Traditionally considered a gentleman's sport, rally racing is a form of motorsport that takes place on public or private roads with either modified or specially built cars that are road legal. This type of racing is unique in that it is not performed on a circuit, but rather is a point-to-point race in which the competitors and their co-drivers drive between two set points. Rallies are won either by speed or by driving in stages within a predetermined journey time.
Motorcar rallying can be traced back to 1894 to the Paris-Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition which was sponsored by Le Petit Journal. This rally attracted tremendous interest and heralded the start of this extremely popular motorsport. The term "rally" came into being in January 1907 from the first Monte Carlo Rally. Even then, up until the late 1920's, very few events used the term "rally" even though that is what the event would be considered under today's definitions.
The Paris-Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition led to a period of city-to-city road races in many European countries. These competitions introduced many of the features that are found in rallies today individual start times, cars running against the clock as opposed to other drivers, time controls, and entry and exit points of towns, use of road books and maps, long distance driving, and facing hazards such as everyday dust, traffic, pedestrians and even the occasional farm animals.
One of the absolute greatest races during this time was the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris Rally of July 1895. Won by Emile Levassor, his time for the 732-mile course was 48 hours and 48 minutes which was at an average speed of 15 mph!
When you take into consideration that just eight years later, the Mors of Fernand Gabriel, running the same roads, won the Paris-Madrid race in just under five and quarter hours for 342 miles at an average speed of 65.3 miles per hour, it is a testament to how quickly technology was advancing in motorcars.
At this point, speed far exceeded safety. The roads were mostly farm roads that were primarily dirt or gravel. It was a dangerous sport. During these early races, there were numerous crashes with many injuries and even deaths to spectators and competitors. In 1903, the French government stopped the races and banned these events due to safety reasons.
However, road racing would not go away!
Despite the ban in many parts of Europe, road racing in Italy continued to thrive, and the country's first motorcar race was held in 1897 along the shores of Lake Maggiore.
Subsequently in April 1900, the tides turned, and the Thousand Mile Trail was organized in Great Britain linking Britain's major cities. There were 70 vehicles taking part, most of them sponsored by trade organizations. Each entrant had to complete 13 stages of the route varying in length from 43 to 123 miles at average speeds up to the legal limit of 12 miles per hour! How things have changed!
In 1905, the German Herkomer Trophy Trail was held. The first event only allowed amateurs, but in 1906 professional racers were allowed and the win went to Dr. Rudolf Stoess who won driving a car with the smallest engine!
In 1905, France literally got back in the race when L'Auto sponsored the Coupe de l'Auto for small sporters.
WWI brought a slowdown to rally racing.
The Monte Carlo Rally, which had been terminated, was subsequently brought back, and has continued to thrive except for a short time during WWII. It is an annual event and remains part of the World Rally Championship. Due to tough winters, in the 1930's it became the number one European rally.
In the 1920s, numerous rallies sprung up that were run through the Alps in Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland, and Germany most notably Austria's Alpenfahrt, which continued to 1973, Italy's Coppa delle Alpi, and the Coupe Internationale des Alpes (organized by the automobile clubs in Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France.
In the UK, the first Ulster Motor Rally was held in Ireland in 1931 and was run from multiple starting points. Eventually, it transitioned into the 1,000-mile Circuit of Ireland Rally.
In Italy, after WWI, Mussolini's government encouraged motorsport, and in 1927 the Mille Miglia was founded and was run over a 1,000-mile loop of highways from Brescia to Rome and back.
The Lige of August 1939 was the last major rallying event before WWII and became a symbol of defiance. Germany was determined to secure a victory for the Reich but were thwarted by two talented drivers in French cars - Ginet Trasenster of Belgium and Jean Trevoux of France who tied for first place.
Again, rallying was slow starting up again after WWII. However, the 1950's were the Golden Age of the long-distance road rally. The Monte Carlo Rally, the French and Austrian Alpines, and the Lige were joined by a host of new events that quickly established themselves: the 1947 Lisbon Rally in Portugal, the 1949 Tulip Rally in The Netherlands, the 1951 Rally to the Midnight Sun in Sweden (now the Swedish Rally), the Finnish Rally of the 1000 Lakes started in 1951 (now the Rally Finland), and the Acropolis Rally started in 1956 in Greece.
The challenge of rally races was addictive, and the rallies became more and more dangerous and difficult.
In South America, The Gran Premio del Norte of 1940 was run from Buenos Aires to Lima and back. Repeated in 1947 and 1948, subsequent rallies were even more daunting. This event was repeated in 1947, and in 1948 an even more ambitious one was held, the Gran Premio de la America del Sur from Buenos Aires to Caracas, Venezuela where a driver was killed.
The Carrera Panamericana was held in 1950 and was a 1,911-mile road race performed in stages to celebrate the opening of the asphalt highway between the Guatemala and United States borders. This fast and dangerous race ran until 1954. Due to the extreme expense of putting on these types of races, they were eventually discontinued.
In 1950, the first French-run Mediterrane-le Cap, in Africa was run. This race was a 10,000-mile rally from the Mediterranean Sea to South Africa and was run sporadically until 1961 when political constraints ended it.
In 1953, the Coronation Safari in East Africa was started which eventually became the Safari Rally and World Championship round. This was followed by the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco, and the Rallye Cte d'Ivoire in the Ivory Coast. Australia's RedeX Round Australia Trial dates from 1953, although this race has remained somewhat isolated from the rest of the rallying world.
Types of Rallies:
Stage rallies. Stage rallies have been the predominant type of professional rallies performed since the 1960's. They are based on a straightforward speed over roads that are closed to other traffic. Often these stretches of road can vary anywhere from asphalt mountain passes to rough forest tracks, ice, snow, desert sand each picked out to provide specific challenges to the crew and the car's performance.
Road rallies. These are the original form and are held on highways that are open to normal traffic. The emphasis is not on speed, but on accurate timekeeping, navigation, and vehicle reliability. These tend to be more for amateurs.
Rallying is an immensely popular sport a sort of grass roots of motorsport. Interested individuals should contact their local automotive clubs which can be found online. Club rallies tend to be run on public roads emphasizing navigation and teamwork.
(This article was written in honor of my father, Hank Wehmeyer, who was the only American member of the East Anglia Motor Club in Felixstowe, UK from 1957-1960 where he drove a cream-colored Austin Healey. His co-driver was Tony Brierly. Good work, Dad!).
- Julie O'Hara 2023
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