At the turn of the 20th Century on 22 July 1894, a ground-breaking city-to-city motoring competition entitled ‘Le Petit Journal Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux’ [or ‘Le Petit Journal Competition for Horseless Carriages’] would mark the very first foray into motorsport for a great ancestor of the Mercedes marque.
Hosted in France – at the time considered the most advanced motorised nation – the event was organised by national newspaper ‘Le Petit Journal’ to boost circulation and stimulate interest in motoring. Despite organisers stopping short of classing the event as a race, this 127km test of pioneering machinery is widely regarded as the world’s first competitive motor race; offering prizes to the top finishers utilising eligible machinery [defined as not requiring a travelling mechanic or technical assistant such as an engine stoker]. Although earlier competitions had been held for automobiles powered by steam, the 1894 event was the first to attract a full field of vehicles; thereby acquiring its prestigious standing in motoring heritage.
The race itself was preceded by 4 days of vehicle exhibition and qualifying events, comprising interwoven routes staged around the city of Paris to determine worthy entrants for the main event. Over 100 entries were submitted – ranging from established manufacturers such as Peugeot to amateur enthusiasts – with 21 vehicles eventually taking to the start line; thirteen of which were powered by internal combustion engines. With both Daimler and Benz represented, the event was to prove a landmark occasion in the history of both marques.
While the sole Benz entry was classified in the results – placing fourteenth at the hands of Émile Roger – it was a Panhard-Levassor which claimed equal first prize, powered by a twin cylinder, 30-degree vee petrol engine produced under licence from Gottlieb Daimler. Although the car was not the first to cross the finish line, it shared the premier ‘5,000 franc du Petit Journal’ with the Peugeot brothers on the basis of being the competitors whose cars came “closest to the ideal” and were “easy to use”.
It was from these humble beginnings – a seven-hour journey averaging speeds marginally of less than 20 km/h – that the success story of Mercedes in motorsport finds its roots, as both Daimler and Benz went on to dominate the formative years of auto racing history during the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s.