The Fast Times Of Albert Champion
From Record-setting Racer to Dashing Tycoon, an Untold Story of Speed, Success, and Betrayal
By Peter Joffre Nye
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2014 Peter Joffre Nye
All rights reserved.
BALANCING ON ONE WHEEL
In the building of this automobile industry, personalities played a major part. There was the idea of a self-propelled road vehicle, crude as it is granted, but to pick up that idea and carry on took men of imagination, men with the courage of their convictions, resourceful, colorful, and last-ditch fighters.
—Chris Sinsabaugh, Who Me? Forty Years of Automobile History
By the age of forty-nine, Albert Champion employed three thousand five hundred workers in his AC Spark Plug Company in Flint, Michigan, and they all passed every workday under his photo portrait, which hung in a large frame over the portal leading into the factory. They called him The Chief. He looked every inch the chief in his tailored dark suit—fashionable, trim with an air of Gaulic insouciance, stylish Arrow collar points, cuffs showing just so with links of gold, a diamond pin winking in his necktie, hands resting in the pockets of pleated trousers. His attire perpetuated his reputation as a lady's man. He was of medium height with a commanding presence, accustomed to being stared at by women for his distinguished appearance, enhanced by a fringe of gray hair hugging the sides of his head, and by men for his athletic bearing. This stolid corporate image failed to portray the fame and heroics of his youthful trans-Atlantic energy celebrating that trait so essential to Frenchmen of his generation, la gloire! The man with a predestined name was born in Paris, hard by the Arc de Triomphe, on April 5, 1878, upon sawdust.
Paris had such high infant mortality that the law required parents to take newborns in person with two witnesses to city hall to register them. Champion's birth certificate, in flowing longhand penned with a quill nib, indicates that his parents, Alexandre Champion, a coachman, and Marie Blanche Carpentier Champion, a washerwoman, waited two weeks to bundle him up before they left their home at 11 Avenue MacMahon for city hall in the Seventeenth Arrondissement, a neighborhood known as Batignolles. Witnesses Henri Genet, a metalworker, and Eugène Belly, a laborer, attended to verify the identity of the couple's legitimate son: Albert Joseph Champion.
Albert, the couple's firstborn, could now be counted among the City of Light's two million residents. Avenue MacMahon, a tribute to the former soldier-statesman and president of France, Patrice de MacMahon, stretches as one of a dozen streets laid out like spokes of a wheel radiating from Place de l'Étoile, the hub encircling the Arc de Triomphe. Emperor Napoléon had erected the monument in the early nineteenth century to glorify the armies of the empire and to mark the western entry into Paris. Avenue MacMahon marked twelve o'clock on the circle, above Avenue des Champs-Élysées, perhaps the most famous boulevard in the world, which intersected at three o'clock. Other thoroughfares honored greats, such as Avenue Victor Hugo for France's grand man of letters. Champion may have been born to humble parents, but they put him in the center of la gloire!
* * *
In the spring of 1889, on his eleventh birthday, Champion was strolling on a sunny afternoon at the end of the chic Avenue de la Grand Armée when he spotted a crowd watching a slim dark-haired young man riding a unicycle. The unique one-wheel contraption without anything whatsoever to steer was enough to make anyone stop whatever they were doing to look. It was the latest gadget, a simple piece of equipment, and the wheel held a neat standard-issue hard-rubber tire. The rider sat with his back in perfect posture, chin up, and appeared completely at ease, as though he were born on that wheel. Although the avenue was lined with tempting sidewalk cafés and boutiques offering fashionable clothes and jewelry, Champion could see that the cluster of elegantly dressed men and women had their eyes fixed on the acrobat. His legs rolled the machine's short crank arms forward a yard or two, then he abruptly pedaled backward exactly to where he had started—as though pulled by an invisible cord. The stunt incited applause and shouts of bravo ! The unicyclist spun around like a coin on a tabletop. People gasped. Then with a slight forward dip of his torso, he zoomed ahead and made four sharp square turns that took him back to where he had started. His movements looked silky smooth and magical. Spectators clapped and cheered. They tossed franc coins into a cloth cap on the sidewalk, the coins so plentiful that each new deposit clinked.
Champion stuck around until the performer in due course popped off his unicycle and landed on his feet, one hand holding the device by its leather saddle. The acrobat graciously smiled and bowed his head, nodding and thanking everyone before he bent down to pick up the cap and tips. Champion enthusiastically introduced himself to Alexandre Tellier.
