Henri Desgranges, founder of the Tour de France in 1903, believed his race should be a pure competition between men. He forbade riders to change bikes or even let mechanics work on broken ones. He once disqualified a rider for taking a jumper off – the rule being that you had to finish exactly as you started – and it was only a strike by riders that stopped him introducing a rule that all competitors eat exactly the same meal every day.

In the early years there were certainly no support vehicle to carry spares or hand out nutrition. There’s one famous story about a competitor with a major mechanical problem who managed to find a forge to fix his own bike. Nevertheless, he was still penalised, because it was discovered that the blacksmith’s apprentice had pumped the forge’s bellows as the rider hammered his forks back into shape.

Without support vehicles, starving and dehydrated riders would often raid bistros and bars – a practice called chasse à la canette (hunting for cans) – grabbing any wine, beer or food that they could, with absolutely no intention of ever paying for.

But by 1947, as the race evolved and became more commercial, the organizers had to find suitable escort vehicles for both the cycling teams and the pursuing press pack. The Willy Jeep was chosen by the technical managers because it was open top, which meant mechanics and photographers could hang out the side.  Their low gearing was essential for steep mountain sections and off-road tyres could handle the poor surfaces. The Jeeps were also easy to modify, with the bike spare wheels attached to the rear hanging bar. But mostly they were chosen because they were cheap and plentiful, as surplus WWII American hardware still littered the French countryside in the late 1940s.

Until 1955, a mixed bag of Willys, Hotchkiss and Delahaye-made Jeeps – all painted white to match the race officials’ Peugeots and Citroens – supported the TdF. They were only retired when health and safety concerns about the dodgy road handling saw them replaced with more modern vehicles. Later came the Campagnolo Buicks, the Bianchi Alfas and the famous Molteni Volvos. Iconic TdF motors of the 1970s and 1980s. But for the last twenty years it’s Skoda that we most usually associate with the Tdf.

The 2024 Tour de France will be the 111th edition of the world’s most famous pushbike race. But in a dramatic break with tradition, it will begin in Florence and end in Nice, rather than Paris, as the French capital frantically gets ready for the Olympics later in the summer. But one thing that won’t change are the swarms of Skodas. Not least, as the official Red Car.

Skoda’s Red Car is a technological command centre from which the Tour Director manages the race. With a well-stocked minibar on board, the Red Car also serves as a bijou hospitality suite for dignitaries to watch the race action up close. The Red Car is also the only one allowed to drive across the finishing line with the cyclists.

Now I’m sure that this year’s Red Car, an all-electric Enyaq Sportline SUV, is very well-made and capable thing. But it is a little boring. Certainly not as interesting as the white Willy’s Jeeps that buzzed around the riders in the post-war golden years. If, like us, you’re also a nostalgic TdF and retro car lover, then check out the Race Support Vehicles Cycling Print by David Sparshott. Which one is your favourite?

About The Author

Darryl can usually be found up to his elbows in some unloved piece of BL detritus when he isn’t snapping and scribbling for various print magazines or producing the book on road tripping or tally-ho adventurers. As an occasional presenter on CBS's Carfection YouTube channel, his other hobbies include vintage Scalextrics, ‘60s Bang & Olufsen and dabbling in grassroots motorsport.

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