Home » It’s Sort Of Baffling That The First Driver and Car To Break 100 MPH Aren’t Better Known On Their 120th Anniversary

It’s Sort Of Baffling That The First Driver and Car To Break 100 MPH Aren’t Better Known On Their 120th Anniversary

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Automotive milestones are funny things. The way that some of them tend to get remembered and others forgotten doesn’t really seem to follow any rational rules I can figure out. Take speed record milestones, for example. I think the first car to break the mile-a-minute pace of 60mph (or 100 kph), is pretty well-known: that torpedo-shaped electric marvel, La Jamais Contente [Ed Note: The Never Contented. There, Googled it for you – PV], achieved the feat in 1899. It probably helps that it looks the way it does, too, and has such a badass name. The Ford 999 racer that hit 91 mph in 1904 is pretty well known, largely because of Ford himself, and people may know some modern records, like how the Thrust SSC was the first car to break the speed of sound on land, in 1997. There are plenty of important speed records that I feel like should be better known, starting with the first car to hit the magic 100 mph. That’s a pretty significant number! So why don’t we know that, on March 31, 1904, Louis Rigolly was the first person to break 100 mph in a Gobron-Brillié? I mean, it’s basically the 120th anniversary of this remarkable event! Or close enough! Let’s look into it, a bit, especially that car, which was deeply and wonderfully weird.

Here’s what I know about Louis Rigolly, the first man to drive a car faster than 100 mph. I realized I can’t definitively say the first human to travel faster than 100 mph, because it seems that a human in freefall, falling belly-first, will be able to reach about 120 mph, and I’m willing to bet that’s happened to some poor bastard off a cliff or something at some point in human history prior to 1904. Maybe Rigolly could be the first person to have gone over 100 mph and, you know, lived?

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I really haven’t been able to gather too much information about Rigolly, beyond that he was French, lived from 1876 to 1958, had ‘nads made of the strongest tempered steel, and was capable of growing a truly magnificent mustache:

Moustache

Rigolly also competed in Grand Prix racing as early as 1902, which is all the more remarkable when you realize that, realistically, this is someone who likely had only been driving a few years, and most likely never even had a chance to drive until well into his 20s. I don’t know this for sure, but unless his mom or dad were driving steam omnibuses around London or was lucky enough to know someone with a Bollée La Mancelle, automobiles weren’t likely to have been that common as he was growing up.

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Rigolly’s carmaker of choice for both his Grand Prix races and his speed record triumph is an especially interesting one: Gobron-Brillié. A French company, Gobron-Brillié started building cars in 1898, founded by an engineer, Eugène Brillié, and an ex-politician, Gustave Gobron. Brillié developed a very peculiar and interesting opposed-piston engine, but not in the mode of an air-cooled Volkswagen engine or a Porsche flat-six or a Subaru boxer; this type of opposition was because each cylinder had twin pistons, which moved towards one another, the combustion chamber being formed in the small gap between them when they just about met.

Brille Engine

So, that means, for every cylinder in a given engine, there are actually double the number of pistons. So, even though the 13.5-liter engine in the record-setting Gobron-Brillié was a four-cylinder one, there were really eight pistons bouncing against each other, the lower set working on a conventional-looking crankshaft and the upper ones on a more compact yoke setup. This beast of an engine made a very respectable-for-the-time 110 horsepower.

If that wasn’t weird enough, I also read that instead of a carburetor, this engine used a “fuel distributor” with a drip system that I don’t quite understand, and haven’t seen any pictures of, so I’m having trouble understanding what the hell that thing was like.

I’ve also read a number of descriptions of Gobron-Brillié cars that suggested they were rear-engined, but most of the pictures I’ve seen of the car appear to depict a front-engined machine with chain-driven rear wheels. The land speed record car has bodywork that hides the radiator, I’m guessing for some early, poorly understood aerodynamic reasons.

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Brille Card 2

 

Other pictures of Rigolly in the car show it without that front cowl, and in those pictures you can very clearly see the engine, and where the surprisingly short radiator lurks:
G B 1

You can also see that the engine block is divided into two separate blocks, each with two cylinders and four pistons:

B B 2

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The radiator is taller in this image; I don’t know which setup was the configuration for the 100 mph run, but it’s fascinating to see all these variants of what might be the same car, or other similar cars. I’m not entirely sure! What I do know is that on the day of the 100mph record run on a beach in Ostend, Belgium, the car was wearing the number 24:

G B 3

This car wasn’t a special speed record car, which is interesting; it was a racing car, sure, but not a vehicle meant to do the one highly specialized task of achieving a speed record, and yet that is exactly what it did, hitting a speed of 103.56 mph.

