Chronicles of the past
In this article we share a glimpse into the past, as we present details of the famous 1935 Rally from Paris to Saint-Raphaël for women.
In the mid-20th century, one of the greatest winter events in Saint-Raphaël, in the Var, was both worldly and sporting: the Paris-Saint-Raphael women’s automobile Rally. For many years it was the only motorized competition in the world reserved for women. Created in 1929 by Count Edme de Rohan-Chabot, in its first year the Rally placed behind the wheel women of the aristocracy such as the Countess of Lesguerns and the baroness of Elern, members of the worldly nobility of the time who were well-known in Paris. The Parisian magazine L’Illustration sent one of its journalists on location and published a report on 16 March, 1935 on this competition.
What was the journalist interested in first? “This modern tournament where women compete under the watchful eyes of men takes on a traditional cachet of elegance, where the sports “ensembles” and cream colours worn by the drivers match the beautiful car bodies. A kind of eclecticism in the choice of the outfit mixes the classic tailoring of golf trousers and riding trousers, the leopard-print sand “leathers” in the form of riding boots and aviator boots, andhelmets, caps, berets and all the bright multi-colours of the jumpers.”
However, the Rally was not simply a beauty contest along the maritime promenade of Saint-Raphaël! Drivers had to cross France starting from Paris in five stages, some of which were encumbered with snow: Vichy, Chambéry, Digne, Marseille, Saint-Raphaël. How did this competition begin? With a tea on the Champs-Élysées offered in the salons of the Automobile Club, Place de la Concorde. The departure of the first stage Paris-Vichy was on 27 February, 1935 in Orly, on National Road 7 leaving the Porte d’Italie. That year, forty competitors entered the race.
Two accidents have marked the race: “During the fourth stage Digne Marseille-Toulon (211 kilometres), one of the competitors, Madame Digne, whose name foreshadowed the event that would happen in that very spot, had quite an experience. Near Peyrolle, she lost control of the car at 70 kilometres per hour and fell into a 6-metre deep ravine where her car flipped over several times. But she came out of it without a scratch and as her camera had remained intact, Madame Digne could, by way of consolation, take a snapshot of the results of her somersault.”
In its history, the Paris-Saint-Raphaël women’s car rally was struck by tragedy only once: in 1932 by the death of the French woman Renée Friderich in a Delage D8.
Welcomed in Bandol and Toulon
The competitors received a triumphant reception everywhere they went. In Bandol, the nautical club offered them flowers. They were approaching the last stage, Saint-Raphaël, where they waited for an additional short distance race.
“We reserved the last stage for the Sunday, 3 March, the shortest since it is only 98 kilometres, from Marseilles to Saint-Raphaëlvia Toulon. It was the easiest but nevertheless eventful stretch, because of the vibrant and boisterous crowd enjoying the sunny weather, as they gathered along the course cheering for the competitors. They arrived at Saint-Raphaël, where the Automobile Club of France was represented by its president, the Viscount de Rohan, and the Automobile Club des Artistes by its president, Mrs Marie Leone, the famous society woman of la Comédie Française, and the thirty-three remaining non-penalized cars still had to compete in the final event for the ranking by category”.
This final race took place in Saint-Raphaël. The competitors had to start with a single round-trip of 60 meters, start-stop, and show their perfect control of the cars by a test of braking and steering. In 1935, the Rally was won by Olga Thibault in a Peugeot 201. The competition continued until 1975, three years after the death of its founder, the Count of Rohan-Chabot. In 1975 the first foreign winner was crowned, the German Christine Beckers. That year, the competition was included for the first time in the European Rally Championship. The famous driver Michèle Mouton, born in Grasse, took part in her first competition as a driver in 1974. At that point many years later, the Rally no longer focussed on worldly elegance of the early days, it had become a true sporting event.
As we look back into the past, from the beauty of the clothes to the courage of the drivers, it’s amazing to see the transformation of this Rally from Paris to Saint-Raphaël just for women from its elegant origins in 1935 to being perceived as a real sporting event decades later.