HAVING written a number of articles on different makes of sports-car, the last of which dealt with the 20 / 70 h.p. Crossley, the thought arose, which was the first sports-car? Several contenders come to mind, and have been cited by others — the 27 / 80 h.p. Prince Henry Austro-Daimler, the Prince Henry Vauxhall, the 15T Alfonso Hispano Suiza, even’ the E-Type 30/98 Vauxhall itself. Yet all these were appreciably pre-dated by the 60 h.p. Mercedes, of 1903. At that time the term “sports-car” had not been coined and what Wilhelm Maybach and Paul (son of Gottlieb) Daimler were offering their customers was a fast touring-car. It was a quite remarkable car, not only because it combined the most advanced engineering features ever brought together in one car — a pressed-steel chassis-frame, an I-section front axle, a gate gear-change for the four-speed gearbox, mechanically-operated overhead inlet valves, and a honeycomb radiator — but because it made available to the wealthy motorists of that day a performance that was truly meteoric — far surpassing that of all other ordinary cars likely to be encountered on the dust-coated roads of those days, speed and pick-up such that they might have been regarded as exciting as flying. Except that only in that year had the Wright brothers made the first hop from terra-firma in an aeroplane, and this having happened in America, many people just did not believe. . . .
The 60 h.p. Mercedes, then, must rank as the forefather of all the splendid spins-cars that followed. Having already made a great name for themselves in racing, Mercedes got things really moving with the Sixty, which was their first engine to have those mechanically operated o.h. inlet valves. The ancestor of this fine production-model Mercedes was the fearsome 5.5-litre Cannstatt-Daimler of 1899-1900, but the innovations of non-suction-opened inlet valves and honeycomb radiator had to wait until the new 35 h.p. 6-litre Mercedes, which had side valves in a T-head, and was announced in 1901. The Cannstatt Daimler Company had been spurred on by orders for its cars from Emil Jellinek, starting in 1896, who in 1900 was to persuade them to build the aforesaid 35 h.p. car, naming it “Mercedes”, after one of Jellinek’s daughters. Perhaps because Jellinek was the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Nice, the Daimler-Moteren-Gesellschaft tended to try out their new racers them, at the Motor Week that occupied the elite of the new automobilists early each year.
In 1899, although the four-cylinder 24 h.p. Daimler-Phoenix cars did well in the touring classes at Nice, they were outclassed in the racing and at the La Turbie hill-climb. For the 1900 Nice contests the new nose-heavy Cannstatt-Daimlers were fielded, a special, very short-chassis, model being entrusted to foreman Wilhelm Bauer for the hill-climb. Alas, he crashed at the first corner and died the next day from his injuries, his passenger, Hermann Braun, also being seriously injured, although not fatally. But at the Nice Week of 1901 the works-driver Wilhelm Werner was timed over a flying kilometre on one of the new 35 h.p. Mercedes at 53.4 m.p.h. For 1902 this model was developed into a 40 h.p. 6.5-litre racing car and on one of these Williarn K. Vanderbilt, Jrir., was timed at 69.0 m.p.h. in France. After studying the winning Circuit du Nord Panhard-Levassor, the Mercedes engineers improved this 40 h.p. model and four of these started in the Paris-Vienna race.
Count William Elliot Morris Zlx)rowski, a keen Polish horseman who had taken readily to the new sport of motoring and motor racing, finished second, at 37.9 m.p.h. for the 615-mile race and would have been the winner but for a technical transgression at a control-point. The fame of Mercedes was thus assumed, and from this racing model stemmed the famous 60 h.p. Mercedes.
The new car for 1903 followed the specification of the 40 h.p., except that the wheelbase was increased to just over nine feet. Two new Mercedes engines were developed at this time, that for the Sixty being of 140 x 150 mm. (9,236 cc) and a larger 90 h.p. one, for racing, having a bore and stroke of 170 x 140mm. (12,700 c.c.). The inlet valves were now placed in the cylinder heads and operated by push-rods and rockers from the single near-side camshaft which also actuated the side-by-side exhaust valves. The other, off-side, camshaft, was used for the low-tension magneto ignition contact-breakers, so the description of the engine as a T-head design, in the book “From Veteran to Vintage”, is incorrect. The inlet valves were of the annular-type, which Mercedes persisted with until 1908/9, although the believed gain in an improved gas-flow had to be off-set by difficult sealing and a tendency to distortion — but Mercedes, having always been first-class engineers, made it work satisfactorily. The 67 sq. ft. honeycomb radiator was used in conjunction with pump circulation.
