Albert Champion (cyclist)
Albert Champion (4 April 1878 Paris—26 October 1927 Paris) was a French road bicycle racer, who won the 1899 Paris–Roubaix. In 1908 he founded the Champion Ignition Company to make spark plugs in Flint, Michigan. In 1909 the name changed to AC Spark Plug Company, after Champion's initials.
The historian Pierre Chany says Champion went to America after his win to profit from track contracts and to escape conscription, which could have meant up to seven years in the army. There he raced behind motorcycles and against riders such as Jimmy Michael, leading a comfortable life, enough that he could buy a racing car and take part in competitions. "He had contracted the car virus", said the historian Pascal Sergent.
He crashed in a race and spent months in hospital, leaving with one leg two centimetres shorter than the other. By then, Champion had opened a factory to make spark plugs. He returned to France to raise more money for it. Coping with his shortened leg by using cranks of different lengths, he won a 50 km race on the Buffalo track in Paris and in 1904 became national motor-paced champion on the Parc des Princes track by beating specialists such as Parent, Contenet and the "blond Adonis", Émile Bouhours. The race reopened the injury to his leg and he was taken to the Hôpital Boucicaut. He was in his hospital bed when he saw a fellow rider, Brecy, brought in with injuries collected in a crash at 90 km/h. The experience ended Champion's racing career.
The 1899 Paris–Roubaix was paced by small motorcycles. That was attractive to velodrome riders, who were accustomed to them. The race took place on a still day, 2 April, with 32 riders. They included the prominent road riders, Maurice Garin and Josef Fischer but also track specialists such as Champion, Émile Bohours and Paul Bor. What they gained through experience in paced riding, they lost in inexperience of the cobbles and other bad road surfaces that constituted Paris–Roubaix.
Champion, 21, was an outsider but the others chased when he broke away alone soon after the start. Only Bouhours could come close to catching him, getting to within a minute at Amiens, at half distance. But Bouhours' hope of catching him ended when his pacer hit a spectator crossing the road. Champion slowed through hunger near Arras, riding the worst of the cobbles at walking speed, but at the velodrome in Roubaix he still had 23 minutes on Bor and Ambroise Garin, brother of Maurice.
Champion finished in 8h 22m 53s, slow by comparison to Maurice Garin, who won the 1898 race in 10 minutes less despite bad weather.
Champion became interested in cars and car racing while he was in the USA. He moved back to France to make spark plugs and magnetos. He returned to America in the early 1900s, establishing the Champion Spark Plug Company in Boston. In 1908, after a disagreement with his Boston backers, he left the company and moved to Flint, Michigan, where he founded Champion Ignition Company. His first office was on the top floor of Buick factory 1. The company was incorporated in October 1908 and changed name a year later, following a legal challenge by his former company, to AC Spark Plug Company, after Champion's initials. To this day, both names survive as ACDelco (GM products) and Champion spark plugs sold by Federal-Mogul.
Champion died on 27 October 1927. General Motors bought all the company by acquiring shares held by Champion's estate.
Personal life and death
Champion was married when he went to the USA but the marriage didn't last. In 1922 he married a girl in show business. In 1927, he collapsed and died of a heart attack while escorting his wife to the dance floor of the Hotel Meurice during a banquet in Paris. He was being honoured for making the spark plugs that helped Charles Lindbergh cross the Atlantic alone that year.
He left $15 million. Alfred P. Sloan, president of General Motors, said: "The keynote of Champion's success was, that he was never satisfied...his mind was open to the necessity for constant improvement."
Champion is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
- Buickcity - 2008/03 Champion Ignition Company
- Flint Timeline Project-Albert Champion 1908
- Chany, Pierre (1988) La Fabuleuse Histoire de Cyclisme, Nathan, France, p159
- Sergent, Pascal (1989) Chronique d'une Légende: Paris–Roubaix, Belgium
- Chany, Pierre (1988) La Fabuleuse Histoire de Cyclisme, Nathan, France, p160
- Automotive Hall of Fame - Albert Champion
- Albert Champion profile at Cycling Archives