Soon after I arrived to live in the Irish Midlands I noticed road signs pointing to “The Gordon Bennett Route”. I knew the name Gordon Bennett only as a substitute for an expletive; an expression of shock or surprise. I had no idea that there ever was a real person of that name.
It turns out there are at least 3: according to the website History Revealed, one possible source of the use of the name as an exclamation is an Australian WWII general who managed to escape when Singapore was under attack by the Japanese, leaving his men behind; another is the Journalist who founded the New York Herald. The third, and most likely, candidate is his son who squandered the family fortune on booze, fast women and even faster motor cars.
It is certainly the latter who gave his name to the country lanes in Counties Laois, Kildare and Carlow that make up the aforementioned Gordon Bennett Route: the eponimous dissolute sponsored one of the earliest international car races — a forerunner of modern Formula 1 Grands Prix.
Perhaps thinking along the lines of “out of sight, out of mind” the family encouraged him to open an office for the Herald Tribune in Paris. He decided that a good way to promote the paper would be to sponsor various high profile events: a balloon race, a yacht race and an air race. And, in 1900, he sponsored the first ever car race on a closed circuit: the Gordon Bennett Cup Race.
France was a pioneering country so far as automobile construction was concerned with over 350 manufacturers at that time. It also had an excellent road network.
According to the website of the Gordon Bennett Irish Classic Run:
The rules laid down for the races were that each country could enter three cars which had to be made in the country they represented. The victorious country would keep the trophy for one year after which it would be put up again for competition. The winning country would host the next race in the series. France won the 1900 and 1901 races. In 1902, in the race from Paris to Vienna it was decided that the Gordon Bennett Cup Trophy would be won by the first car to reach Salzburg
An English man by the name of Selwyn Francis Edge was the only competitor to reach Salzburg. All the other cars broke down or failed to finish.
That meant that the next race — 1903 — should be held in Britain. The English movers and shakers were not keen on having noisy, smelly motor cars hurtling around the lanes frightening the horses. But Ireland was still a part of the UK. And there were influential Irish men in the motoring and cycling press. They quickly saw the benefit of staging the race on Irish soil and devised a route through parts of County Kildare, Carlow and Laois (then called Queen’s County).
A Polish Count is credited with the notion of having all the English cars painted emerald green in honour of the race being staged in Ireland. Ironically, that colour came to be known as British Racing Green and was the colour under which the British Formula 1 team raced for many years.
The race was held on 3rd July over 104 miles in 5 stages. In towns the cars were preceded by bicycles to ensure compliance with speed limits.
To celebrate the event, in recent years a classic car run is held over the original route during the weekend that includes the bank holiday held on the first Monday in June. This year the event runs from Friday 31st May to Monday 3rd June. And for 2019 an additional event has been added for the Friday evening; a drive from the thatched pub, Treacy’s of The Heath, which has always been the central venue for the modern run, to the thatched pub, Sheerans, in Coolrain in the Slieve Bloom mountains. Full details of this year’s event are on the website (see link above). It may be too late for this year — the event was fully booked by the end of January — but if you are a classic car enthusiast it’s well worth getting in early by reserving your place for next year when bookings open on Monday 3rd June this year.