Besides the low-tension ignition there was provision for a high-tension magneto. but this was described as a tentative experiment and it is interesting that, of the three Sixties that survive in this country, all have I.t. ignition, and one of these, the 1903 Sixty so ably used today by Roger Collings on the road, for races, speed-trials, hill-climbs, driving-tests, and the Brighton Veteran Car Run in which he was the first to arrive at the finish in 1977, does remarkably well on it! Only Hampton’s car has h.t. ignition as well, and this is from a later Bosch magneto. An updraft, exhaust-warmed carburetter was used, fuel feed being by exhaust pressure, which also fed the engine lubricating oil from a chassis-mounted reservoir on the nearside, via drip-feeds, to the bearings. The well-known Mercedes scroll clutch was used, after initial objections from Jellinek. The Mercedes gate gear-change was naturally retained for the new car, although there had been an attempt, soon abandoned, to revert to the fore-and-aft action of a quadrant gear-lever with the new-type gearbox selectors, by incorporating a cam-device inside the gearbox casing. Final drive was by side chains. That is an outline of the fine new Sixty Mercedes that excited the motoring world in 1903. The chassis cost £1,800, complete cars around £2,500 and the engine developed 65 b.h.p. at 1,060 r.p.m., on a compression-ratio of 4.5 to 1. For competition purposes lightweight one-seater bodies were made by Auer of Cannstatt, said to weigh little more than 20 lb.
Naturally, after his fine showing in the previous year’s Paris-Vienna Race, Count Zborowski had to have one of the new Sixty Mercedes, and other wealthy sportsmen also. It is said that there were a dozen in Nice for the Motor Week of 1903, kept at the Villa Mercedes. The performance potential of the new car was seen when Hermann Braun, recovered from his 1900 calamity, was timed over a flying-kilometre at 72.6 m.p.h.. a pretty sensational pace at that time, from a car which could have been used for touring in the grand manner — and an interesting comparison with the 70 m.p.h. clocked at Colerne by Collings’ Sixty, 79 years later. But all eyes were on Zborowski, with the blue Sixty he had entered for the La Turbie hill-climb.
Not much is known about this family, and why they had English names, except that the Count was a Polish millionaire (whose ancestor, Samuel Zborowski, had played a significant part in the history of his country), and that he had married Margaret, the wealthy grand-daughter of the American millionaire, William B. Astor. (Their son, Louis Vorow Zborowski, who had a brother Martin Ladislas, followed in his father’s wheeltracks, and of the many makes of cars he raced, the majority, including the Chitty-Bang-Bangs, had Mercedes origins.) I can only think that his love of horses and hunting brought Count Eliot Zborowski to England, where in 1886 he bought, for £2,500 in contemporary values, a hunting-lodge, Coventry House, in Melton Mowbray, if that description can be applied to a residence which had formerly been the successive homes of the Hon. Amelius Coventry, son of the eighth Earl of Coventry, Sir Frederick Johnstone (who entertained the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. there), Lord Aylcsford, Lord Hastings and the Earl Howth, and where 150 guests had attended a ball and 26 hunters could be stabled. Zborowski, who purchased the house for his first wife, further enlarged it and installed wood carvings specially executed by Italian craftsmen. He hunted with the Quorn and was one of eight riders, wearing nightshirts and night-dresses, who took part in the bizarre midnight steeplechase, round Melton Mowbray, in 1890. Zborowski, after a fall, finishing second to Capt. Burnaby. who won the £50 Cup presented by the Count, after which the riders partook of a splendid supper at Coventry House. I have also heard that after such festivities he liked to ride his white hunter up to bed.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end at La Turbie, when the Count’s Sixty Mercedes crashed at the first corner, soon after the start, and he was killed, his friend Baron de Pollange, who was his passenger, being badly hurt. It was said that Zborowski’s gold cuff-links caught in the hand throttle and inadvertently opened it as he was approaching the corner, causing the Mercedes to accelerate unexpectedly and crash. But I find myself wondering whether it was the variable inlet-valve-lift mechanism which caused the accident, because Karl Ludvigsen, in his great history of Mercedes and Benz in competitions, says this device was fitted to some of the earlier racing 60 h.p. Mercedes and had a power-control on the steering wheel. It was a means of controlling engine speed in conjunction with a governor, which limited peak engine-speed 1,200 r.p.m., and Zborowski may have been using this as he would a hand-throtile. (When Lou Zborowski was killed while driving tor Mercedes in the 1924 European Grand Prix at Monza he was apparently wearing these same gold cufflinks.)
