Celebrating a Gordon Bennett Anniversary



“The true home of the motor-car is not in garage or workshop, showroom or factory, but on the open road. There it comes into its own, there it justifies itself, there it fulfils its true and appointed destiny.”—A. B. Filson-Young in “The Complete Motorist” (Methuen, 1904).

The 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland was interesting, if not dramatic. Great Britain having, through the audacity of S. F. Edge and his heavy-weight Napier, collected this Nation-versus-Nation honour in 1902, it fell to this country to stage the following year’s Gordon Bennett Cup contest. Where else but in Ireland, where a 91-7/8-mile figure-of-eight circuit was established, centred on Athy?

Mercedes had thoroughly stirred up the entire motor industry with their revolutionary new 40 h.p. model of 1901, which had such advanced features as mechanically-operated inlet valves, a channel-section steel frame, honeycomb radiator and a gate gear-change, which other manufacturers were busy copying. By 1903 Mercedes had developed more powerful versions of their Forty, in the form of the touring-model Sixty and the Ninety racing cars. Naturally, they were anxious to race their new cars in important international contests and the Gordon Bennett race was one of them. Although the Ninety racers had not done anything like so well in the accident-abandoned Paris-Madrid race that year, the factory was determined to use them to show German superiority in the Gordon Bennett. Fate, however, intervened. A disastrous fire not only gutted a large part of the Cannstatt factory but destroyed all five of the 90 h.p. racing cars.

It might have been thought that such a catastrophe would not have particularly troubled the British, apart from the slight diminution of entries for their race. But the Britisher is a sportsman and it is said that The Autocar, immediately the news of the fire had reached these shores, appealed to such of its readers who had already taken delivery of their 60 h.p. Mercedes, to offer them to the factory as substitute competition cars. I would not have thought that many of these new Mercedes would have been delivered to English customers in the first half of the year of their introduction. But Mr. Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe of publishing fame), who had been an enthusiastic owner of one of the advanced 1901/2 40 h.p. Mercedes, evidently had been given early delivery of a Sixty and this he offered as The Autocar was advocating. His generous offer was unnecessary, however, because others were available from other keen owners. Lord Montagu says the Paris Mercedes agent was able to produce three Sixty chassis for preparation before the race; Scott-Moncrieff says that Clarence Gray Dinsmore, a wealthy American Mercedes owner of long standing, allowed his Sixty to be stripped down, given a quick going-over and be equipped with a simple two-seater body for Jenatzy to drive, and that the other team drivers used their own cars. Why owners in Germany were unable to go to the aid of their premier manufacturer remains obscure, unless it was thought quicker to prepare these proffered private Sixties in France rather than at the gutted Mercedes factory.

At all events, those 60 h.p. cars replaced the intended trio of 90 h.p. Mercedes as the GB entry, to be driven by red-bearded Camille Jenatzy, Baron de Caters and Foxhall-Keene. Even the drivers were not as the Herr-Directors, to whom some authorities give credit for suggesting that 60s be substituted for the fire-consumed 90s, had intended. They had wished to have professional ex-mechanics to support Jenatzy’s entry, in the persons of Hieronymus and Werner.

This caused consternation at the German Automobile Club, which insisted on the drivers being gentlemen, not hired chauffeurs or bench-fitters. Herr Jellinek at first refused to give way but finally relented, so that Jenatzy and Baron de Caters of Belgium and the American Foxhall-Keene, who was a Master of Foxhounds, were nominated, as being eminently respectable socially. When the owners of expensive veteran Sixty and Gull’s-Wing 300SL, Mercedes assembled at Beaulieu at my bidding, I wondered if I seemed to them as non-hochwohlgeboren as Jellinek’s first choice of support drivers—but I digress.

Incidentally, as Jenatzy had a car lent by an American and the other Mercedes GB entries are said to have been the personally-owned property of another American and a Belgian nobleman, Lord Montagu is probably correct in saying that M. Charley, the Paris agent, rounded up these owners, who might well have been in France for the racing there.

