Earning a Living at the Wheel, with the Risk of Losing One’s Life. European Automobile Pilots (1920s-1930s)

Athletes' Working Conditions
By Sébastien Moreau

This article deals with the emergence of a group of professional automobile pilots in Europe during the Interwar period. During the time, automobile racing was institutionalised and commercialised to a previously unknown extent, under the supervision of European automobile clubs, industrial groups and journalists. In this context, by following the trajectories of pilots, we study the conditions for exercising this practice – part sport, part social activity. These trajectories are mainly marked by a wide diversity due to the sport’s origins, at the crossroads of changes in bourgeois leisure activities and the unprecedented development of the automobile industry. On the roads and race tracks of Europe, racing team pilots came up against wealthy independent racers, forming a stratified population and a wide range of participants with diverse origins, mobility, motivations and compensation. In the representations of the period, the pilots became the icons of the triumph of the automobile, but they nevertheless took second stage to the industrial groups that employed and equipped them. In this European space that was driven across and appropriated, behind the sports competition that acted as a support, this situation gave rise to large-scale industrial competitions and strategies that benefited the sportsmen but also held them captive.

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