Paul Charman: How WW1 changed car manufacturing

Georges Boillot nearly reached 100mph in the 1914 Indianapolis 500, a year after Jules Goux won the race.
Georges Boillot nearly reached 100mph in the 1914 Indianapolis 500, a year after Jules Goux won the race.

As the 100th anniversary of the Great War looms, we could reflect that among the many ways this seismic event changed the world - it changed auto manufacturing forever.

The War knocked France off its perch as the world's preeminent car manufacturer.

In 1914, Paris was the motor city of the day. There were 600 car manufacturers in France and 150 different makes; not just the emerging giants of Peugeot and Renault, but long-forgotten ones like Berliet and Delaunay-Belleville. Delaunay-Belleville, which operated from what is now the high-immigration suburb of Saint-Denis, made limousines for Tsar Nicholas of Russia.

The BBC says France was the world's biggest exporter of cars, and there was pride, but no great surprise, when the racing driver Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500 - in a Peugeot.

In fact, until the Great War, France led the way in almost every field of technology.

For example, in the skies. Bleriot crossed the Channel in 1908 and, in 1913, the sportsman Roland Garros - killed in combat during the last month of the war - completed the first crossing of the Mediterranean.

In cinema, invented of course, by the Lumiere brothers two decades before, France vied with the US for first place in number of films produced; more than 1000 every year, made by names still familiar today like Gaumont and Pathe.

However, although among the victors of World War I, France was utterly devastated by the trench warfare fought against the Germans.

The War took 1.6 million French lives, all but halted industrial production and caused economic devastation.

Though Karl Benz of Germany is credited with the 1885 invention of the automobile (a French word by the way), his first horseless carriage was an awkward tricycle powered by a single cylinder engine, says historian Philippe Defecheraux.

"The French who gave the automobile its modern form - engine in front, followed by transmission of power to rear wheels by means of longitudinal axle - and developed the suspension designs, gearboxes, steering and braking systems that made the modern car possible."

To this day, basic car types take their names from French towns, or expressions.

Limousine, Sedan, Coupe and Cabriolet are some examples.

Henry Ford may have had the Great War to thank for perfecting mass manufacture ahead of France.

But the French left their stamp on US car manufacture. Ironically, Detroit was given its name by a Frenchman named Cadillac, while the car company started by three boys from France - the Chevrolet brothers - was absorbed into General Motors within 10 years.

Of course, the French invented motor racing as well. The first Grand Prix was staged on a circuit made up of 64 miles of closed public road near Le Mans. Around the time of World War I, French cars won America's most prestigious race, the famed Indy 500.

So considering all the Gallic passion and technical innovation that existed at the beginning the 20th century, we can only wonder...where would most of our cars have been built if - in Sarajevo, on June 28 1914 - that assassin had missed Archduke Ferdinand?

- NZ Herald

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