The fatal accident to Zborowski, whose body was brought hack for burial in the churchyard at Burton Lazars, on the outskirts of Melton Mowbray (as was that of his motor-racing son 21 years later), caused rumours that these new Sixties were too highly dangerous to be perpetuated. In his book “Under My Bonnet”. the late G. R. N. Minchin says that his old friend Harry Knox, a nephew of Lord Lonsdale, believed that the car had “a real hoodoo upon it”, and that “they killed three owners In and around the Bois de Boulogne and others at Brooklands as well”. I cannot check on the alleged calamities in France but certainly do not know of the two fatal Brooklands’ crashes, in which much larger racing Mercedes were involved. Further blacking of the Sixty apparently came from Jack Hutton, who is quoted as having said that when he went to the Mercedes factory to collect the Sixty he was to drive in the unhappy Paris-Madrid race the Works Director (not much of a salesman!) told him to be careful, as they had made six of the special racing Sixties and of the five delivered, there had been five drivers killed. (But Hutton did not enter for Paris-Madrid!) This was attributed to all the weight being on the front wheels, which rather sounds as if Knox and Minchin had confused the Sixty with the earlier Cannstatt-Daimlers. Knox admitted that of the five Sixties he had owned, all were “angels in handling” when he flung them round every kind of corner, but added that there was a theory that “if a driver messed up a gear change and let the engine rev. up, the huge flywheel could have some sort of gyro effect” — which sounds improbable, and why on this car only? (It reminds one of the dangerous torque effect of a rotary engine on the Sopwith Camel biplane when its pilot was making a left-hand turn.) However, if there was any truth at all in a Sixty going wild after missed gear-change, this might have some bearing on the Zborowski accident.
Others regarded the Sixty as a well-balanced car which was a delight to drive, so we must leave to conjecture whether the fact that Roger Collings has survived so much fast motoring in his Sixty in modern times is due entirely to his super-skill as a driver, which he certainly possesses, or has been assisted by his car’s good manners. . . Back in 1903, in spite of the gloom caused by the Count’s demise at the wheel of his favourite make to car, the Sixty had swept all before it at Nice, Prince Lubecki winning the Estend mountains event. Braun being fastest over the s.s mile and Hieronymus being first in the 15.5-km. La Turbie hill-climb, etc., according to Mercedes historian David Scott-Moncrieff. Naturally, those who could afford to do so clamoured to buy one of these fabulous cars, which involved them also in a big expenditure to keep it in tyres. In England it seems that the first to import one was Gerald Higginbotham of Macclesfield, who was so inspired by the experience that he gave a lecture about it to the Manchester Automobile Club early in 1904.
The car was met at Boulogne and accompanied by its owner to Folkestone. The next morning, before driving his exciting new possession to Ramsgate, where he was staying for a few days, Higginbotham decided to go for a trial spin along the Promenade. In the shed where the Mercedes had spent the night he had an argument with a mechanic who was filling the water tank for cooling the brakes with petrol(!), and then, after some difficulty in starting the big engine with the Iow tension ignition, found that he could not engage a forward gear. The car had the afore-mentioned quadrant gear-lever and an interlocking rod from the clutch was preventing it from taking up. It is interesting that the quadrant was described as of a new type, and without any notches to indicate the gear positions. That was rectified and the car driven on first-speed across the railway lines to the Promenade. Here the owner soon “had third speed on” and the pace seemed terrific, attracting “thousands of people” onto the Lees to watch the Sixty’s passage. Apparently the run was brief for top gear to be used and after three spins Higginbotham made off for Ramsgate, “just in time”, presumably before the police became interested.
