For many people Le Mans is all about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race and the museum. It’s a heady mix that rises to fever pitch every June when the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans event takes place.
We visited the track and the museum in the week before the race started. The roads were crowded and many of them blocked with diversions in place so it took longer than usual to get there. We had to park quite a way away and walk past the track where the cars were practicing. This might not be Formula 1 but it’s pretty fast and very noisy. Next year I plan to attend the event, and camp in one of the nearby sites.
The next 24 Hour Race is on June 11-12, 2022. It will be the 90th race and quite an event.
But let’s start with a bit of history…
The 24 Hours of Le Mans Race
The first ever automotive race, the Grand Prix (Le Grand Prix de l’ACF) took place on June 26 and 27 1906 in Le Mans. It covered 103 kms/64 miles and ran between Le Mans, Ferté-Bernard and Saint Calais on public roads closed for the race. Certain towns with narrow streets totally unsuitable for a cavalcade of racing cars were bypassed for the race…with specially constructed roads made out of wood.
The Hungarian driver Ference Szisz won the event in a Renault AK.
In 1923 the race was changed from a speed event to an endurance 24-hour race, encouraging reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles that last and spend as little time in the pits as possible. It’s now one of the world’s great sporting events.
In 1923 the average speed was 92 kph/57 mph; today it’s 210 kph/130 mph. The race is run on the 13.6 km Sarthe Circuit.
Some 60 cars compete; the winner being the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours.
Originally the start of the Le Mans race involved the drivers lining up opposite their cars, running across the track to get in and get going. It led to some ingenious starts.
Stirling Moss had his car waiting with first gear already engaged. He jumped in and turned the starter on without pushing down on the clutch. So the starter jerked the car forward without starting the engine. After a few seconds of moving, Moss pushed the clutch down so the engine speeded up and started while the car was already moving.
The start became increasingly dangerous as teams and drivers got up to all sorts of tricks to get off to a speedy start. So in 1970 it was changed to the rolling start (also called the Indianapolis start). The cars do a formation lap behind the safety car. On their return to the pits, the starter waves the French flag and the race starts.
Le Musée des 24 Heures du Mans (The Museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans)
I loved Le Musée des 24 Heures du Mans with its gleaming beasts on show. But rather than the technical aspects (I have to confess that I’m still not sure how a carburettor works) it’s the stories that I find fascinating. And there are so many of them. So this article is about the stories of the cars and the personalities behind the whole industry.
If you want to read an excellent article explaining more about the museum’s cars and all their technical aspects from MechTraveller, click here.
The museum is located on the edge of the Bugatti circuit, the dedicated track section where the race starts and finishes.
Originally founded in 1961 as the Automobile Museum de la Sarthe, the organisers of the 24-hour race took over the site in 1991.
What you See
The museum is easy to walk around and divided up into different parts. The main section is devoted to the cars. But there’s a lot more. The Hall of Fame depicts the great names of the sport – manufacturers, drivers and enthusiasts.
There’s also a comprehensive car model section. If you’re a collector it may leave you in despair at the models you don’t have.
Finally there’s a large motor cycle section.
The Start of it all
The story of Le Mans starts with the Boullée family. Amédée Bollée, a bell founder, moved to Le Mans in 1842. In 1873 he invented the 12-seater Obéissante (‘Obedient’) car which he drove from Paris to Le Mans in a spectacularly short 18 hours. In 1895. His son Léon Boullée founded Léon Bollée Automobiles and Le Mans became a centre of car production.
The original vehicle is in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
Precious Old Cars
Cars are displayed chronologically so you start with what today look frankly bizarre but back in their day really had the wow factor!
150 or so cars are on display with excellent and surprising information about each one.
Did you know that an electric car, the CGE Tudor electric, built in 1942, drove the 225 kms/139 miles from Paris to Tours at an average speed of 42 kmh/26 mph on a single charge?