So why isn’t Louis Rigolly and his bonkers 13.5-liter, four-cylinder/eight-piston Gobron-Brillié more of a household name? It’s the first car to break 100 mph, very likely every driver’s most exciting speed they’ll ever hit on some long, open stretch of lonely highway near the end of a long, boring road trip across the country, or on a stretch of the Autobahn, or something. It’s a magical speed, 100 mph, just achievable by most modern-ish cars, even for one quick exciting moment of adrenalin-fueled daring. We should know the man who pulled it off first, and I hope this little article helps make that happen, in some small way.

So hooray for Louis Rigolly, the first 100 mph man!

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LandspeedWrecker
LandspeedWrecker
2 months ago

I’m a bit late with this info – but luckily we’re not late to celebrate the anniversary of Louis Rigolly’s record, which was set on July 21, 1904. This info was provided land speed historian Thomas Graf, and the FIA.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
2 months ago

I’ll give you a reason why he’s less well known than other.

We Frogs use he metric system, so 100mph means nothing for us, it’s just a weird number :

160.934kph according to google. so almost 161kph… that’s not a glamorous value.

He would have been more renowned if he broke 200kph as it’s a nice round number and would have twisted the batteries of La Jamais Contente into pretzel.

Thomas The Tank Engine
Thomas The Tank Engine
2 months ago

because each cylinder had twin pistons, which moved towards one another, the combustion chamber being formed in the small gap between them when they just about met.”

You should take a look at (and write a feature on) the Napier Deltic engine, which also has this piston arrangement. Albeit with the cylinders arranged in a three-bank triangle, with a crankshaft at each corner of the triangle. And 18 cylinders.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napier_Deltic

Ron888
Ron888
2 months ago

A spectacularly weird engine that.And its a two stroke,so you can really hear it’s weirdness!
Someone please put one in a car.Probably a ute,because it would need that much space

Last edited 2 months ago by Ron888
Thomas The Tank Engine
Thomas The Tank Engine
2 months ago
Reply to  Ron888

According to one source I found, the 18-cylinder engine displaced 5,384 cu in (88.2 L)

https://oldmachinepress.com/2019/09/05/napier-deltic-opposed-piston-diesel-engine/

So I don’t know what you would fit this into?

NAMiata
NAMiata
2 months ago

103 MPH is just about 165km/hr. Maybe that was Rigolly’s life mission. As soon as he went past 165, what was the point?

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
2 months ago

I love the battleship looking front cowl, very fun.

Parsko
Parsko
2 months ago

And this morning I was the 69,420,420th person to do it.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
2 months ago

Steam locomotives had cracked the 100 MPH barrier a decade before: The New York Central #999 did it in 1893, with its badass-looking 86 inch diameter driver wheels.

VanGuy
VanGuy
2 months ago

A ’97 Ford Econoline can only go 96 miles per hour. A ’12 Prius v can go 106.

Source: not me, officer

Last edited 2 months ago by VanGuy
Martin Dollinger
Martin Dollinger
2 months ago

They were going quite a bit faster the year before near Berlin. In an electric railcar:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_three-phase_railcar

Rafael
Rafael
2 months ago

The people doing the run saw 160kph as just another random number, and the people that cared about miles were annoyed that it wasn’t one of theirs that reached 100mph.

Larry B
Larry B
2 months ago
Reply to  Rafael

Who was the first person/car to go 100 kph?

Rafael
Rafael
2 months ago

I was dreading to read on its Wikipedia page how it crashed in a horrific ball of chemical fire pursuing the 200kph mark, but turns out that you can still see it in a museum to this day.
Apparently, after it broke the 100kph, it said “eh, that will do”, promptly hanging up its brand new Michelins in a flagrant disregard for its own name.

Larry B
Larry B
2 months ago

In the first paragraph you say?

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
2 months ago

“ So hooray for Louis Rigolly, the first 100 mph man!”

Crazy that it wasn’t till about nine years later that Maurice Prévost became the first to reach that speed in an aircraft in level flight.

Remember when cars were faster than airplanes?
“Pepperidge Farm remembers.”

