‘The Motor Derby’ of 1903

Editor’s note: The story below first appeared in The Irish Times on April 7, 1903. The byline simply reads ‘A Correspondent’, but it was not one of The Times’ random pens; this was written by none other than James Joyce, author of Ulysses and one of the most famous and influential writers of the 20th century.

But just like the best of us, it seems even Joyce wasn’t above blogging about cars for cash once in a while. Irish journalist David Mullen recently unearthed a story called The Motor Derby which Joyce wrote over a century ago before the Gordon Bennett Cup race in Ireland in 1903, interviewing Henri Fournier, factory driver of the French car manufacturer Mors. Although the interview is known to Joyce scholars and motor racing historians as an interesting piece of ephemera, it never caught the eye. This is, we suspect, the first time it has appeared online in its entirety. Mullen also wrote a companion article explaining the historical background to Joyce’s story, the Gordon Bennett Cup and the turn of the century races which you can read here.

Henri Fournier, the subject of Joyce’s interview, in 1902. via Wikimedia

PARIS. In the rue d’Anjou, not far from the church of the Madeleine, is the establishment of Mr. Henri Fournier. “Paris Automobile” – a company of which Mr. Fournier is the manager – has its registered office there. Inside the gate is a large square courtyard, covered, and on the floor of the courtyard and on large shelves extending from floor to roof are arranged automobiles of all sizes, shapes and colors. In the afternoon, this courtyard is full of noise, the voices of workers, the voices of buyers speaking half a dozen languages, telephone rings, the horns of the “drivers” at the entrance and at the car exit. — and it is almost impossible to see Mr. Fournier unless you are prepared to wait two or three hours for your turn. But “car” buyers are, in a sense, people of leisure. The morning, however, is more favourable, and yesterday morning, after two failures, I succeeded in seeing M. Fournier.

Mr. Fournier is a slim, active young man with dark red hair. As the hour was early, our interview was, from time to time, interrupted by the importunate telephone.

James Joyce: Are you one of the Gordon-Bennett Cup competitors, Mr. Fournier?

Mr. Fournier: Yes, I am one of the three selected to represent France.

JJ: And you’re also a contender, aren’t you, for the Prix de Madrid?

JJ: Which of the races comes first, the Irish race or the Madrid race?

The Madrid race. It takes place at the beginning of May, while the race for the International Cup does not take place until July.

JJ: I take it you are actively preparing for your races?

Well, I just got back from touring Monte Carlo and Nice.

JJ: On your racing machine?

No, on a lower power machine.

JJ: Have you determined which machine you will ride in the Irish race?

JJ: Can I ask his name? Is it a Mercedes?

The 80 horsepower Mors car competed in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup. Getty Images

JJ: And on this machine, you can travel at a rate of…?

You mean his highest speed?

Its maximum speed would be one hundred and forty kilometers per hour.

JJ: But you’re not going to go at this pace all the time during the race?

Oh no, of course his average speed for the race would be less than that.

JJ: An average speed of how much?

Its average speed would be one hundred kilometers per hour, maybe a little more than that, something between one hundred and one hundred and ten kilometers per hour.

JJ: A kilometer is about half a mile, right?

More than that, I should think. How many meters are in your mile?

One of Mors’ participants in the 1903 race. Getty Images

JJ: Seventeen sixty, if I’m right.

Then your half mile has eight hundred and eighty yards. Our kilometer is just equal to eleven hundred meters.

JJ: Let me see, so your top speed is almost 130 km/h and your average speed is 100 km/h.

I guess so, if we calculate correctly.

JJ: It’s a terrible pace. That’s enough to burn our roads. I take it you’ve seen the roads you have to travel?

JJ: No? You don’t know the course then?

I know him a little. I know it, that is to say by some sketches which have been given of it in the Paris newspapers.

JJ: But surely you want a better knowledge than that?

Oh certainly. In fact, before the end of the month, I intend to go to Ireland and inspect the course. I may go in three weeks.

JJ: Will you be staying in Ireland anytime?

I’m afraid not. I would love to, but I don’t think I can.

JJ: I take it you wouldn’t like to be asked your opinion on the outcome?

JJ: Yet which nation do you fear the most?

I fear them all, Germans, Americans, English. They are all to be feared.

1902 Gordon Bennett Cup winner Selwyn Francis Edge in a Napier in the 1903 race.

JJ: And what about Mr. Edge?

JJ: He won the award last time, right?

JJ: So he should be your toughest opponent?

O yes… But you see, Mr. Edge won, of course, but… a man who was the last of all and had no chance of winning could win if the other machines failed.

However one looks at this claim, it seems hard to dispute its veracity.

The eventual winner of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, Camille Jenatzy in a 60 horsepower Mercedes.

James Joyce is one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. Additional reporting by David Mullen. You can read Mullen’s story of Joyce’s dive into motoring journalism and what ultimately happened with Fournier and the 1903 Gordon Bennett Irish Cup here.

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