On the drive to Ramsgate “pressure went down” due to a leakage past “a broken sight-glass to the brake-water” (one wonders whether the inexperienced owner had confused this with an oil sight-feed) but by shutting the tap they were able to continue, and at last it was possible to “get going on the 4th”. Heavy snow soon covered the driver’s goggles but he arrived safely after pulling up to clear them, arriving “in good time”. The next run was to Coventry via London and on a slight downhill stretch of road Higginbotham found the speed so high that he wondered if he would over dare to put on the racing chain sprockets! In Regent Street the clutch, starved of oil due to a sight-feed having become mis-adiusted, became very fierce, going in with such a grinding roar that the car simply jumped forward, so that all the cabbies, etc., quickly got out of the way, to the accompaniment of much bad language, (in fact, it seems surprising that the clutch was oiled in this way).
Higginbotham took his Mercedes over to Ireland for the “Irish fortnight’ which included the Gordon Bennett race, in which he would have seen Jenatzy’s magnificent victory on a 60 h.p. model. Going out before practice began, the car shed its steering track-rod while going fast on 4th speed, on the 30-tooth sprockets, which were probably the racing ones. The brass cones were replaced with old lock-nuts and the drive to Ballyshannon resumed. Now amongst the competing cars, the green Mercedes of Campbell-Muir and Higginbotham arriving together. That night Higginbotham took Hieronymus (a reserve driver?) and his mechanic back to Dublin in his Sixty. In September of 1903 Higginbotham’s Mercedes successfully climbed to the Great Orme at Llandudno, which a few days earlier had defeated a 24 h.p. Panhard. It carried five people on this climb, using rope round its back tyres for increased grip. It then brought down seven men and a dog, after which “its three good metal brakes, water-cooled. only wanted adjusting”. The car was then driven in the Phoenix Park speed-trials. It has been rumoured that it may be the car owned today by Roger Collings, but this seems unlikely, unless the rare quadrant gear-change was replaced at some time by the gate-change. Incidentally, one wonders whether the difficulty the new gate-change presented to some drivers may have been due, not only to the fact that they were being confronted with this for the first time, but because, after coming out of first into second gear, they had to move the lever “round the corner” to engage third gear, before pushing it forward into top speed. However, when I was allowed to drive Collings’ splendid example of these top-performance veteran cars, I found no difficulty over this arrangement.
The Sixty Mercedes had some notable racing performances before the Ninety racers took over. Apart from the Nice walk-over, where Werner and Degrais were second and third to Hieronymus in the hill-climb and Werner second to Braun in the speed-trials. Jellinek, that great unofficial salesman for Mercedes cars, considered that for the Paris-Madrid race the 90 h.p. cars would be too new to give of their best. So to the entry of Jenatzy, Baron de Caters, Hieronymus, Kohler, and Werner on the big-engined cars were added Warden, Gasteaux, Braun, and Foxhall-Kcene on Sixties. The latter cars weighed out at an average of just under 994 kg., including a 7 kg. allowance for a magneto, which suggests that by now they all had h.t. ignition.
Jellinek’s faith in the Sixties was justified. At Bordeaux, where the race was stopped by order of the French Government, following reports of fearful accidents en route, Warden, the American amateur, arrived in sixth place, having averaged 57.7 m.p.h. for the 342 tortuous miles on his 60, only 0.2 of a m.p.h. slower than the 70 h.p. Panhard which finished ahead of it. Gasteaux was eighth, at 56.8 m.p.h., and the other Sixty to finish, Braun’s. 20th, the class placings being, respectively, fifth, seventh and 16th, Foxhall-Keene’s 60 and Terry’s 60 having retired. In contrast, the 90 h.p. Mercedes had suffered from disintegrating back-axles, this happening to Werner when he was running third, just beyond Tours, and Jenatzy stopped due to a fuel blockage in the carburetter of his grey 90 when in third place at Angouleme, the class placings of those 90s that completed the course being 11th, 20th, 25th, 34th and 39th. Werner’s car overturned when its axle broke up.
