By 1910 French motor racing was at the crossroads. The manufacturers who supported the Grand Prix - there was only one event in those days - had formed a concordat and withdrawn their support on the grounds of cost. They also feared repeats of a German victory in the 1908 Grand Prix, when Mercedes and Benz cars (then seperate companies) swept the board.
There was no Grand Prix in 1909, nor any prospect of one in 1910. Fiat, Benz and Mercedes sent their cars to race in America and established reputations which were to stand them in good stead, while France turned to voiturette racing.
The Automobile Club de France organized their own voiturette race in conjunction with the 1908 Grand Prix, and as it happened there was far more support for this race than the "big race". The winner was of course a Delage, but the following year the Coupe de l'Auto became the big race, and it was won by a 1,962cc single-cylinder Lion Peugeot designed by Louis Verdet, an aviation engine designer. Ghiusoe Giuppone was driver.
Delage didn't bother with an entry for this race, the success of 1908 ensuring there remained plenty of interest in the marque and sales of their touring cars was strong. The 1909 Coupe de l'Auto des Voiturettes was not in the best tradition of the series because the regulations encouraged long stroke engines by offering manufacturers the choice of long or short stroke engines, and making the capacity of the long stroke option 500 c.c. more than the short stroke one.
The winning Peugeot had cylinder dimensions of 100 x 250mm.
Charles Faroux, advisor and decision maker (in French, he would be referred to as éminence grise) realised the error of his ways in 1910. He also realised there would be greater publicity potential if the race were both longer and catered for more traditional cars.
The regulations for the 1910 Coupe de l'Auto race were considerably revised, so much so that the engines built for the event influenced sports car engine design for the next two decades! Briefly Faroux made both four and six cylinder engines eligible, while single and two-cylinder iterations were excluded. The four cylinder engines could have bore and stroke dimensions from 98.5 x 98.5mm to 78.1 x 156.2mm on a sliding scale, while six-cylinder units were to vary between 86 X 86mm and 68.2 X 136.4mm.
In no case was the capacity to exceed 3 liters. There was a provison that if any entry had already been listed in its maker's catalogue with cylinders which exceeded this ratio, it would be admitted. The minimum car weight was 800kg (l,763Ib) without fuel or spares; while mudguards with a minimum width of 20cm (8in.) had to be fitted. Interestingly the original Bentley 3-liter matched these specifications exactly, although it was on the heavy side in touring trim.
Since this 1911 Coupe de l'Auto race was for proper motor cars the voiturette connotation was dropped and it became a race for voitures legeres (light cars). The venue was Boulogne-sur-Mer once again - the 1909 and 1910 races had been held there on the short circuit - but the course was lengthened to 52km. Race distance was 12 laps, about 387 miles. Boulogne was chosen as the venue in the hope of attracting entries from the other side of the Channel. Thanks to the organizers of the TT and, more particuularly, the existence of Brooklands, British manufacturers had become competition minded and among their entries were works teams from Sunbeam, Vauxhall, Arrol-Johnston and Calthorpe.
Chief among the French competitors were Peugeot and Delage, but there were others from Cote, Gregoire, Alcyon and FIF. Mathis from Strassburg (then in Germany) and Excelsoir from Belgium were also represented. All were of considerable technical merit but attention was concentrated on the past winners Peugeot and Delage. Peugeot repeated the V4 configuration of the previous year but with the more restrained cylinder dimensions of 78 X 156mm. The Delages, on the other hand, were completely new. This was the first four-cylinder racing engine by their engineer Arthur-Leon Michelat and broke new ground in many directions.
One of these was the use of horizontal valves on either side of the cylinder heads operated by camshafts in the crankcase and transmitting motion through push rods and bell cranks. The cylinders were cast in pairs with the heads and exhaust ports integral, the latter exhausting upwards. Mixture was supplied by a large single updraught carburetor and fired by two plugs in each cylinder. Cylinder dimensions of 80 X 149.5mm were chosen to make for a compact combustion chamber in which the 2.35in. diameter valves operated. The light alloy crankcase supported the built-up crankshaft on five ball bearings, the inner ones being supplied with oil by a gear-type pump.
Spill was collected in grooves turned in the faces of the crank webs and fed to the big ends of slender, tubular connecting rods. Pistons were machined from steel bars until almost wafer thin and copiously drilled for lightness to the extent that they weighed little more than the today's modern aluminum component. The race engine developed 50 bhp at 2,500 rpm, and was fitted parallel to the girder chassis, complete with pressed side-members supported on semi-elliptic springs front and rear. To comply with race regulations governing seat height, these sidemembers dipped smartly downwards abreast of the scuttle and were then swept upwards over the live back axle. Power was transmitted via a dry, multi-plate clutch to a five-speed gearbox with indirect drive on the highest ratio.
Following the custom of the time, the rear drum brakes were operated by the handbrake lever and supplemented by a pedal-operated transmission brake. Four of these Delages, the type X, were built and entered for the race with drivers Paul Bablot, Albert Guyot, Rene Thomas and Victor Rigal. They were confronted by V4 Peugeots in the hands of Georges Boillot, Jules Goix, Paulo Zuccarelli and Rene Hanriot. There was no doubt in the mind of the huge crowd that the winner would come from among these seven cars. In the race Boillot, as ever, set the pace followed, briefly and to the delight of British spectators, by Burgess in the Calthorpe and then by Goux and Bablot in the Delage which not only sounded good but looked a good deal steadier on the road than the lofty Peugeots.
Peugeot quickly lost one man when Zuccarelli ran out of road and turned over. Burgess disappeared from the leader board, but not from the race, on the second lap and Bablot moved into second place with Guyot supplanting Goux. Soon the Delages had four of the first six positions, Thomas had moved up behind Bablot and Rigal displaced Goux. The needle match was between Boillot and Bablot. Halfway through the race trouble struck the leader when he had to stop to change a wheel on the circuit. He came into the pits at the same time as Bablot, who had started later. The Delage driver had a shorter stop and got away ahead of the Peugeot. From then on the race was his despite brilliant driving by Boillot. A sweeping triumph for Delage was somewhat marred when Rigal's transmission brake seized on the eleventh lap.