24h Le Mans
First winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, who was René Léonard (André Lagache's teammate)?
The first running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans took place 26-27 May 1923 - under the name 24 Hour Endurance Grand Prix - and was won by the #9 Chenard & Walcker shared by André Lagache and René Léonard. While Lagache is still well-known, the same cannot be said for René Léonard. It is impossible to find a trace of him in any newspaper article or otherwise, so he remains shrouded in mystery. We set out to find out more about this legendary first winner.
Thanks to the determination and research done by two great motorsport enthusiasts, André Reine and Henri Gué, we now know a bit more about René Auguste Maxime Léonard.
The son of a coachman, René Auguste Maxime Léonard was born in Pau, France on 23 June 1889. He first lived in Blois and was later hired as a mechanic by Chenard & Walcker in Gennevilliers. He made his debut in competition in 1921 at the Consumption Contest organized by the ACO. Just two years later, along with André Lagache, he won the first running of the 24 Hours after completing 128 laps of the 17-kilometer circuit (a little more than 2,200 kilometers). Back at Le Mans in 1924, he was forced to retire, but did win the Georges Boillot Cup. The following year, he was once again forced to retire, but two weeks later won the 24 Hours of Spa with André Lagache. In 1926, he won the San Sebastián Grand Prix for touring cars in Spain and was the runner-up in the Georges Boillot Cup.
At the end 1926, Chenard & Walcker officially withdrew from further competiton. Yet René Léonard was seen again in 1932, participating in the Lisieux hill climb and the kilometer race kicked off in Strasbourg, with a Chenard & Walcker. The same year, he moved to Saint-Gratien near the company's factory in Gennevilliers. There, he worked as a developer and also helped Robert Sénéchal try to set a 24-hour record in Montlhéry. In 1937, he returned to Le Mans as the manager of Benoit Falchetto's team. Falchetto had bought two old Chenard & Walckers tanks, not new by any means but still capable of high performance. Famous weightlifter Charles Rigoulot won the Bol d’Or (Montlhéry) but at Le Mans, the two cars fielded by Yves Giraud-Cabantous were forced to retire.
Struggling financially, Chenard & Walcker was bought out by the Chausson company, but René Léonard would stay throughout his career until his retirement.
He passed away at the age of 76 on 15 August 1965 and is enterred in the Saint Gratien cemetery. Childless, his estate was auctioned off after the death of his wife in 1993. At least now we know more about the elusive René Léonard, first winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with André Lagache.
And for this we would like to express our deep gratitude to André Reine, Henri Gué and Marc Ceulemans (Palmarès).