cylinder blocks placed parallel on a common sump. Lacking the collaborators and machine tools he had in Molsheim, the construction of the prototypes was not completed until 1917. The Italian firm Diatto and the French Delauney-Belleville factory were interested but it never came to a series production. Then on April 6, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. Thanks to his friend, the British journalist W. F. Bradley, the American Aeronautical Commission while on a visit to Paris bought the prototype of the U16 engine. They paid Bugatti a handsome $100,000 for the prototype and the manufacturing rights.

When Ettore Bugatti returned to Molsheim after the war he was able to use the money to rebuild his factory. Most machines and tools had been damaged or stolen; basically, he had to start from scratch. But thanks to friends and friendly bankers (in those days friendly bankers still existed) Bugatti got his factory running again. At the postwar motor shows in Paris and London he introduced a new passenger car with an eight-in line engine, and then he resumed racing.

The basis for the Voisin entry
Concerning the story of the ‘duel’ between both marques, it is necessary to understand why Bugatti and Voisin participated in the 1923 French Grand Prix in Tours. For Bugatti, racing was part of his product promotion. His cars sold because their engines had proven their worth in competition.

Voisin-C6-Course-545

Cut-away drawing by ‘Hatton’ published in the magazine ‘The Motor’ of February 5, 1966, to illustrate an article by Cyril Posthumus about the exploits of the Voisin C6 Course 'Laboratoire' in the GP de Touraine. (Courtesy Haymarket Publications).

Gabriel Voisin’s cars were bought because they were comfortable, silent and safe. Speed was not the issue. For Voisin, racing was primarily a question of getting the name Avions Voisin in the press.

Voisin’s participation in the 1923 Grand Prix de Vitesse originated from his irritation with the ACF. In his opinion this organization made ‘stupid’ rules for the Grand Prix de Tourisme that hindered the development of the cars because they prevented the use of aerodynamics. It was for this reason Voisin did not enter his touring cars in the Grand Prix de Tourisme, but created four radically new race cars for the Grand Prix Vitesse, which had no such restrictions.

Dominique Lamberjack, a charming and witty bear of a man whose Paris showroom represented both marques, was a close friend of both Ettore Bugatti and Gabriel Voisin. The three of them met from time to time for a good dinner and interesting conversations.

Voisin,-Lamberjack

From left to right: Gabriel Voisin, Dominique Lamberjack, racing driver César Marchand and Voisin’s young chief engineer André Lefebvre, who was responsible for the revolutionary C6 Laboratoire. (Photo family Lefebvre).

Gabriel Voisin must have known enough about Bugatti’s results in the 1922 Grand Prix de Vitesse at Strasbourg to realize that his in-line sleeve valve engine with only 75 to 80 bhp would be no match for the Bugatti, even if his cars were aerodynamically superior. Thus it is highly unlikely that either Ettore Bugatti or Gabriel Voisin would have considered a match race as their main objective. The famous ‘duel’ is a yarn spun from the fertile brain of some journalists, but the story certainly helped to increase the interest of the public for the race and created legends for the ages. The final results of this epic event were therefore often lost in the haze of legend and PR.

The saga of the Bugatti – Voisin duel obviously inspired the talented French painter Rob Roy, real name Robert de la Riviere (1909 – 1992). To see more of his fascinating paintings and drawings of cars, click on this image.

Ironically, if there is one clear conclusion from the press reports about the 1923 Grand Prix at Tours, it is that at that time most people did not like the streamlined cars. Their shapes were considered ugly and the advantages of better aerodynamics were not clear. The public preferred conventional styling. About fifteen years later the Chrysler Airflow would prove that this was still the case.

Next: The Circuit and Preparations

Below, we have included a bibliography which includes the publications that were used in preparation for these articles.

Photo Credits
As many photos are copies from old prints or negatives, it was virtually impossible to establish who took the original pictures. The most active French sports and news photographers in those days, were employed by Agence Rol and Louis Meurisse in Paris. The 1923 Grand Prix de Touraine was also covered by photographers working for the French publications Omnia, L’Auto and Sporting Magazine, the British magazines Autocar, The Motor and the Italian Agency Straza, Milano. We want to compliment those unknown photographers collectively with their work and feel we are much indebted to them for the privilege of publishing their material.

