Ever wonder what happens to race cars after they’ve contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Some keep racing, passing from owner to owner, until they’re all used up. But some are preserved—enshrined in fact.
Visitors to this year’s Geneva show have an opportunity to see an unusual collection of Le Mans survivors, tucked away under a stairway, crowding against a restaurant on one side and the main show floor on the other. There are 20 spanning the decades from 1923 to 2013, 20 cars in all, including one from the very first race.
The Le Mans classic was dreamed up by an executive of the Rudge-Whitworth wheel company, publicized by the motoring journal L’Auto, and endorsed by George Durand, president of the Auto Club de l’Ouest—better known as the ACO, which has been the sanctioning organization ever since.
Run on May 26-27, that first race drew 33 entries, and was run in rain persistent enough to drown the planned fireworks show. Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard shared the winning ride in a Chenard & Walcker Sport propelled by a 3.0-liter engine that delivered between 88 and 98 horsepower.
The circuit was 10.726 miles of public road in 1923, none of it paved, all of it muddy. Lagache and Leonard slithered their way to victory, covering almost 1373 miles, for an average of 57.21 mph.
The Chenard & Walcker car makes quite a contrast with the Audi eTron that won last year’s 24-hour with an average speed of almost 123 mph while covering 3201 miles—despite 5 hours and 47 minutes of running under a caution flag.
The contemporary Audi and ancient Chenard & Walcker are parked across the aisle from one another, with the other 18 cars arrayed in a double horseshoe layout that makes for an exceptionally entertaining tour of Le Mans history.
And it’s a tour that’s amplified by the knowledge that two of this year’s top contenders for the 2014 race—82nd in the series—are parked nearby. Once dominant at Le Mans, Porsche’s new 919 Hybrid will contend for overall honors for the first time 16 years, while corporate cousin Audi is ready to defend its title yet again with its latest diesel hybrid.
Only two other teams besides Audi have won at Le Mans in the 21st century—Bentley (with a strong dose of Audi technology) in 2003, and Peugeot in 2009. Will 2014 be a different story? We’ll have to wait and see.