The ubiquity of seeing German and Japanese vehicles alongside American cars on roads in the United States might make this apparent contrast feel like a recent phenomenon. Competition between American manufacturers and foreign cars is as old as the automobile itself, tracing its roots back to the late 19th century. American companies were extremely quick to create their own iterations of the novel German invention to market to Americans.
Despite how new the automobile was, it quickly became a product that was exported globally. In the 1890s, the foreign automobile import market in the United States was mainly based in New York City. The domestic car industry was initially dispersed across the industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, but would eventually congregate in Detroit, Michigan.
The catalytic figure of this story is Alexander Winton, a Scottish immigrant who would eventually settle in Cleveland, OH. He started the first company to sell American-made production automobiles, instead of made-to-order machinery. Like many of his contemporary colleagues, Winton raced his cars. His initial notoriety would come from an endurance drive from Cleveland to New York. It took 11 days to complete the 800 mile journey with over 3 days of time spent behind the wheel.
As noted in a contemporary issue of The Horseless Age, many Americans compared Winton’s average speed to recent city-to-city races in France. Winton said that the comparison was unfair due to the poor quality of America’s roads in the same publication. Keep in mind, this was a time before the Interstate Highway System. To prove that his automobiles were superior to the cars from Europe, Winton knew he would have to face the competition head-to-head.
Alexander Winton sent a challenge in 1899 to Fernand Charron, Europe’s best racing driver at the time. Charron drove for Panhard and won the last two major races in Europe, 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris and 1899 Paris-Bordeaux. A mediator was brought in to negotiate the terms of the race, Gordon Bennett. Bennett published the New York Herald, despite living in self-exile in Paris. He had left New York after a controversial incident that ended his engagement. At his fiancée’s family home, he urinated into a fireplace after arriving late and drunk for a party. He was also involved in a fistfight with his fiancée’s brother on Fifth Avenue the next day.
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The negotiations reached an impasse and the match race was called off. Winton demanded that the race be held in the United States. Charron felt the prize purse was too small for it to be worth him traveling across the Atlantic to America. Bennett would find his own workaround to still organize an international competition to sell his newspaper and avoid having to convince individual competitors to participate.
Gordon Bennett was successfully able to propose a new concept to the Automobile Club de France, the preeminent motorsport body in the world. A race between three-car national teams called the Coupe Internationale. The primary regulation was that every car entered must be wholly built in the country it represents. The first car across the finish line would win the race for their country as well as a trophy donated by Gordon Bennett and the right to organize the next race. By the time the first race took place, the event was more commonly referred to as the Gordon Bennett Cup.
The inaugural Gordon Bennett Cup was held in 1900 as a 350-mile city-to-city race in France between Paris and Lyon. Ironically, both Alexander Winton and Fernand Charron participated. Winton was the first to retire from the race and Charron won the race for France. The Gordon Bennett Cup would be held five more times and France would win the trophy three more times. Winton would race for the Cup again three years later and again fail to finish. The United States would never win the Gordon Bennett Cup.
The Gordon Bennett Cup would end after its 1905 edition. The Automobile Club de France (ACF) could not agree to new regulations with the other competing national clubs, most notably the Automobilclub von Deutschland. The ACF discounted the Gordon Bennett Cup and organized their own race where they were in complete control of the regulations, the French Grand Prix. This Grand Prix would encourage other national clubs to organize their own Grand Prix, forming the basis of what would become today’s Formula One.