Many of you may know that I am a big fan of the World Wide Web and the power that it can bring. The other day as I was browsing the internet, I happened upon a link to an article about the amazing history of motoring and how it all started in France. I had never really heard of the Automobile Federation, and after reading the article I found out that it is the world’s oldest auto-club still in existence. It was founded in 1911, which is pretty impressive! It seems that back then cars were much more than just a mode of transportation. They were a reflection of the affluence of the individual owning them, a statement of their social status, and a way for men to bond with other men, or boys with girls. Of course, today cars are much more than that, but the sentiment certainly stays the same. In any case, it was an eye-opener for me to learn about this wonderful organization and its incredible history. So much so that I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to it!
Charles Marie Ducloux
One of the interesting things about the AF is that it was formed by motorists who were extremely devoted to preserving the French tradition of auto-racing. It was originally called the Automobile Club de France, or ACF for short. Since its founding in 1911 it has always been referred to simply as the AF, or “Automobile Federation” in English. To this day it remains the world’s oldest auto-club still in existence. In fact, it is still so dedicated to preserving the French auto-racing tradition that it reserves the right to be the exclusive licensee of any international sports car race that it organizes. This includes the Le Mans, the 24 Heures du Mans, and of course, the legendary Rallye Gauloise. So, even though cars themselves have changed a lot since 1911, the AF has remained steadfast in its commitment to motor-racing. It continues to this day to hold an annual dinner in honor of its founder, Charles Marie Ducloux. Each December a bronze statue of Charles Marie is unveiled in the city of Grenoble, in memory of his passing in 1926.
Jean Baptiste Buisson
Another of the individuals behind the establishment of the AF was Jean Baptiste Buisson. Unfortunately, unlike Ducloux, the world didn’t get to see much of Buisson’s career as an auto racer due to ill health. Nevertheless, he is still hailed as one of the fathers of French motorized sport. In 1908, Buisson designed and built a 20-mile racetrack in his hometown, Avallon. The next year he entered the track in an automobile and defeated the German racing champion, Bernd von Brauchitsch, and his passenger, Georges Roux. For this feat Brauchitsch gave him a silver cup equipping the town’s Café Muller for winning the French Grand Prix. Even more impressive is that it wasn’t just any old race cup, but was made of silver and had a diamond-studded handle on it! The Café Muller is now a brasserie, but it preserves the original form and function of the old café, and continues to serve Avallon’s community every day.
Fellow Frenchman Louis Chiron is also credited with helping to found the AF. In fact, he was the first President of the organization, and continued to serve in that capacity until his death in 1945. Even after spending most of his career working for the French railways, Chiron always kept himself involved in motorsport. In fact, he was a director of La Compagnie, a French train company which owned several racing teams at the time. When the AF was founded he was the general manager of a large depot in Colombes, a suburb of Paris. In addition to working for the French railways he was also an accomplished motorcycle racer. It was due to this involvement in motorsport that Chiron is sometimes referred to as the “King of the Highways”. He was also the founder of the Grand Tour de France, an annual motor-tour of France that was established in 1927. In his honor, a 10-mile section of the Autoroute de Paris is still called the “Route Louis Chiron” today.
The First World War
As if all this history wasn’t enough, let’s not forget about the First World War. Back in 1914, after the war had already started, the French established a secret society called the Automobile Club d’Orient, or ACO for short. The stated purpose of the club was to promote motorized sport and create a more aggressive driving culture. It staged its first race in that year as well, and since then it has held an annual event, the Grand Prix de l’ACO, every year in the Middle Eastern country. Even now, over a century later, the ACO continues to hold an annual dinner and race, but instead of automobiles they now use tanks, jets, and drones!
The point of all this history is that it shows how far automotive racing had come in just a few short years. In 1911 there were no international racing leagues, and certainly not any that were held on an annual basis. But by 1919 the World War I had created a huge new market for cars, and it was only a matter of time before the auto racing scene was able to be revived. Thankfully, this is exactly what happened, and in the process we were given the unique opportunity to see how far automotive technology had come in just a few short years.
Of course, we aren’t limited to just these five individuals. The Automobile Federation is just one of the many fascinating stories that can be told about motorsport in early 20th century France. With so much history it’s no wonder that the AF has been able to survive and even flourish during one of the most trying periods in its existence. Even more impressive is that the majority of its members are still actively involved in the sport today. If you are interested in the history of French motorsport you can find a lot of information on the AF’s website (www.autofedcf.com). Whether you’re a car enthusiast or just want to know more about the fascinating world of French motorsport, this article should help get you started.