The Grand Prix de Lyon is considered the origin of all forms of major motor sport, including Formula 1. At the event in 1914, Opel entered three Grand Prix cars. Now, 100 years later, Opel is returning for the centenary demonstration on May 1-3 with those same cars, plus a very special Opel: the famous “Green Monster” complete with its 12.3-liter engine, 260 hp and 700 Nm torque. These cars will give spectators a contemporary, eyewitness experience of the sights and sounds that captivated the public a century ago.
Grand Prix de Lyon 1914: German-French duel
July 4, 1914, the eve of World War I: despite mounting tensions in Europe, the French automobile club (ACF) held its first Grand Prix de Lyon. The Grand Prix de l’ACF had been an annual event at various venues since 1906. It was the highlight of the European motorsport season and a forerunner for the modern-day professional motor racing scene.
The field for the 1914 event included cars from 14 manufacturers representing six countries in a grueling 750 kilometer race. Opel entered three Grand Prix cars. Behind the wheel of the car with starting number 2 was contracted Opel driver Carl Jörns, the undisputed number 1 at Rüsselsheim. The other two white cars were piloted by Emil Erndtmann and Franz Breckheimer. As was common at the time, all three drivers were accompanied by ‘riding mechanics’, whose task was to monitor the meters and gauges and increase fuel pressure in the tank with a hand pump if necessary. The mechanics also had to assist during pit stops and deal with any unscheduled occurrences or incidents.
According to the new regulations of 1914, Grand Prix cars had 4.5-liter engines and a weight limit of 1,100 kilograms. The Opel cars’ technology was impressive: four valves per cylinder with a vertical drive shaft and overhead camshaft. A universal-shaft drive was also obligatory, replacing the long-dominant drive chain.
The Opels had a slippery, ‘torpedo’ body shape which contributed to a maximum speed of 160 km/h. As was typical at the time, the front wheels were unbraked. Only the rear wheels had brake drums which were activated by a hand-brake lever. Another brake operated by the right foot pedal was for a small, heat-sensitive drum on the drive shaft. The throttle pedal was in the center, with the leather-covered clutch to the left. Gears on the non-synchronized, four-speed gearbox were changed via an outboard gate shift.
Friedrich “Fritz” Opel, son of company founder Adam, travelled to Lyon to support his drivers. The Grand Prix de l’ACF did not take place on purpose-built race tracks, but used public roads that were closed and specially prepared. The start and finish area of the 36.7 km long course, which had to be lapped 20 times, was in Brignais, south-west of Lyon, where a large display board kept spectators updated on the race’s progress. There were also grandstands at other locations on the course, but the majority of the around 300,000 Grand Prix enthusiasts followed the race directly from the course sidelines.
Opel started from the front row. Carl Jörns was alongside the Hungarian Ferenc Szisz, driving a French Alda, who was then an international star and the first Grand Prix winner ever in 1906. Starting positions were decided by a draw, as there were no qualifying runs in those days.
As a portent of what was to come, the race developed into a duel between automakers from nations that would shortly be at war with each other – Germany and France. Although they also participated in the event, automakers from other countries hardly played a role. Carl Jörns had a good race and, after more than eight hours of driving, finished in tenth place.
Grand Prix de Lyon 2014: Demonstration run for most attractive Grand Prix cars
All three Opel cars from 1914 are in the line-up for this year’s centenary celebration. One is from Adam Opel AG’s historic collection and another is being brought by its owner from Munsterland. The longest trip is being made by the third Opel, thought to be Carl Jörns’ car, which is coming all the way from California. As was the case a century ago, the focal point of the largely unchanged course will again be Brignais.
Another remarkable participant is sure to turn heads: Opel Classic is entering its “Green Monster”. It also dates from 1914, but its huge, 12.3-liter engine made it ineligible for the Grand Prix de l’ACF. Today, this is not a problem because the Grand Prix de Lyon 2014 is not a race but a demonstration run for historic cars. The event is open to all sports and racing vehicles built before 1956.