The Great Names
The great names are all here: Bentley and Bugatti, Ferrari and Ford, Jaguar, Porsche, Audi, Peugeot and more. The design changes are fascinating to look at. Early cars are sleek beasts with rounded outlines; later models are aggressive go-faster models like the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado III.
What I found so fascinating about the museum is the way the explanations bring the cars to life. But I apologise for the enhanced stories here. The information in the museum served to whet my appetite. Then when it came to writing this article, I went back to more research so some of the information in this article is not from the museum.
But the end result of all this? I’m planning another visit to the museum to look at the cars again with greater knowledge and interest (and perhaps a little more understanding of carburettors).
In 1923, Walter Owen Bentley came on the scene. The Bentley company might have been small but he was supported by the ‘Bentley Boys’ group of wealthy businessmen. Initially Walter Bentley thought the whole Le Mans race mad and believed no car would finish.
Persuaded by the Bentley Boys, he allowed the Canadian driver Captain John Duff to prepare his own car in the factory and in addition let his own Bentley test driver, France Clement, partner John Duff.
Duff had bought and prepared a 3-litre Bentley that he had already raced at Brooklands for the new 1923 Le Mans race. The two drivers recorded the fastest speed but suffered from a holed fuel tank. Duff had to run back to the pits then bicycle back with a can of petrol (only drivers could work on the cars). They came 4th.
The following year Bentley committed to the race and lent Duff one of the dealership cars. They won. You can see a Bentley 3-litre sport of 1924, and the Bentley Speed 8 which won the sixth race for Bentley in 2003.
The early pioneers were an innovative lot and none more so than Bertha Benz, the business partner and wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz.
On Aug 5, 1888, Bertha set off with her sons Richard and Eugen aged thirteen and fifteen in a Model III. She didn’t tell her husband, nor get the necessary permission from the authorities for the drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim.
It was quite an adventure. The automobile had no fuel tank and only a 4.5 litre supply of petrol. She had to find ligroin, the petroleum solvent needed for the car to run. Ligroin, along with other fuels including petrol was at the time sold only in pharmacies. With her purchase the chemist in Wiesloch became the first fuel station in the world.
Bertha Benz apparently cleaned a blocked fuel line with her hat pin. She found a blacksmith to help mend a chain; the failing wooden brakes were repaired by a cobbler using leather for the first time. The car’s two gears were too weak for uphill so the two boys had to push the car up steep roads.
She was the first person to drive such a long distance – 106 kms/66 miles. In doing so she achieved her goal with a journey that Benz and many other manufacturers needed to encourage them and add much needed publicity about the new vehicles.
The name Bugatti is known both for design and for cars, and Bugattis were always beautiful. Le Mans unites the two elements with this stand where a Bugatti Torpedo Type 40 stands beside a Bugatti suitcase, designed by Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), an Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry designer. It was his son, Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947) who was the inspiration behind the car manufacturing.
Founded in 1909 in Molsheim, Alsace (part of the German Empire until 1919), the cars had huge racing successes. Bugatti’s Le Mans prizes began in 1937 with Jean-Pierre Wimille and his co-driver Robert Benoist. But it was a tragic race with a 6-car accident. The accident was caused by the inexperienced French amateur driver René Kippeurt who lost control of his Bugatti T44. He and one other driver, the Briton Pat Fairfield, died.
Bugatti won again in 1939 with Jean-Pierre Wimille and Pierre Veyron in a Bugatti Type 57C. With the outbreak of World War II, Le Mans did not take place again until 1949.
Ettore Bugatti described Bentleys (his arch competitors) as ‘the world’s fastest lorries’ for focusing on durability.
Don’t pass by the more modest cars – each has its own honourable slot
In 1958, Jean-Claude Baudal and Jacques Séguéla took a round-the-world trip in iconic Citroen 2CV, the much-loved ‘Deux Chevaux’. They drove through 50 countries and travelled nearly 100,000 kms/62,137 miles in 12 months in the car displayed in the museum. It’s still a little battered.
