It may not suit FIA President Jean Todt’s current agenda, but the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile was established in June 1904, as the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus, to meet the need to organise international motorsport.
Representatives of the six countries taking part in the Gordon Bennett Cup race at Bad Homberg, near Frankfurt in Germany, (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy) met at the event and agreed it would be desirable to have an international federation to run motor sport. Seven other clubs (Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the United States) soon joined the new alliance.
Coordinating the common interest of motor car users around the world was a purpose which followed, but from the start – and still today – the federation is best known for its role as the governing body of motorsport events. The FIA Formula One World Championship is the primary series and its most significant source of revenue.
For the nine years prior to the birth of the AIACR, international events were organised by the Automobile Club de France (ACF). However, it was not until 1901 that there was a proper definition of what constituted “an automobile”.
The word was first used in France in 1861. It had its roots in Greek (autos, meaning self) and Latin (mobilis, meaning movable). These two morphemes were tacked together to create a word for the expression “véhicule automobile”, a term used thereafter for the steam-powered buses of the day. The name was accepted by the pernickety “language police” at the Académie Française in 1875.
It was by no means the only word used for self-propelled vehicles, other notable names being “locomobile” in French, and “motorcar” and “autocar”in English.
Things became complicated as the popularity of horseless carriages spread and in 1900 the Conseil d’État, which advises the French government on legal matters, asked the Académie Française about the word, because it was preparing a decree to regulate these new self-propelled, road-going vehicles. The politicians were not sure if the word was masculine or feminine.
The gender of objects is not something that matters in the English-speaking world, but is of vital importance in other languages. The Académie decided to use what was known as Malherbe’s Rule, which meant they follow common usage, but they discovered that the word “automobile” was regularly used in both masculine and feminine forms, and no-one knew which was correct. They could not both be right. The French word for car is “voiture”. This is feminine, but is used for all wheeled devices, such as carts and trucks; while the English word “car” is masculine, but is used in French to describe a bus or coach. If Autocar magazine existed in France, it would be about motorcoaches.
In the end the Académie decided that the only solution was to take a vote on the subject. There are 40 members of the Académie at any given moment and in 1900 this included such luminaries as the poet Sully Prudhomme, the novelist Anatole France and the Vicomte de Vogüé (father of a future FIA President). Of the 40 members, only 10 were sufficiently motivated to turn up for the vote. Seven voted for the automobile to be feminine and three voted for it to be masculine.
Officially, the decision was taken because “voiture” is feminine, but there is a story that the some of the Académicians voted as they did because they believed the noisy and unreliable automobiles of the day were as troublesome as women – and as lovable.