Tellier looked at the eager youngster, curly blond hair parted down the middle of his head in the fashion of the day, gray eyes flashing with excitement, asking an outburst of questions. Champion had a build that a journalist described as resembling the Greco-Roman statues bequeathed to posterity for admiration in museums. Something about him impressed Tellier. He volunteered good-naturedly to mentor the lad. They were in the neighborhood of Porte Maillot, the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne, the magnificent park on Paris's west end. Tellier and Champion found a grassy section to get started.
There Tellier instructed his protégé on the proper basics of mounting the unicycle and riding—head held straight on the neck, backbone upright as though it were an extension of the seatpost holding the saddle, lean forward slightly, arms out for balance, and legs pedaling. The trick was to keep the wheel rolling and to point with your chin to where you want to go. You can set a wheel rolling and it will continue on its own until it slows down. Tellier had him practice on the grass. Most everyone can learn the basics of riding a regular bicycle in less than an hour, but a unicycle can require at good day or two of concentrated trial and error. It takes that long to sense that your center of balance lies just below your navel.
Fortune smiled upon young Champion. He caught the eye of Henri Gauliard, a civil engineer in his late thirties with a bike shop in the eastern township of Noisy-le-Sec. Gauliard happened by chance to visit the Porte Maillot neighborhood on business. He was struck by Champion's agility and vigor. He offered the precocious youngster employment to perform acrobatics outside his bike shop in Noisy-le-Sec to lure in customers. Champion could not afford to buy a unicycle, but Gauliard, the father of two girls, and sensing a business opportunity, offered to provide one. Champion quickly accepted. They shook hands.
As promised, Gauliard built Champion a unicycle. As the weather warmed, Champion practiced every day. He became adept performing on the sidewalk and the street in front of his boss's bike shop. He learned how to draw onlookers and hold their attention. They encouraged his flair for showmanship. He experimented and added more stunts to his repertoire. Removing a foot from the pedal to push the top of the tire to propel him was always a crowd pleaser. Each day, Gauliard paid him some francs. Gauliard started lending him out to other proprietors to do exhibitions for their businesses. That summer he became a second Tellier.
Champion's getting out and around brought him onto the Boulevard des Batignolles, a main thoroughfare extending east to Montmartre, the Eighteenth Arrondissement. He encountered a grocery store with a wine section run by a couple whose daughter Albert Champion would marry.
A reporter knew him around this time and said he kept his nose in the air like the Parisian he was. "This one-of-a-kind street urchin with a little face to go along with it, alert and lively as a monkey, seemed to have quicksilver coursing through his veins."
Champion had discovered the value of self-improvement. He would apply that principle again and again.
* * *
His family was living on rue Debarcadere, near the Avenue de la Grande Armée. The neighborhood of Batignolles is shaped like a croissant sitting on the Right Bank of the Seine, with a flank sprawled over the city's northwestern edge and one corner under the Arc de Triomphe. Batignolles had been annexed into Paris in 1860. Unlike central Paris, with its straight, broad avenues conducive to flowing traffic of horse-drawn carriages, Batignolles was filigreed with crooked, narrow brick and stone lanes. Small vineyards defied the city's expansion. Cheap rents and flower-bedecked picturesque houses with mansard roofs of slate contributed to a bohemian ambiance.
The locale was more than a coachman and washerwoman with Albert and three younger brothers could afford, but his parents worked in service for a family that provided lodging. No records remain about his parents' employer. Champion's nature was to plunge with formidable energy headlong into life and work, without pausing for introspection. Years later, as his business in the United States thrived and expanded to England and France, he reminisced with colleagues over dinners, wine and champagne, and cigars at trade shows, sales conferences, and in the Pullman restaurant cars of passenger trains swaying across the country. Yet he only provided topical sketches of his background. He was more intent on the future. Automobile Topics Illustrated, a New York--based trade publication, described him as "perpetually afire with new ideas and ever reaching for further achievements. If he was without patience, hot tempered, erratic at times, he was also versatile, amusing, brilliant, and delightfully companionable."
During his childhood, his father rose six mornings a week to heave into the uniform and boots of his livery and tramp out the door so early that the gaslights still illuminated the streets. Alexandre trudged back late, redolent of leather and straw and manure. He was a working-class native of central Paris, the First Arrondissement, the ancient Île de la Cité. Alexandre grew up in the squalid, congested area that Victor Hugo rendered in his novel Les Misérables.]IT Alexandre was forced out among twenty-five thousand inhabitants displaced by the radical demolitions by Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann to make way for the gracious public spaces and attractive metropolis we know today.