Sources
André Lefebvre, and the cars he created at Voisin and Citroën.
By Gijsbert-Paul Berk, Published in June 2009 by Veloce Publishing,UK.: ISBN: 978-1-845842-44-4

Grand Prix Bugatti (English) by H.G. Conway
Published by G.T. Foulis in 1968 – SBN 85429 0184

L’Epopée Bugatti (French) by L’Ebé Bugatti – Published by ‘La Table Ronde’ (1966).
Reedited by Editions du Palmier in 2011 / contact@editions-palmier.com

Bugatti by Borgeson (English) by Griffith Borgeson – Published by Osprey Publishing (1981). ISBN 0-85045- 414-X

Le Duel Bugatti-Voisin (French) by Fabien Sabates and Gilles Blanchet (1982)
Reedited by Editions du Palmier in 2011 – ISBN 13 : 978-2-36059-011-7

Delage: La Belle Voiture Française (French) by Daniel Cabaret and Claude Rouxel
Published by E-T-A-I – ISBN 9782726888323

Delage: Styling and Design (English) by Richard Adatto and Diane Meredith (English)
Published by Dalton Watson – ISBN 1-85443-204-4

Fiat en Grand Prix 1920-1930 (French) by Sébastien Faurès Fustel de Coulanges
Published (2009) – ISBN 9782726888858

Rolland-Pilain: La Grande Aventure Automobile Tourangelle (French)
by Gilles Blanchet and Claude Rouxel – Published by Edition Edijac, Pontoise (1985).

Mes 1001 Voitures by Gabriel Voisin (French) – Published by ‘La Table Ronde’ (1962).
Reedited by Editions du Palmier in 2010 – ISBN 978-2-36059-007-0
My 1001 Cars by Gabriel Voisin (English) Published by Faustroll (2012).
ISBN 978 0 9569811 27

The Greatest Motoring Achievement Ever Recorded (English)
Published by the Sunbeam Motor Company Ltd.

The Grand Prix Car (English) by Laurence Pomeroy, Illustrated by L.C. Cresswell
Published by Temple Press – first edition in May 1949, revised edition volume 1 January 1954

Gijsbert-Paul Berk

Gijsbert-Paul in 1949 restoring a T40 Bugatti.

Gijsbert-Paul Berk was born in 1930 in Kampen, the Netherlands. He studied at the Institute for Automobile Management IVA, Driebergen. Post graduate education included courses on industrial time-and production management and at the HEC in Paris on marketing communications.

In the early 1950s, he worked as an apprentice for Maurice Gatsonides, then involved in building Gatso cars. He went to Paris to try his luck as a designer/draftsman for various coachbuilders, among them Saoutchik. This proved to be a bad idea as the French coachbuilding industry was facing distinction. Gijsbert-Paul did not give up art however; his drawings of the 1923 Tours Grand Prix cars that begin each chapter are examples of his talent.

After the Paris sojourn, he returned to the Netherlands as an assistant in the sports department of the Netherlands Automobile Club KNAC. He became involved in organizing rallies and the annual Grand Prix race on the Zandvoort circuit. At that time he also started writing articles for De Auto, the magazine of the KNAC. In 1955 he joined Fred van der Vlugt who had founded the magazine Autovisie as technical editor. Gijsbert-Paul was the first Dutch journalist to road test the Citroën DS.

Judging at Het Loo in 2007. Photo by John Mulder.

From 1959 onward he worked as a freelance journalist, contributing amongst others to Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics and Auto en Motor Techniek, and also writing and translating books about cars and car maintenance. In 1966 he became Director Publicity and Marketing communications for Renault in the Netherlands. In 1973 he was appointed Deputy Director at the Amsterdam Exhibition and Congress Centre RAI, responsible for the communications of their exhibitions and trade fairs. In 1993 he was chosen as Secretary General of the Federation of Trade Fair Organizers in the Netherlands. He has also contributed to a TV documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Citroën DS and was for several years a member of the jury for the International Concours d’Elégance at Het Loo, Apeldoorn (Netherlands).

In 2011 with his wife Barbara.

After his retirement he moved with his wife Barbara to the Oise department in France. There he started writing again and produced the authorized biography of André Lefebvre. The book was published by Veloce Publishing in Britain and E-T-A-I in France and reviewed by VeloceToday.

Gijsbert-Paul is still writing about the motor industry, most recently an article about the problems of the French car industry and outsourcing for a Dutch magazine.

We are honored to welcome Gijsbert-Paul Berk to the pages of VeloceToday.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hans Arend de Wit July 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm

The article is absolutely stunning!
For instance the fight between Bugatti and Voisin.
Never heard of, and Rob Roy, what a character!
Gave my the idea to google him.
Most learned and competent!
Hans

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