Touring clubs – early promoters of cultural tourism

By Geneviève Lacroix

Discovering Europe and its treasures on two or four wheels

intoHistory is proud to have entered into partnership with Touring (up until recently, the Touring Club de Belgique), a dynamic network that now has a membership of over 420,000 motorists and travellers, which gives us the chance to focus on the history of touring clubs that first came into being at the end of the 19th century, and to highlight the major role they played in the development of cultural tourism in Europe.

Touring clubs

The joy of discovering picturesque corners on an automobile outing . . . (anonymous photographer)

It all began with the two-wheeler

In 1878 a Scottish doctor founded the Bicycle Touring Club an organisation that promoted cycling and helped its members create their own universe. In 1880 the first woman was admitted to the ranks of this brotherhood of daring sportsmen. Five years later, a judicious decision was made to admit tricycles into their midst, and the club became the Cyclists Touring Club. Their activities were centred round organizing outings, setting up road signs, providing mutual technical assistance to the members and developing a network of good addresses.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

The first English cyclists were nicknamed the ‘bigwheelers’ (1887). Note the tricycle in the foreground!

Following the trend, the Touring Club de France was formed in 1890 at Neuilly-sur-Seine in Paris, as well as the Sport Vélocipédique Monégasque club in the same year. This was followed by the Touring Club de Belgique in 1895, and hot on its heels, the Touring Club Suisse, in 1896; all the clubs had the same goals and principles. Cycling in those days was a sporting and a costly pursuit in equipment, clothes – club members were required to wear uniforms on their outings – and time. The working classes had little leisure time and even less inclination to ‘move’ after hours of stressful physical work, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

Stopping for a rest on a bicycle outing in England – There seems to be a woman in their midst hiding behind a moustache and disguised as a boy!

Automobile clubs

The enthusiasm and dynamism of the cycling clubs was contagious and generated a touring craze. In the wake of the two-wheelers, automobile clubs came into being: first the Automobile Club de France, and then, in 1897, the Royal Automobile Club in London. Originally, these clubs were exclusively masculine, very classy and focused entirely on the automobile. However, they did less for tourism than the touring clubs, as their main interest was centred on the organization of rallies, grand prix races and similar spectacular events. The Royal Automobile Club de Belgique organized its first ‘meeting’ in July 1896 in Spa, which gave rise to the future Boucles de Spa (a major motor rally in Belgium).

Alternative text: Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

The Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France (ACF) in 1906 – suspense at 101 km/h!

When interests converged

The well-organized touring clubs, and the automobile clubs with their huge potential for development, were a perfect match for each other and their activities were mutually complementary – they had the same target audience, the same roads to be ‘modernized’, in short, the same vast territories to be conquered. Thus, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club), the federation of automobile clubs in Germany, founded in 1903, which started as a motorcycle club, is now responsible for road users in general. In the same spirit, the ACI (Automobile Club Italia), founded in 1898, started out by encouraging ‘automobile enthusiasts’ to club together to take part in competitions, and became the essential reference for tourism and motoring assistance in Italy. In the United Kingdom, the AA (Automobile Association) founded in 1905, also offered a whole range of very modern services.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

An ADAC (Germany) patrolling agent comes to the rescue of an early road user at the beginning of the 20th century. © ADAC

Making life easier for road users

In the early days of the automobile adventure, there were no suitable roads for cars to make excursions into the countryside. The first motor cars were often experimental, but were handsome, luxurious, very technical and costly machines – nevertheless, they were all set to go with their passengers – but where to?  In the towns there were only a few avenues where cars could circulate freely without upsetting pedestrians, horses and landaus. And how did one get to other towns – by which roads?  Only the tree-lined, clearly defined main rectilinear roads laid out in the 18th century were relatively well maintained. But even these had heavy traffic of horse-drawn vehicles, carts, migrant workers, or animals being moved from one grazing ground to another.

As for countryside jaunts, one would have had to put up with narrow, bumpy, and winding roads – which certainly wouldn’t have allowed for speed and the revving of engines to impress the ladies.

Without the appropriate infrastructure, more often than not, car owners were limited to small outings or turns round the park. There was neither a driving code, nor road markings.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

An unusual sight for 1910 – when the automobile was still an almost exclusively masculine domain.

