Louis Wagner, born in Paris in 1882, was one of the most famous drivers of the 'heroic age' of motor racing. Wagner joined the racing department of Darracq at Suresnes in 1901, and became a team driver in 1903. Alexandre Darracq believed in entering his racing cars in as many speed events as possible, and throughout the 1903 season, Wagner was fully occupied with races, hill-climbs and sprints.
The Circuit of Bastogne
Wagner won the Circuit of Bastogne, and was lying third in the voiturette class of the Paris-Madrid when it was halted at Bordeaux. Wagner crossed the Atlantic in 1906 to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup: he won, after a hard-fought race, and it was reported that he could have gone even faster had it not been for the crowds swarming onto the track.
He did indulge his taste for speed during his visit, however, with a quick burst down Broadway, which so scandalised the local constabulary that they clapped him into New York's Tombs prison for 48 hours. Mechanical failure spoiled the Darracq chances in the 1907 Targa Florio, when Wagner and Hanriot were forced to retire with broken half-shafts: Alexandre Darracq blandly announced that he was going to attribute the breakages to the carelessness of the drivers, who must surely have run off the road.
Switching to FIAT
Angered by this slander, Wagner stormed off to offer his services to FIAT, who agreed to repay the bond linking him to the Darracq company, and to take him on at double the appearance money, as well as guaranteeing him starts in more major races. Alexandre Darracq, who does not appear to have been a particularly likeable character, protested, and threatened to take the case before the French government; he wasn't going to have one of his leading drivers walking out to join a foreign rival company.
But Darracq's threats proved impotent, and by the next major race, the Kaiserpreis, Wagner was a member of the FIAT team, along with Nazzaro and Lancia. But Nazzaro won the Kaiserpreis; and he won the 1907 French Grand Prix, too, though Wagner led for the first two laps until a broken camshaft caused his retirement. The 1908 Grand Prix saw all the Fiats eliminated by the end of the fourth lap, but to compensate for this Wagner carried off the American Grand Prize at Savannah.
In 1909, with Grand Prix racing temporarily in abeyance, Wagner switched his attention to flying, and joined the aircraft manufacturing company formed by his erstwhile team-mate Hanriot; he was a participant at many of the early flying meetings, and was actually airborne at the 1910 Bournemouth event when C. S. Rolls crashed with fatal results in his Wright Flyer. The 1912 French Grand Prix saw the swansong of the monster racing cars, with Wagner, De Palma and Bruce Brown driving Fiats with engines displacing over 14 liters - at the end of the first day's racing, Wagner was lying third, despite recurrent tire trouble: he finished in second place, behind George Boillot's Peugeot.
Wagner elected to drive for Mercedes in the 1914 French Grand Prix - Fiat, it was said, realising that their new GP cars were insufficiently developed to stand a chance, sportingly offered to let Wagner transfer his allegiance to the German marque. He finished second, behind the sister car of Christian Lautenschlager. Back with Fiat after the war, Wagner competed in the 1921 Brescia Grand Prix, but was slowed to third by tire trouble.
He joined Ballot that season, finishing seventh in the 1921 French Grand Prix on a straight-eight of that marque; the following year he took part in the Grand Prix in a Rolland-Pilain, but failed to last the race out. In 1924 he was driving for Alfa Romeo; in 1925 he was with Delage, Peugeot and Aries as a freelance. The 1926 season saw a sixth place in the Targa Florio
and a second place in the Coppa Florio, on a sleeve-valve Peugeot, while 1927 found Wagner at the wheel of a Talbot, in which he made a record lap in the French Grand Prix, despite mechanical troubles. Then, after almost a quarter of a century in motor racing, Wagner retired from international competition.
After World War 2, tuberculosis of the bone compelled the amputation of a leg, and Wagner was given the post of instructor and supervisor at the Montlhery circuit - but the disease worsened, and by the late 1950s he was housebound. Wagner died in 1960, and was buried at Montlhery.