The story of that memorable 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup race is soon told, although it is worth delving into Lord Montagu’s excellent book for a full account. The “Red Devil” Jenatzy drove fearlessly, some say wildly, but splendidly, winning at an average speed of 49.2 m.p.h. for the narrow and difficult 327-1/2-Mile Course. It was Daimler-Benz’s first victory in a Grande Epreuve (Jenatzy is said to have won £8,000, which in terms of 1973 currency would make even J. Stewart gasp), De Knyff, on the big 13.7-litre T-head Panhard-Levassor, had been expected to win and it is said that he miscalculated the bearded Belgian’s ability to keep his car on the road or to extract sufficient speed from a stripped touring Sixty, speeding up too late to catch the Mercedes. Be that as it may, the much larger-engined French car was 11 min. 40 sec. in arrears at the finish, averaging 47.8 m.p.h. Farman’s Panhard-Levassor was third, very close behind De Knyff, having averaged 47.7 m.p.h. The only other finishers were Gabriel’s Mors—hero of Paris-Madrid—and Edge, praise be, on a Napier. Foxhall-Keene had stalled his engine at the start, but De Caters went off at great speed. Later De Caters sportingly stopped to reassure people that Charles Jarrott was not badly hurt after his Napier had crashed. Both had back-axle failures, Foxhall-Keene’s the result of a skid, De Caters’ giving out ten miles from the finish.

Thus were Jenatzy and millionaire Dinsmore’s Sixty Mercedes covered in glory, and dust, for dust had been a problem round the long Athy circuit.

Naturally, rumours went round that Jenatzy had a special bored-out engine but as both he and Baron De Caters were timed at 66 m.p.h. over the measured mile past the grandstand, this is disproved.

There were other Mercedes Sixties present, J. E. Hutton using one as a course patrol car, while Mr. Harmsworth brought his over to Ireland and it later won the Henry Edmunds Trophy in the Castlewellan Hill-Climb, driven by Campbell-Muir. Later still it appeared, without distinction, at Brooklands.

This GB victory must have done the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft of Cannstat a power of good, for in Edwardian Europe there were sufficient people able to afford these £2,800 grand touring cars and keep them in tyres. Incidentally, Mercedes wanted to use Michelin tyres in the GB but the rules forbade and Jenatzy ran on Continentals. Besides, the Sixty had been gaining plenty of successes. Already, at the Nice Week of 1903 Prince Lubecki had won the Esterel Mountain contest, Wilhelm Werner set a s.s, mile record, Hermann Braun had covered a f.s. kilo. at 72.6 m.p.h., Hieronymus won the La Turbie hill-climb, but, alas, Count Eliot Zborowski was killed in his new Sixty Mercedes shortly after starting in the latter event. Five Sixties had started in the fateful Paris-Madrid race, Warden’s finishing sixth at Bordeaux when the race was stopped, Gasteaux’s eighth, whereas the best-placed Ninety was 14th. (Jenatzy).

Further successes, according to Scott-Moncrieff ‘s “Three-pointed Star”, were gained at Phoenix Park, where Higginbotham (who took early delivery of one of these cars and got onto fourth speed within 20 miles!; he was presumably the later Autovac and 30/98 gentleman of this name) drove his Sixty, and wealthy Willy Polge had a walk-over at Ostend Motor Week with his new Sixty.

The Mercedes historian tells of many more excellent performances by these 60 h.p. cars, which I regard as the first-ever real sports-car. It would seem that at least 16 were at large in Europe in 1903, possibly many more, although the 1904 catalogue apparently listed the chain-drive Sixty chassis at £1,800, the gear-driven version at £2,500 and they were costly on tyres and driving ability. Gray Dinsmore had a couple, engaging works drivers to run them at Semmering hill-climb. By 1904 the 60 had given place in serious racing to the 90 Mercedes four-cylinder, not the later production six-cylinder, but Florio was 3rd in the Florio Cup on his Sixty at 70 m.p.h., and in the American Vanderbilt Cup race Sixties were driven by Campbell, Hawley and Arents.

Remembering that this year is the 70th anniversary of the Irish GB race and that Mercedes had had to borrow privately-owned cars to win it, it occurred to me that it would be fun if, in 1973, Mercedes-Benz were to do a little re-enactment of an historic occasion, again with borrowed Sixties. Knowing that Erik Johnson, Public Relations Manager of Mercedes-Benz (GB) Ltd. of Brentford, is enthusiastic about anything appertaining to cars or motorcycles, I put the idea to him and he immediately agreed to lay on a suitable party, involving some epic motoring.

We were fortunate, in as much as there are still three Sixty Mercedes in this country. Despite the fame of these cars when they were new in 1903, and the fact that Gordon Watney, the Mercedes-fancier of Weybridge, won a Brooklands Long Handicap with one as late as 1912, these great cars had been forgotten by almost everyone by the time the Veteran Car Club was formed in 1930, except, that is, by E.K.H. Karslake.

Cont’d in Part 2.