In spite of the better showing of the Sixties in the Paris-Bordeaux race, the factory was convinced that the Ninety would be the taster car and a team of them was entered for the 1903 Gordon Bennett race to be run off in Ireland. Count Zborowski, before the sad fatality at La Turbie, having been among those who went over there (taking his then current Mercedes), to persuade the authorities to stage the race. The Mercedes team was, however, destroyed in a disastrous fire which broke out at the Cannstatt factory shortly before the race, doing £200,000-worth of damage and slipping car production*. Spurred on by Jellinek, no doubt, Mon. Charley, the Paris Mercedes agent, was able to find three “privately-owned” Sixty Mercedes, which were prepared as far as time would allow, as substitutes for the race, being endowed with racing two-seater bodies, tuned-up, and given racing sprockets. There is some doubt as to ‘whether Charley produced these cars from stock, or whether he had to appeal to owners to relinquish them. In England The Autocar had appealed to Mercedes owners to come forward and Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) sportingly offered his Sixty, which had made f.t.d. at thc Nice speed-trials (driven by Braun) but it wasn’t needed. Some reports say that the wealthy American-sportsman Clarence Gray Dinsmore, lent the Sixty that was driven in the race by Jenatzy, and it may have been that his car was in Europe at the time, as he later brought Werner, the works-driver, over from Germany to drive his car in an Irish hill-climb.
Whatever the position, three Sixties were fielded for the Gordon Bennett race and the smaller-engined car was fully justified. Jenatzy, a wild but skilful bearded amateur driver nicknamed “The Red Devil”, won the 372.5-mile race very easily, at 49.2 m.p.h., from the much bigger Panhard-Levassors of De Knyff and Farman. He is said to have won £8,000 in prize money. The other Sixties were driven by the American Foxhall-Keene and the Belgian Baron de Caters, after the German AC had refused to allow the works drivers Hieronymus and Werner to compete, on the grounds that only gentlemen could be members of the National Club! Further, when readied, the three Sixties were found at scrutineering to be shod with German Michelin tyres that had Belgian fabric and French-made valves, which the Race regulations did not allow, each team having to be a 100% National entry, the drivers apart. Hastily a stock of Continental tyres were substituted. On the difficult Athy circuit it was the turn of the Sixties to have back-axle trouble, Foxhall-Keene’s failing on the second of the seven laps, de Caters’ only ten miles from the finish. But the convincing victory of Jenatzy’s white Sixty Mercedes, after a drive lasting 6 hr. 39 min., resulted in a renewed demand for these fabulous motor-cars. Timed on the fast stretch of the course past the grandstand, Jenatzy’s and de Caters’ Mercedes were found to be doing 66 m.p.h., fractionally faster than the rival 80 h.p. Panhards. This agrees closely with speeds attained by Sixties at other times, but discounts the claims, sometimes heard, that 75 m.p.h. was possible in touring trim. . . .
The Sixty Mercedes was not only a sensational road-burner for those able to afford it and the rubber it consumed, but it did well in competition events. For instance, the Gordon Bennett victory was succeeded a few days later by Jack Hutton, the Mercedes dealer who had premises in Regent Street, London, making f.t.d. at the Phoenix Park speed-trials, while Campbell Muir, driving the Harmsworth Sixty, won the Castlewellan hill-climb, the works driver Werner, brought over from Germany to drive Dinsmore’s Mercedes, only managing third place. According to Scott-Moncrieff, Willy Poege, the well-heeled proprietor of a Chemitz electrical company, bought a Sixty of his own and wiped up most of the awards at Ostend, and this was followed by Hermann Braun and Werner finishing first and second in the Semmering hill-climb, using two of Dinsmore’s Sixties, the faster possibly his GB car, and by Andrew Fletcher, of the Life Guards, whose aunt, Miss Talbot of Port Talbot, is said to have made him a present of a Sixty, winning the f.s. kilometre event on Southport sands on the car’s first outing. Further successes were totted up in 1904 in races at a Berlin trotting-track, and by records being established at Daytona Beach, Lionel de Casti was second on his 60 at the Cannes hill-climb. At Brooklands these cars were in their element; in spite of their age some Sixties were still racing there as late as 1912, encouraged by the revival of Mercedes cars of all kinds by Gordon Watney, at his works in Weybridge. He claimed that it was the famous Sixty with which Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett race of 1903, endowed with a streamlined body and cowled radiator, and driven for him by G. W. Brown, which won the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap at the 1912 Brooklands Whitsun Meeting; if so, its lap speed of 81.77 m.p.h. seems impossibly high for a Sixty, the reduced wind-drag not withstanding! On the other hand, Gray Dinsmore was known to possess several Mercedes and to travel to Europe, so it is quite likely that he may have sold or part-exchanged the 1903 car with Watney.
