April 2016

My name is Mollie Horne and I am the Archive Assistant trainee at the BMIHT Archive. For the past seven months I have been working through a vast collection of jumbled Wolseley negatives; reboxing, resleeving, rearranging and finally cataloguing them so they can be made publicly accessible. The eclectic nature of the collection means I have been spoiled for choice when selecting a document but I have chosen to share a rare image of Leslie Porter’s destroyed racing car.

Wolseley racing car raced (and crashed) by Captain Leslie Porter in the 1903 Paris-Madrid road race

Why This Document?

I have chosen this document due to both my interest in racing cars and the fascinating story of how this racer ended up in such a terrible state. Motor racing took off in the late 1890s with a series of city to city trials and road races, most famously the Gordon Bennett cup. As these races were essentially a sequence of unprecedented experiments, they were longer and more dangerous than the motor racing we are familiar with today. Instead of small aerodynamic vehicles, motor companies developed large and cumbersome machines with powerful engines designed purely for speed and with little regard to the safety of drivers and spectators alike. For example, part of Wolseley’s contribution to motor sport was the bizarrely designed raised seats for the driver and mechanic, which acted as a kind of slingshot and gave them virtually no protection in the event of a crash.

The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company (founded in 1901), was mainly known for its large saloon cars, but its first General Manager, Herbert Austin, was very keen on motor sport. Consequently, in the years when motor sport was in its infancy, the company was very active in this field. I first came across this negative in a box together with some other shots of racing cars but this particular image had been identified by Oliver, one of our knowledgeable volunteers, as possibly belonging to ‘Porter’. Given that a car with a story is more valuable to me than a pristine off the line model, I was determined to find out who Porter was and how his car had ended up in this horrific state. I used the Wolseley sales brochures to identify the racer as a 50 hp model and, after some research in our Reading Room, it became clear that this particular car, competition number 243, was raced by Captain Leslie Porter in the Paris-Madrid road race.

The Paris-Madrid race was organised by the Automobile Club de France to run in May 1903 on public roads and was scheduled to last for approximately 890 miles through France and into Spain. Around 221 cars and motorcycles of various shapes, sizes and speeds entered the French dominated race. Out of the handful of English entries, Wolseley contributed four, including our ill-fated number 243 driven by Porter. Herbert Austin himself was in the driving seat of one of the other cars, and though he did not finish the race, he at least returned his vehicle in one piece. The Paris-Madrid road race was one of the earliest examples of large scale motor racing and safety precautions were very limited. The cars were started at intervals of one minute meaning that, as some cars reached 90 mph whereas others did not, collisions were more likely. In addition to this, drivers had to contend with large, unruly crowds close to the track who were often disguised by the clouds of dust spraying up from the unsurfaced roads. Added to the sheer danger provided by the cars themselves, these issues meant that many accidents and some deaths (such as that of Marcel Renault, the co-founder of the Renault Car Company), occurred on the day.

Porter and his mechanic fell victim to such a fate when they hurtled round a corner and were surprised by the closed gates of a level crossing. Accounts of what happened next appear to differ due to the sensational media accounts with some people suggesting they ran into the gates and others believing that they missed them but instead collided with a house. However, all seem to agree that the car caught fire and trapped Porter’s mechanic who tragically died in the accident. The photograph shows the damage inflicted on the racer and how little protection Porter and his mechanic had available to them.

This picture provides valuable historical evidence about the fate of these early road races. The extent of the damage helps to explain why the race was halted at Bordeaux and why, within a few years, racing on city roads had been completely banned because of the danger to participants and spectators alike. It is also fascinating because of the rarity of the subject; there are few photographic examples of the consequences of such accidents. This is why this is one of my favourite images from the Wolseley collection. The damage is so clearly visible, from the burst tyres to the mangled grill and steering wheel, and every time I look at this image, I find something I had missed the time before.

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