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Was this the only race held in (and on) a parking garage?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Benoist in a Delage. Photo courtesy Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The streets around the newly constructed Garage Banville in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement were and remain narrow, busy, and flat – unsuitable for hillclimbs and head-to-head races alike. Yet in February 1927, spectators flocked to the garage to see a race, perhaps the only organized motorsports event to leave skidmarks up the ramps of an inner-city parking garage.

In those years before the onset of the Great Depression, the rich had taken to flaunting their wealth in ever more conspicuous displays, including fast and expensive cars. In a city like Paris, that wasn’t exactly easy, so a group of schoolmates, among them Christian Dauvergne, came up with the idea of building a parking garage that would cater to the wealthy car owners of Paris – “a garage in which the wealthy could store their exquisite luxury cars which, at the same time, would double up as a sports and social club,” Joe Saward wrote in “The Grand Prix Saboteurs.”

The group convinced businessman Louis Courbaize – the French importer for Itala – to finance the purchase of a block of land along Rue Pierre Demours and build a six-story garage capable of holding 600 cars. In the basement was a service department; on the ground floor a showroom space; and on the roof a driving range, indoor tennis courts, a gymnasium, and a restaurant. They named it after Rue Theodore de Banville, the road that dead-ended in front of the garage.

“The Banville was the height of style and modernity and the ultimate in chic at a time when fashion was becoming more and more important,” Saward wrote. “It was a golden age for new ideas and new architecture.”

The new business’s directors hired a young manager for the garage, Gaetan Baille, who approached Dauvergne with an idea for the garage’s grand opening: run a hillclimb up the garage’s ramp, “wide enough for two cars, with a 10 percent incline between each floor,” as Saward described.

To recruit some of the most well-known racers of the day, Dauvergne turned to a friend of his, Robert Benoist. A Frenchman who served in World War I as a fighter pilot and then turned to auto racing after the war, Benoist was perhaps the most heralded driver in the late Twenties, having previously won the French Grand Prix and secured a spot as a team driver for Delage. Benoist, in turn, convinced a number of French drivers, 15 in all (among them Philippe Etancelin, Pierre Felix, Robert Senechal, Fernand Vallon, and Charles Druck), to join him in the one-off event. Benoist piloted his 5.1-liter six-cylinder Delage. Peugeot even trotted out its nautical-themed promotional car to take part in the event.

Sandbags (theoretically) kept the drivers from plowing through the fences and plummeting to the street below, but spectators gathered on every conceivable surface to watch the racers ascend the garage. The ultimate safety measure, however, came in Benoist and Dauvergne’s decision not to record times for the racers “lest the competitive urges of those involved got the better of them,” Saward wrote.

Benoist went on to have a banner year driving for Delage. He won the French, Spanish, Italian, and British grands prix and claimed the manufacturer’s title for the carmaker (though no driver’s championship existed at the time, the French press went ahead and crowned him with it anyway). But then, after Delage decided to pull out of grand prix racing at the end of the year, Benoist accepted Baille’s offer to become the Banville’s sales manager. Though he’d later return to racing and eventually manage Bugatti’s race team during the Thirties, he maintained an association with the Banville up to and during his time as a spy for Britain’s Special Operations Executive.

Saward has written elsewhere that the Banville, which expanded in the postwar years, closed in 1986 and the site was rebuilt as an office block. However, Le Banville hasn’t really changed all that much: Part of it still serves as a private parking garage, a luxury car dealership still occupies its ground floor, and much of its original structure remains. They just don’t run any races to the roof of the building anymore.