Before the advent of electricity, washing clothes was outdoor labor as strenuous as tilling farm soil. Marie Champion's morning began by pulling off the heavy wooden lid set at the end of the previous workday over the top of the well to keep out the rats. A wooden bucket holding three or four gallons attached to the end of a rope was dropped into the well, filled with water until it weighed twenty-five or thirty pounds, and hauled up, hand over hand, to the surface. Water buckets were lugged some fifty yards from the well to pour into a big vat suspended over a large roaring fire that heated the water to a boil. Before putting clothes and bedding into the vat, washerwomen bent over a washboard and scrubbed out dirt and stains, often grunting from the effort. The laundry tossed into the vat's soapy water was stirred around with wooden poles like broom handles. Sopping-wet fabric was heavy. Stirring the poles strained backs, shoulders, and arms. Next, laundry had to be lifted from the vat and held up for long minutes, with the pole leveraged against the side of the vat, for most of the dirty water to drip away before the load was dropped into the rinsing tub. Then every piece of laundry had to be wrung by hand to squeeze out excess water. Finally the laundry was hung to dry on rope lines, creating alleys in which Albert ran and played.
Alexandre Champion and Marie Blanche Carpentier had met in Batignolles, likely when they were living in service at 16 rue de Tillsit, an upscale address near the Arc de Triomphe. They published their wedding banns on October 18, 1873. Alexandre and Blanche had some evenings and Sundays together. They explored local cafés and cabarets noisy with other classes laborieuses, poets, musicians, and artists drawn to districts where the rent was cheap. They married on January 17, 1874.
In the year Albert learned to ride the unicycle, he was the big brother of Louis and Henri, named after French Kings, and Prosper, honoring Marie's father and paternal grandfather. The family ate simple meals, mostly baked bread and herbs, supplemented with copious amounts of red onions, garlic, and sorrel. A seasonal dish included dandelion salad garnished with slices of hardboiled egg. It was typical to finish with a piece of cheese. They also would have indulged in the fare of the Paris poor: horsemeat.
He grew up when neighbors still seethed about the shelling of Paris by Prussian artillery in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. At gatherings around dining tables and in cafés and cabarets people spewed passionate recollections about citizens who had grabbed picks and shovels and rushed to protect the Arc de Triomphe. Residents of Batignolles had filled tons of sandbags and stacked them up the monument's height of 164 feet and breadth of 148 feet. The Arc de Triomphe escaped harm. However, the Prussian artillery siege cut off the supply of food for three months. Starving citizens resorted to eating all of the animals in the zoo, then dogs, cats, and crows, every horse, and—after consuming all options—people resorted to eating rats. France capitulated to Prussia and was forced to pay ruinous compensation, which set off a wave of business failures. Revolutionaries in the leftist Commune of Paris had set up a provisional government and fought a civil war on the streets. Sections of the city went up in flames. In May 1871, some twenty thousand citizens were massacred or court-martialed and summarily shot.
When Champion came to possess a unicycle, Paris was hosting a world's fair—the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Government officials and business leaders organized it to rejoice over the city's recovery from the Franco-Prussian War, remember the centenary of the 1789 storming of the Bastille, and display France's culture with the new painting movement called Impressionism.
The exposition's symbol was bridge builder Gustave Eiffel's tapering steel tower, soaring up 984 feet, an audacious icon. During two years of construction, his spectacle of 7,000 tons, held together with 2.5 million rivets, rose rudely above Paris's ocean of slate roofs. Intellectuals expressed outrage. They gathered in the streets and grumbled that Eiffel's structure violated the city profile; many circulated petitions and wrote letters of protest to newspapers. Yet supporters rallied in greater numbers, expressing pride that Paris now possessed the tallest building in the world, surpassing America's Washington Monument, a marble obelisk 555 feet tall in Washington, DC. Adoring advocates boasted that the Eiffel Tower represented modern France. Champion, looking south from Batignolles across the city, could see the Eiffel Tower going up, higher and higher. This was among his cherished memories from childhood.
His father lived to see the Eiffel Tower completed, but he died of pneumonia at home three days after Christmas—December 28, 1889. He was forty-seven, about the average life expectancy for his generation. Aside from his wedding banns and marriage, he left behind no records of paying taxes, voting, or serving in the military. (France had a compulsory two-year military conscription. If he had served, which is likely, he would have been a lowly enlisted man, a poilu, among the faceless undocumented.) (Continues...)
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