Le Mans – 24 Hours Moto
Le Mans also hosts Le Mans – 24 Hours Moto race. This year it takes place on Apr 16 & 17, 2022 and like the car race, it’s an endurance test.
The Museum’s large motorcycle section contains delights like the two-seater tricycle of 1896, the voiturette, designed and produced by Léon Boullée. The passenger sat in front, which led to its nickname of ‘Mother-in-Law killer’.
Another pioneer was the British Sunbeam Longstroke 500 produced in 1921 which won various earlier motorcycle races. The rider shifted gears using a lever on the right side of the motor which meant taking one hand off the handlebars. The manoeuvre did not catch on.
There’s also the Honda RCB 1000 which won the first edition of the race in 1978. It’s a gleaming red speed machine on two wheels (as you can see, I don’t know too much about these frightening motorcycles).
The 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum
9 Place Luigi Chinetti
72100 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 72 72 24
Open Oct 1-Apr 30: Daily 10am-6pm; May 1-Sept 30: Daily 10am-7pm
Admission Museum: Adult €10; Circuit: €5; combined ticket €13
Children 10 to 18 years old: Museum €7.50; Circuit: €4.50; combined ticket €11
Under 10 years free
Events around the 24 Hours of Le Mans
In the week before the race, there’s plenty to see. Practice and qualifying sessions take place on the track (so note that there are public road closures).
One of the most popular non-race events is the Driver’s Parade which takes place on the Friday before the race in the centre of Le Mans. The carnival atmosphere, complete with music and dancing, is a fantastic way to kick off a weekend of racing.
On the morning of the race, Le Mans Legend is the chance to see cars previously competing. Different eras are chosen each year; drivers are both amateurs and former professionals.
You can watch the race either live or on one of the 11 giant screens in the race area, grandstands, and village.
If you want to drive part of the circuit (though not from the week before the event to the day after), take the main road south of the city towards Tours. This follows the famous speedy 5.7 kms Mulsanne.
Porsche Experience Center
Now this is something I would love to do. One of my stranger ambitions is to drive the safety car in a Formula 1 Race. Going to the Porsche Experience is probably the closest I will get to the same feeling.
It’s a day’s tuition on two routes: Maison Blanche and Bugatti. And naturally it’s fiercely expensive. Driving a Porsche from the Center it’s €1195. If you have your own Porsche it’s €730.
But there’s much more on offer than just driving a Porsche. The website will tell you more (in English).
General Guide to Le Mans with hotels, restaurants and more attractions.
How to Get to Le Mans
By Car: If you’re coming from the UK, take a DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. The drive from Dieppe to Le Mans takes around 3 hours and is 270 kms/168 miles.
Or take Brittany Ferries overnight from Portsmouth to Caen. The drive from Caen to Le Mans takes around 2 hours and is 160 kms/100 miles.
More information on travel from the UK to France.
Le Mans Tourist Office
La Maison du Pilier-Rouge (The Red Pillar House)
41-43 Grande Rue
72039 Le Mans
Tel: +33 (0)2 43 47 40 30
Open Mon to Sat 10am-6pm
Book a guided tour in English: Jun to Aug Wednesday. 3pm. Full price €6
More to See and Do in and around Le Mans
If you can, take time to look at medieval Le Mans. It’s an extraordinarily well-preserved medieval city within the city, partially enclosed by the original Roman Walls.
The Loir Valley
We also explored the nearby Loir (without an ‘e’) Valley. It was delightful, unexpected, and full of treasures. Its fortunes were intricately tied up with the Hundred Years War and the Plantagenets.
Tour the Secret Loir Valley
Visit the Château du Lude and its fabulous gardens
Glorious Medieval Baugé with its château and apothecary
Step into the world of the privately and family owned Château de Bazouges