By now, however, the Sixty was becoming overshadowed by the new Ninety Mercedes, which, however, as it was of long wheelbase and had an 8.8-litre compared to the 9.2-litre engine of a 60, was not as handy as the latter. (These production Nineties are not to be confused with the racing Ninety Mercedes of 1903/4, first of 12.7-litres, later of 11.9-litres, which were pure racers, far faster than the Sixty, Baron de Caters doing 97.26 m.p.h. over the Ostend kilometre on one in 1904. The only way a Sixty could better this was by using two such engines, which is exactly what Herbert Bowden did in 1905, to cover a f.s. mile at Daytona at 109.7 m.p.h.). So the Ninety, the great 38/70 and 37/90 chain-drive models became the in-thing among Mercedes clientele; it is sometimes said that these prompted Laurence Pomeroy impishly to call his new Vauxhall creation the 30/98. They were better endowed for touring bodywork, after the demise of the tonneau-style of coachwork. It appears that back in 1903 a gear-driven Sixty had been listed, at £2,500 for the chassis. The Sixty went out of production in 1906.
After the Kaiser war was over the old 60 h.p. model was seen only very occasionally, the £60-a-year tax weighing against it and it had been largely forgotten. However, when the beginnings. of the veteran-car movement involved Brooklands in a series of races on the Mountain circuit for such vehicles, a Sixty Mercedes emerged from retirement in 1931 and 1932, I think from a garage in Windsor, to lap at 37.34 m.p.h. on the former occasion.
Today we are fortunate in having in this country three of these historic Mercedes, a prize which has escaped even the comprehensive Daimler-Benz Museum at Stuttgart. Roger Collings’ ex-Birtwhistle, Bradshaw, Vaux car needs absolutely no introduction to those who follow our veteran and vintage activities. Its speed and reliability are quite breathtaking, as I discovered when we used it to re-enact the 1903 Gordon Bennett mileage in 1975 and when I rode to Brighton in it in 1977. Peter Hampton has his beautifully-restored re-bodied Sixty, formerly driven in Brighton Runs by Lord Selsdon, and reputed to have made f.t.d. in the 1906 Ballinuslaughter hill-climb in Ireland; one wonders if it was one of the Gordon Bennett cars. Soon after restoring it in 1953 Hampton drove it from England to Germany and back to attend a Mercedes-Benz Rally, the only problem being with the tyres, on the way home.
The third Sixty in this country is the ex-Lord Northcliffe Rothschild-tonneau-bodied car, which was used regularly by His Lordship until it was pensioned-off and left in a shed in the New Forest in 1910. It has remained in the ownership of the Harmsworth family ever since and is now on loan to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. Lord Montagu took it to Brussels in 1958 for the World Fair, and has driven it in several Brighton Runs, and I rode with him on those in 1957 and 1958.
The Sixty Mercedes represents such a capable veteran, of such high performance, that it is difficult not to regard it as an Edwardian. Its advanced design and construction was copied by many very reputable manufacturers the world over, notably by Berliet, causing a certain uniformity among the top-cars of 1904 onwards. What it must have been like in its hey-day to peasants and other road-users, can scarcely be imagined, for even now it is immensely exciting, both to drive and to observe in deep-throated action. Very definitely it was a sports-car years ahead of its time. — W.B.
Cars in Books, August 1984
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