The birth of the automobile in the late nineteenth century was greeted with a mixture of awe, scepticism and sometimes even disdain from sections of the European public. In this article, the steps taken in France to pioneer and promote this new invention are examined. Unreliable and noisy, the early automobile owes a debt of gratitude to the French aristocracy who organised and codified motor racing in an effort to test these new inventions while at the same time introduce them to a wider public. City-to-city races demonstrated the potential of the automobile before the initiative of Gordon Bennett proved to be the catalyst for the birth of international motor sport as we recognise it today. Finally this article looks at the special connection between Le Mans and the automobile. Le Mans has, through its 24-hour race, maintained a strong link with the development of everyday automobile tourism and offers the enthusiast an alternative to the machines that reach incredible speeds on modern-day closed circuits. This article examines how French roads were veritable testing grounds for the earliest cars and how the public roads of Le Mans maintain the tradition to this day.