Last edited 2 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
2 months ago

By golly, Rigolly! What an astonishing read! Thought I knew a little something about early land speed records, thanks in part to a childhood fascination with the Guinness Book of World Records in the days when they used impossibly tiny type and often included cool anecdotes in addition to listing the top records, but I wasn’t at all familiar with this particular achievement. Had known, though, about a steam locomotive (the Empire State Express No. 999) achieving 100 mph in 1893, albeit not knowing the names of the crew, and also knew about Fred Marriott driving a Stanley steam car to 127 mph in 1906 at Daytona Beach, Florida, and then easily exceeding that the next year when he crashed (& miraculously survived) where some estimates placed his speed at some 140 to 150 mph and possibly as high as 190 (!!) mph. (By the way, the 1906 record stood unbroken for steam-powered cars until 2009!! http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/hampshire/8209288.stm)
And then there’s Charles “Mile-a-Minute” Murphy who drafted a bicycle behind a steam locomotive on a specially prepared two-mile section of track where he rode one mile in 57.8 seconds in 1899. For that matter, the La Jamais Contente achieved 60 mph/100kmh on May 1, 1899 and Murphy rode his bicycle to the same speed on June 21, 1899, a mere six weeks or so later.
In any case, yeah, Louis Rigolly, with his Gobron-Brillié, most certainly deserves to be better known for his achievements, as 100 mph in 1904 is indeed simply mind-blowing, so on his behalf thank you for this article!! By golly, Rigolly!

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
2 months ago

Very cool, had not known this concept was realized 120 years ago. There have been several attempts in the last 30 or so years that looked promising, but I don’t believe any have had commercial success.

https://innengine.com/our-technology/

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
2 months ago

I suspect the radiator(s) was relocated or most likely removed for the record run because the pointy part of the cowling starts roughly where the radiator sat. My bet is it was removed because 1, machining tolerances were much looser. 2, steel was just invented but just starting to hit popularity. 3, compression ratios were so low that there was no risk of pre-ignition despite high cylinder temps. 4, a 13L engine has a lot of thermal capacity especially when made with turn of two centuries ago manufacturing methods.

keep in mind though that I’ve never heard of this car / company, did no research on it, however I did find this interesting (to me as I do a decent amount of welding) but short rabbit hole which probably counts for as much as having stayed in a Holiday Inn Express used to… https://www.thoughtco.com/steel-history-2340172

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago

Oooh, it’s late now but I’m reading that tomorrow for sure. Thanks for sharing!

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
2 months ago

Formula Student cars used to remove their radiators for drag race testing as they had enough mass of coolant not to overheat before turning the engine off at the end of the run.

I once (for reasons involving loaning my car to someone I shouldn’t have and the Automobile Association’s policy relating to recovering crashed cars from race tracks) had to drive my MX5 Turbo with no radiator fitted.

The only serious crash damage was a holed radiator, but to get a free tow home I had to not be at a race track. So I cobbled together a radiator bypass hose out of stuff I found in a skip at the track, filled the system with nice cold water, turned the heater all the way up and started driving gently. I got five miles before it began to overheat, so I coasted to the next lay-by and smugly called for a tow.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago

“… this engine used a “fuel distributor” with a drip system …”

I believe this was adapted from a French press coffee maker.

What amazes me about this story is that less than 80 years later, I commuted to work on the autobahn and virtually every car was traveling in excess of 100 mph.

Last edited 2 months ago by Canopysaurus
Nic Periton
Nic Periton
2 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Very few people will know that this is how drip feed ignition actually works, in the suck bit of the cycle the descending piston sucks in drops of explosive liquid, then with science, precision engineering and a a lot of trial and error, the piston moves up and squeezes. Then you make the bang with electrickery and magic the piston descends, the crank moves the flywheel and the piston goes up. the clever bit is that as it goes up it blowsthe waste gas out through a hole, the hole closes and the piston descends, only to inhale the drips again.
Yes it really did have a commonality with a a coffee maker.

It still amazes me how, and why, such a ridiculous idea became seen as normal.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago
Reply to  Nic Periton

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the full explanation.

SK2807
SK2807
2 months ago

The 100mph thing is just a coincidence, a French guy driving a French car in Belgium on a 1 kilometre long track…..it’s all metric. The first guy to drive over 160kmh just doesn’t have the same ring to it though.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
2 months ago
Reply to  SK2807

Exactly, those French bastards must have cheated, or something.

Hamish48
Hamish48
2 months ago
Reply to  SK2807

agreed. They would not have been thinking in mph, or celebrating achieving a certain imperial measurement of speed. They had a very good day hitting 160 kmh.

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