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Does this weekend mark the 150th anniversary of the first auto race?

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Not the 1867 racer. Image courtesy Grace’s Guide.

Lore holds that the first automobile race took place after the second automobile was built. The historical record, however, shows that nearly a century lapsed from the invention of the self-propelled motor carriage to the first documented race, which took place 150 years ago this month.

Or so argues steam-car researcher Karl Petersen. Several years ago Petersen, a steam-car builder himself, happened upon a brief mention of Isaac Watt Boulton‘s involvement in a race that passed through Manchester, England. Boulton was already well known as a steam-car — or more appropriately, road-locomotive — pioneer, but the race itself was not well known, so Petersen went digging for more information.

With the help of Bob Blackman at Engine Punk, Petersen was able to source a first-hand account of the August 26 race published in the August 30, 1867, issue of Engineer as well as details about the steamer that Boulton built for the contest. While no account of the race reveals how or why Boulton and Daniel Adamson challenged each other, we know that they agreed to start at 4:30 a.m. in Boulton’s hometown of Ashton-under-Lyne, then proceed through Manchester and finish at the fairgrounds in Old Trafford, about eight miles away (a half-hour’s drive these days, according to Google Maps).

Adamson, of Newton Moor, showed up with a relatively massive twin-cylinder road carriage: “a very well-constructed engine,” according to the account in Engineer, with each cylinder displacing 283 cubic inches. Boulton, on the other hand, literally found his carriage atop a scrap heap at W.B. Adams’s Fairfield Works, according to Blackman. The carriage originally had four flanged wheels for railroad use, but Boulton ditched the front two for a single steerable wheel and swapped the rear two for road wheels. Much smaller than Adamson’s entry, Boulton’s featured a single-cylinder engine of about 128 cubic inches.

Despite the quarter-mile head start Adamson took at the onset of the race, Boulton soon caught up. According to the Engineer account:

The little one, with five passengers upon it, passed the other in the first mile, and kept a good lead of it all the way, arriving at Old Trafford under the hour, having to go steady through Manchester. The engine made by Mr. Boulton ran the first four miles in sixteen minutes.

It’s estimated that speeds reached as high as 15 mph. Rather than drink out of a shoe or spray champagne to celebrate the win, Boulton and Adamson then undertook a little demonstration of each steamer’s turning abilities at the fairgrounds before, presumably, tipping their hats to each other and bidding his fellow contestant good day.

The best part, as Blackman wrote, is that the contest is considered an outlaw race: Parliament just a couple years prior passed the infamous Red Flag Act limiting road locomotives to 4 mph on the open road and 2 mph in towns. Perhaps that’s why Boulton and Adamson agreed on the 4:30 start time and why to this day nobody knows for sure who piloted the steamers during the race (Boulton may have enlisted one of his sons; Adamson may have done the driving himself).

According to Petersen, no earlier account of a race on a pre-determined course between two self-propelled vehicles exists. Indeed, the Boulton-Adamson contest pre-dates the first American automobile race by 11 years and the first documented internal combustion automobile race by 17 years. (Another instance of lore failing to hold up, given the interval of eight years between Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen — 10 years for Bernardi’s buckboard — and the Paris-Rouen race.)

As for where Boulton and Adamson’s steamers ended up, lore only knows.