Lost in the middle of nowhere

Touring clubs have been active from 1900. Their aim was to facilitate motor excursions by using the skills that were developed to assist cyclists. They backed the growing need for automobiles to be authorised on the roads and the promotion of a trend that was still limited to that of a gentleman’s sport. The roads were not really suited to these machines with their new technical restraints, or their drivers who would be quite stranded if they broke down, ran out of petrol, or lost their way. The touring clubs – tourist associations – came to the aid of their members with a compilation of useful addresses:  for the technical side – mechanics, service stations and petrol pumps; and for enjoyment – hotels, restaurants and interesting places to visit. The Touring Club de France, set up orientation tables on mountain tops and at sites with panoramic views. It also contributed to the establishment of the Bibliothèque du Tourisme et des Voyages (The Travel and Tourism Library), based in Paris.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

A patrol agent from the Touring Club de Suisse fills up before setting off to work. (1939) © TCS

Michelin – and the art of tyre consumption

Manufacturers of automobile spare parts were also interested in encouraging motor-car tourism. The first Michelin guide was published during the 1900 World Fair in Paris. The tyre company gave away the very publicity-driven little travel guide to its clients. The guide listed everything that could be useful to a handful of tourists, such as garages, which were still very rare, a few town maps and a selection of unusual sights to visit on their travels.

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

The first appearance of Michelin’s famous Monsieur Bibendum – guzzler of bad roads. (1898)

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

Exhilarating journeys to be taken as did explorers avid for a change of cultural scenery. © anonymous photographer

At the time, France only numbered some 2500 motorists, all cars. The advertising in the guide was voluminous until 1920, when the brand decreed that ads devalued it and that henceforth it would be sold and not given away. Restaurants were mentioned and interesting tourist spots described as being ‘worth making the trip’ or ‘going out of one’s way to see’ – as a way, no doubt, of promoting more driving and thus, wearing out more tyres.
The guides – as they were deemed to be serious, educational books – were presented to deserving school pupils, who were too young to drive.
This promotional strategy paid off and from then on, motorists were only too ready to buy a guide that had become an indispensable and ‘cultural’ asset.

Adventures by road, rather than by rail

Touring clubs promote cultural tourism

The Touring Club de Belgique magazine, 1924 – promoter of cultural destinations. (Shown here – Gaasbeek Chateau in Brabant) © Touring

Travelling by automobile meant a greater choice of destinations that were far more accessible than by train, which was limited to drop-off points that were known in advance and unchangeable. The pleasure of individual travel by car was precisely to explore the unknown the picturesque nooks and crannies – off the beaten track.
To help minimize the risk of mechanical damage or personal discomfort, the touring clubs assumed – and anticipated – this desire for the unknown by their members. They sent out professional scouts who covered entire sectors checking for road suitability and exciting destinations off the beaten track for ‘Sunday-outing’ motorists, so there was always that delicious thrill of discovery.

Touring clubs promoters of cultural tourism

This beautiful old citroën seems to be the principal subject in this photograph and takes precedence over its occupants and the panoramic view!

No matter where you are . . .

To completely reassure their adventurous members – particularly after the advent of paid holidays and the generalization of family automobile excursions – the clubs ensured roadside assistance. Agents patrolled endless miles of road looking for vehicles that had broken down, that needed towing, or that could be repaired on the spot. As for their owners, they could be repatriated or treated for injuries if necessary. The principle of insurance whether at home or abroad, became the criterion for efficacy – a comprehensive service for the protection of their members – one that was to become of paramount importance for travel in general: air, sea and rail as well as for taxis, car hire and cycling.

Touring clubs promoters of cultural tourism

The Touring Club de Belgique’s impressive fleet of breakdown assistance cars (mostly Renault 4CVs) in 1958. © Touring

Today, the automobile clubs – who have greatly diversified their services since their pioneering days – are federated at international level and are controlled by two organizations, the ARC Europe and the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile).

A return to the roots?

Touring clubs promoteurs du tourisme culturelintoHistory is delighted to announce its collaboration with Touring who has remained faithful to its original purpose, that of promoting two-wheel (and then, four-wheel) tourism and discovery. It is a partnership that has been sealed in the pages of Touring Magazine, where from now on, members will find suggestions for historic accommodation that is easily accessible by car when travelling from Belgium. Inspiring period residences – perfect stays for memorable cultural trips – can be found near the destinations featured in every issue of the magazine, which includes many exclusive offers to readers.

For the nostalgic

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