Bonhams Pioneer, Vintage
& Classic Motorcycle Auctions

Bonhams Motorcycle Department

September 2009 - Death on French Roads

'The Large' in the Paris to Madrid race of 1903. Roger Fogg takes up the story.

In 1903 a small family firm of bicycle makers from Sale, Cheshire decided that they would like to manufacture a machine that bore their name but was a radical departure from anything they had produced before. It would have an internal combustion motor fitted! One can only speculate as to the reasons they chose to do this, but I would like to think that it was done in modern parlance “as a bit of a laugh” and also as a means of boosting sales and entering the new markets that were just opening up at the time. There was much debate about the future of the petrol engine at that time. It had by no means gained sufficient public approval or reliability to assure its continuing existence, and its future was still speculative.

The firm of Large and co decided to make a machine and enter it in the Paris to Madrid Race of 1903. The race was one of a series that took place on the continent of Europe. Many races were run from city to city, and indeed from continent to continent. They were hugely demanding for manufacturers and entrants, and as a spectator sport were extremely popular amongst a public that were still in awe of the fire breathing, self propelled monsters that thundered down their streets, apparently regardless of safety, driven by dare devil mechanics and immensely glamorous owners.

Competitors were required to travel huge distances at great speeds on public roads. The roads were never closed properly, and as a consequence normal everyday traffic had to be contended with. The lumbering horses and carts, flocks of animals, stray dogs and small children were warned to get out of the way, but there was little reinforcement outside of the main towns. Huge clouds of dust, potholes, tram lines and level crossings were only some of the hazards that were to be encountered. Sharp stones and horse shoe nails liberally sprinkled in the mud did nothing to aid the long life of the small section tyres.

As designed by the company, The Large was built around a beefed up but traditional bicycle frame. At the time De Dion Bouton were producing from their factory in Puteaux, Paris, a great number of “loose” engines, which they sold to whoever wanted them. The 3 ½ h.p.motor fitted to this machine actually pre dates it by a few years, it was probably a second hand one already by the time it was fitted for the race. Ignition was by coil, using an accumulator attached to the frame in the compartment provided under the seat. Petrol and oil was carried in the tank, carburation at the time may have been by “surface”, more likely though a conventional instrument would have been used. At present a 1907 pattern Brown and Barlow instrument is fitted. The motor has one mechanical exhaust valve, the inlet valve in its own little cassette is atmospheric, that is it relies on the piston to suck it down and let the fuel in, there being no mechanical means of opening it. Drive was by a belt to the rear wheel, single speed only, whilst the rear back pedalling coaster brake may well have been useful there was none at all fitted to the front. The front forks were originally unstrutted, but they have been re enforced recently as an added safety precaution. Interestingly the tyres were not beaded edge, but of wired on type, a design which we associate with much more modern times. Attached to the bike was a little box containing the paperwork that had to be stamped at the various checkpoints en route.

With the bike all ready to go, it was probably taken by train to London, and then on to Paris. The rider is down as “Large”. “Pilotes” of the two and three wheeled machines were generally very athletic and full of stamina. Often they were professional bicycle racers who had moved to motorised transport only recently, and still raced push bikes or tricycles at the same time in competitions. For them the option of sitting back in a huge car and simply operating the controls whilst a paid mechanic did much of the real work was not available. They had to be extremely strong, starting and riding a, what we can compare to a large and awkward moped, was an art form. Not only that but they had to have mechanical awareness to fix the thing when inevitably it broke down, they had to carry tools and spares and then keep an eye on the clock and the direction they were travelling in. Not an easy task.

The Large was entered as number 275, one of around 55 “Motocyclettes”. Also in the Race were Cars and Voiturettes. Race rules dictated that the bikes had to weigh less than 50 kgs. Many famous drivers were entered, Jarrot, C.S.Rolls, Bugatti, Lord Carnarvon and the Renault Brothers amongst them.

The race started from Versailles on May24th 1903. The crowds were enormous, and the vehicles all had tremendous problems with spectators. Although at first the route was lined with soldiers to keep the crowds out of harms way, soon the guards began to get spread out and onlookers could get very close to the action if they wanted. The motocyclettes were last away, following in the dust of the others. Soon tragedy occurred and there were many accidents, both drivers and those watching were amongst the seriously injured and killed. Cars ran out of control into trees, ditches and indeed each other. People who did not understand the concept of speed and tried to cross in front of a monster car being driven at 80 mph were run into.

Marcel Renault died when his car failed to negotiate a bend North of Angouleme, and at Bordeaux the race was stopped by the Mayor because of the number of deaths. He decreed that he would not allow any vehicle from the race into his city. Those entrants that did eventually get to Bordeaux faced the prospect of their cars being hitched to a team of horses and pulled to the railway station, where they were loaded onto trucks and returned to Paris by train.

The Large was going well, but just a few hundred yards before the place where Renault met his fate, “le Pilote Large avait chute a la suite de l’eclatement d’un pneu. Il fut blesse a la main et a la jambe.” And that was that. Mr Large was carted off to have his broken limbs mended and the bike with its puncture loaded onto a horse and cart and taken to the station at Couhe for repatriation. It must have been a huge adventure for the family firm, possibly a financial gamble. Some of the motorcycles got through to Bordeaux, many suffered a similar fate to the Large.

Although we have tried to find out what subsequently happened to the firm of Large and Co, Bicycle Makers of Manchester there seems to be no trace in the records. Whether or not their attempt at the race dealt a blow to their existence we may never know.

However there is a little more known about the fate of the machine itself. The Large was sold into private hands in 1909, but after the start of the First War its whereabouts is unknown. There is some speculation that it was ridden in the very first Pioneer Run, where a machine designated 3 ½ hp De Dion was entered. It has also been suggested that it was given away as a booby prize in one of the South East Centre Trials during the mid thirties. It re emerges in the fifties and its whereabouts can be easily traced from then on.

The Large has been ridden in various VMCC events, and managed the whole of the Pioneer Run once, except for the three red traffic lights at the bottom of the hill in Reigate. The exhausted rider, after three attempts to start it by pedalling uphill, had to be trailered to the top, where the next flat bit of road occurred. Similarly, there was a two mile push into Brighton Promenade, due to the intractability of the bike in the modern traffic jams of the narrow town centre streets. Recently, Reg Eyre saw 55 mph on it, although it is happy between 25 and 30 mph. Reg has developed it into a much more useable machine, and added struts to the forks for safety reasons. The large chrome tube that looks like an exhaust pipe is in fact used to conduct leaking petrol away from the hot engine and points. It did catch fire once, not disastrously, but enough to make sure that a fire extinguisher on the carrier is always present when it’s running. It has a modern Burlen battery hidden under the seat, and a Japanese coil just to make things easy without spoiling its appearance.

Someone, a rider of a modern bike once asked what it was like to ride. “Choose any bike you like, Harley, BMW whatever. Now choose any gear you like. Now remove the clutch lever, the gear change lever, the starter and the brakes. Now ride it!” Actually it’s much more manageable than that. Given relatively flat countryside it will pootle along quite nicely. Provided you jiggle with the controls, and don’t forget to oil it, it is quite a reliable little thing. Problems happen at junctions, in traffic and on hills, but these happen on many veteran machines and can be coped with. At 106 years old it can be a little cranky, but it ran before the Wright Brothers made their flight so maybe that’s understandable.


Other News Articles