The story behind the photo: the lawyer who drove a unique car
Computer colourising can bring to life not only black and white photographs, but above all the thrilling stories, heady moments of triumph and milestones of 120 years of ŠKODA Motorsport. One example is the success of a specially modified LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR in a famous French hill climb race.
The exciting atmosphere of Sunday 1 October 1911 in Gaillon, an otherwise sleepy French town some forty kilometres southeast of Rouen, was captured by an unknown photographer. In a district called Sainte-Barbe-sur-Gaillon, 27 of the annual hill climb races with strong international participation were held between 1899 and 1932.
It was here in October 1911 that a truly versatile personality got behind the wheel of the LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR racing car. Even before the First World War, cars from Mladá Boleslav were exported to all continents. In Africa, for example, they were used by the governor of Cairo and also the man in the photo – Dr Alexander Comanos, a high official of the Ottoman Empire. He was an ethnic Greek living in Egypt, an erudite lawyer with a diploma from Geneva and, above all, secretary general of the Royal Egyptian Automobile Club. The driving abilities of the 33-year-old man in the picture, whose name appeared on the start lists of European motoring events from as early as around 1906, are evidenced by his victory with the 100 hp four-cylinder LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR in the category defined by a cylinder bore of up to 85 mm.
October 1911: Alexander Comanos, the secretary general of the Royal Automobile Club of Egypt, sits behind the wheel of a LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR racing car in the French commune of Gaillon.
In some race events, the regulations of the time did not limit the engine capacity, but only the number of cylinders and their bore. Under the bonnet of the Laurin & Klement FCR there was thus a 5,672 cc (Ø 85 x 250 mm) four-cylinder engine with a progressive OHC valve train, designed by Otto Hieronimus and assembled by the best factory mechanic František Krutský. The engine delivered a power output of 73.6 kW. The cast-iron pistons, running in thin H-profile connecting rods with a wall thickness of only 1.5 mm, oscillated at an immensely fast rate on a quarter-metre track, which was the reason for the unusually high construction of the engine and the car itself.
The driver and co-driver were therefore almost lost behind the high front bonnet, converging in front into an arrow-shaped and more aerodynamic radiator. The car pictured here was built in 1909 and was built at breakneck speed: just three months separated the first sketch from the car’s racing debut.
Here, the LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR is being tested by the car’s constructor, Otto Hieronimus.
The FCR’s baptism of fire was scheduled for 19 September 1909 in a hill climb at the Austrian spa town of Semmering. Hieronimus and Kolowrat took 1st and 2nd place in the first vehicle class, while the chief constructor of LAURIN & KLEMENT, nicknamed Hiero, also won the second class with another car, as well as the fourth vehicle class with the mighty L&K FCR. Hieronimus’ best time of 8 minutes 19 seconds corresponds to an average speed of 72.1 km/h, an impressive feat on a winding track with a gradient of up to 9.2%. The first version of the car was also without a complete exhaust pipe, so a short but massive pipe protruded from the left side of the bonnet and the car body was duly blackened with soot.
LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR racing car
The FCR achieved further notable successes in the 1911 season. Specifically, on 17 April Otto Hieronimus won not only his category in the Zbraslav-Jíloviště hill climb race, but also became the overall winner and holder of a new track record. Two months later, he did equally well in the Trieste-Opcina hill climb, where he again won his category and the overall race. Then it was the turn of the Egyptian driver Comanos in Gaillon. As you can see in the picture, the Gaillon organisers assigned the FCR the starting number 35. We also know this from another shot taken on 12 October 1911 in Berlin. The Gaillon winner had headed there for the traditional motor show and certainly attracted fully deserved attention. And no wonder: only two of the FCR race cars were ever made and they were chief constructor Otto Hieronimus’ masterpiece.
The driver almost disappeared behind the high bonnet with its pronounced V-shaped radiator.
Neither of the LAURIN & KLEMENT FCR cars has survived to this day. All we know is that the first one produced was bought in May 1913 by the Dutch representative of the Czech brand, and the second by a Prague businessman called Bondy.
On the trail of colours
Even before the First World War, fascinating colour photographs were being produced. Prestigious photographic studios working with conventional black and white material rightly valued their retouching and manual colouring specialists who modified the glass negatives with fine brushes. Their work was made easier by their intimate knowledge of the realities and colour range of contemporary clothing and everyday objects. Our task is akin to detective work - colourising with the professional tools of Adobe Photoshop software, informed by the study of period documents. For reference we can turn to original motorcycles and cars from the collections of the ŠKODA Museum in Mladá Boleslav and brochures for the respective vehicle types, but we also leaf through fashion magazines from times long gone. By the way, we know from the surviving documentation on the races in the company archives what a black and white photograph cannot reveal: that Hiero’s FCR was not white or cream, but grey.