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The scoundrel who smooth-talked his way into driving two of the world’s most famous races

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Godard in the Spyker (right). Photo via Louwman Museum.

Under any other circumstances, Charles Godard might today be hailed as one of two drivers to take on two of the most grueling distance races for automobiles: the 1907 Peking to Paris and the 1908 New York to Paris. Instead, pretty much everybody recalls Godard as a conman who very well may have been the first motorist arrested during a race.

By pretty much every account, Godard was the archetypal grasshopper who never planned for a thing and lived on his wits alone. The French jockey had, Barney Oldfield style, seen automobiles and racing as much as a sport as a means of exhibition for the masses, and the Peking-to-Paris race seemed to him the perfect outlet for his talents.

That he had no money to purchase a car for the race didn’t deter him. He first convinced Belgian carmaker Metallurgique to field an entry then, when that company backed out, he approached Jacobus Spijker and regaled him with the potential for publicity and sales that the race would bestow on Spijker’s then-struggling Dutch firm. As Wim Oude Weernink wrote in Automobile Quarterly volume 16 number 4, “although he could ill-afford to do so, Jacobus soon became as enthused as Godard and agreed.”

Spijker not only provided Godard with a brand-new 14/18-hp touring car fitted with taller tires for clearance, he also equipped the car with a mountain of spares for the trip and promised Godard 10,000 francs if he completed the race. Then, as if to slap Spijker in the face, Godard had the factory paint the car in vertical blue, white, and red stripes — mimicking the French tricolore — rather than in a red, white, and blue scheme that Spijker preferred.

Godard then left for Paris where, according to Weeknink, he proceeded to borrow 60,000 francs and sell off every single one of the spares Spijker provided him to pay for the car’s passage to Peking.

Photo via Spyker Cars.

Once in Peking, Godard realized he needed money for fuel to, y’know, complete the race back to Paris, so he approached the Dutch consulate in Peking and convinced the officials there to give him 5,000 francs with the empty promise that he’d get Spijker or Spyker to reimburse them.

“This provided enough fuel for perhaps one-fifth of the 10,000-mile journey,” Motorsport noted in its account of the race in 1997. “The rest he would have to beg, borrow, or, if needed, spirit away from the other competitors.”

With Le Matin journalist Jean Du Taillis at his side, Godard set out with the other four competitors in the race and, like Auguste Pons and Oscar Foucauld in the Mototri Contral, eventually ran out of fuel in the Gobi Desert. Godard, however, managed to convince a band of locals to fetch him some fuel and was able to continue on across the Gobi and Mongolia to Irkutsk.

In Russia, he famously plugged a hole in his rear axle with raw bacon, but he also ended up falling behind the Itala and De Dion teams due to a failed magneto. Had he not sold off his spares, he could have replaced it and been on his way. Instead, he had to ship the Spyker to the only technical school in Siberia capable of rewinding a magneto and then, in accordance with the rules that forbade contestants making any part of the journey by rail, ship the Spyker back to the exact spot where he broke down.

Or, at least, so he claimed. Du Taillis, ordered by his editors at Le Matin to remain with the bulk of the race, transferred to the De Dion teams, leaving nobody to document Godard’s movements until he rendezvoused with the only person Spijker could bother to send to accompany Godard, an office boy named Bruno Stephan.

Except Stephan couldn’t drive, so Godard drove like a madman to catch up to the two De Dions, at one point driving for 29 hours straight. He covered as much ground in two weeks as the De Dions did in a month, finally meeting the teams in Kazan.

The whole time, a Parisian court had charged and convicted Godard in absentia to 18 months in prison for defrauding the Dutch consulate. Godard didn’t find out about the charges or the sentence until he drove into Berlin and was arrested. Spijker had his works mechanic and driver Johan Frijling drive the car into Paris. Godard, apparently traveling with the Spyker and De Dion convoy, reportedly made a grab for the controls of the Spyker just outside of Paris, determined to complete the race, but was forcibly removed from the car by the police also traveling with the convoy.

(Some have speculated that the charges against Godard were whipped up to prevent him from embarrassing the De Dions on their home soil by finishing ahead of them. This theory, however, ignores the fact that Frijling and the Spyker finished second, behind the Itala that completed the race weeks prior.)

Photo by Warren Newton, courtesy Library of Congress.

 

Photo via AmesHistory.com.

How much of that 18-month sentence, if any of it, Godard served is unknown. However, he couldn’t have served all of it because six months later he sat at the controls of a Motobloc, one of three French entries in the Le Matin-organized New York-to-Paris race, as the race prepared to leave Manhattan. How he convinced Motobloc to lend him a car after the scams he pulled on Spijker is anybody’s guess.

Godard had apparently learned from his experience in the Gobi Desert by fitting the Motobloc with a 70-gallon fuel tank. However, he didn’t appear to have altered his moral code much. While some accounts note that he bowed out of the race after getting lost in Iowa, Godard got busted trying to ship the Motobloc to San Francisco by rail, according to Smithsonian magazine: “Godard received a cable from the owners of his car: ‘Quit race, sell car and come home.’ The Moto-Bloc was finished.”

Whatever became of Godard afterward, nobody seems to have recorded. The Peking-to-Paris Spyker was reportedly scrapped, while nothing more was heard of the New York-to-Paris Motobloc after he sold it in San Francisco.