The one that got away

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David Scott-Moncrieff on the mystery of the missing ex-de Palma 1914 GP Mercedes

When I was young, and that was one hell of a long time ago, there was considerable confusion between the two 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes that crossed the Atlantic. Even dear old Edward Mayer, whose greatest interests in life were fine riding horses (although, curiously, he never hunted) and Mercedes cars, was a bit vague about them. I must admit that I thought, at that time, that only one car had gone to the USA and that the car owned, at that time, by Major Veal, was the ex-de Palma car. Remember, the de Palma car vanished without trace soon after peace broke out in Europe. And, of course, general confusion as to which car was which was heightened by a story Edward told me which may well be true. After the race all the cars were dispersed to concessionaires of various countries for exhibition. But so that no dealer should feel that others were favoured above him, the number of the winning 1914 Grand Prix car was painted on ALL of them.

Thanks to the tremendous efforts by your Editor and several others, the history of the Harrison–(possibly Edward Mayer; he did tell me that he had owned it for a short period, and had not liked it)–Major Veal-Peter Clark-Briggs Cunningham car is very well documented. But round about 1919 the Salzer-de Palma car seems to vanish very firmly into the swirling mists of non-history and speculation. I have an idea that somebody, it might have been John Leathers, once told me: “de Palma blew it up in a race just after the 1914-18 war and junked it”. Well, it was a natural conclusion to jump to, that de Palma junked it. He blew it up all right, good and proper, but he sold it, after the blow-up “as is”. And this is where the story starts. We should never have known anything beyond this point if a lucky chance had not put me in touch with Mr. Charles Z. Klauder Jr., of Philadelphia, who has been wonderfully helpful. This is what he writes: “The car driven by de Palma at Indianapolis in 1915 was, of course, a 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes. Since de Palma was an engineer at Packard Motors, this car was studied by Packard, who designed the first Liberty Aero engine using the same individual steel cylinder design. De Palma continued to race the car until 1918 when the crankshaft broke in the “Sheepshead Bay” race held that year at Ascot Speedway a board oval near Pasadena, California. De Palma sold the car to Frank Book, an hotel and real estate magnate, who welded the crankshaft and exhibited the car in an hotel garage in Los Angeles. My father learned about the car through a Mercedes Garage repair man, Sylvan Woods, and purchased it from Frank Book in 1921. The car retained its Packard long-tail racing body, the original body having been junked. We drove the car several hundred miles before the crankshaft broke again, at the old weld. Sylvan Woods, always in financial difficulty, wasted a year or more of his time and father’s money trying to make repairs.

“We then placed the car with Fisher and Jacobs, two young engineer, later famed for their WW II radial engines for training and reconnaissance planes. They redesigned the crankshaft, completely disassembled and cleaned and polished every part, and re-assembled the car, having installed a Model-A Ford starter, generator, and ignition system on one bank of plugs and retained the ZU-4 magneto on the other bank. The wheels were cut down from 34-4-1/2 to 33-5, a windscreen was mounted and the tail bobbed. The car made a delightful roadster and still ran at 120 m.p.h.

“Father designed a roadster body for it, somewhat similar to the short-chassis 28/95 Mercedes. However, since he had already sunk $13,500 into the car, he felt it too selfish to spend another $5,000 for the new body. He therefore disposed of the car in the trade for a new 1930 Lincoln. The car went through several hands and, in 1945, I traced it, learning that it either went to Cuba or was junked or ‘broken up’ as you more nicely put it.

“I am enclosing a Xerox copy of a letter to my father in regard to a new engine for the car; I do not understand why he did not purchase it as he certainly had spent a great deal more of his money in rebuilding. I had the car in my garage for two years and drove it every evening. With its long stroke and large engine it had tremendous acceleration. It would have made a wonderful car for touring. Mr. Luttgen, who signed the letter, told us he frequently drove Mr. Harrison in his 1914 Grand Prix of a Sunday morning.”

So the story of Salzer’s car has turned into a real cliff-hanger, leaving us all in suspense as to its fate. The main hope is not only the fantastically enormous circulation of Motor Sport, but the way it gets around. I have seen this paper in as widely differing locales as a Benedictine Monastery and a quite incredibly sleazy pub in Central Africa. So let’s hope that, if nobody writes from America to say “I remember this car being broken up in the nineteen-forties”, somebody in Cuba who knows the whereabouts of the Salzer car will write and reveal it. And here the trouble really starts, as anyone who has tried to buy a car and get it out of a Communist country knows only too well. I am still waiting patiently for the 37.2 Hispano Suiza that I am supposed to have bought in Hungary. But, in spite of this, if there is the slightest hope that this historic 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes still exists, an awful lot of people, me included, will be queueing up to indulge in the fashionable sport of hi-jacking, an aeroplane to Cuba.