Mercedes Mysteries

We have become accustomed to the saying that every other Bugatti was owned at some time by Malcom Campbell and that any 250F Maserati is apt to have been driven by Fangio. This tendency to exaggeration isn’t new.

As far back as 1903 the Mercedes Sixty with which Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett race over the Athy course in Ireland became a coveted car, because of the “Red Devil”s spirited driving of it. Following the fire at Canstatt which destroyed the racing Mercedes 90s, the three 60s used for the GB had to be borrowed from private owners, and Jenatzy drove as never before to out-pace the French challengers, de Knyff holding off too long before opening up his Panhard, unable to believe that the flying Jenatzy, who appeared to be taking impossible risks, would be able to finish the 327 1/2-mlle race.

So in later years almost any Mercedes 60 was claimed to be the successful Gordon Bennett car. One owner, who had five different ones, was told that each of them had been Jenatzy’s, yet none of them was. And Gordon Watney, the Mercedes expert who made it his business to convert old Mercedes into exciting-looking sporting cars at his works within sound of Brooklands track, had no hesitation in saying he owned this by now very famous car. But did he?

Even The Autocar believed Watney and early in 1913 published a picture of the alleged Gordon Bennett Mercedes with a large number of cups won at Brooklands. Watney claimed that he had found the old warrior in a garage in London’s West End in apparently dilapidated condition some time in 1911. On examination it was said to have been in surprisingly good condition, and being used to conversions, Watney could not resist modifying the 1903 Sixty, raking the steering, putting on a throttle-controlled Zenith carburetter, a new pointed-tail racing body, a radiator cowl, and discs on the wheels. Watney then ran the aged Mercedes at Brooklands, claiming that it never non-started, and increased its speed over every preceding performance, until it won the Summer 100 mph Long Handicap in 1912.

Watney expressed his intention of entering the old car for the 1913 French GP but the organisers would have nothing of this, any more than the Mercedes company would sell Watney the Mercedes which had won the 1914 French GP, which he announced to be his, saying that he would run it at the 1914 August Brooklands Meeting. However, the Brooklands’ authorities believed the 1903 car to be the winning GB Mercedes, repeating The Autocar’s statement and photograph in their Year Book.

Curiosity made me check Watney’s claims against the BARC records and, with a few possible exceptions, they seem to be substantiated. The old car seems to have continued to run well, into the 1913 and 1914 seasons, too, driven by various drivers, (one has to assume it was the same car), and a lap-speed of 89.90 mph, implying a top speed of at least 95 mph, was fast indeed for a Mercedes 60. But was it the Jenatzy car?

Lord Montagu, in his book “The Gordon Bennett Races”, says that Harry Knox, who knew many of the contemporary racing cars, saw no reason to connect the Watney car with Jenatzy. Then the other day I discovered a note which The Autocar published in April 1927, to the effect that the winning GB Mercedes (it was that company’s fast international racing success) had been in the possession of Sir Stanley Cochrane since 1907, thus inadvertently refuting their 1913 statement! This disposed of Watney’s claim, because if the winning car was in Ireland it could not have been found in a London garage in 1911!

Alas, this poses other mysteries. With less than a month between their disastrous fire and the GB race Mercedes had to borrow three 60s from private owners. Only one, to my knowledge, has been named — the American millionaire Clarence Gray Dinsmore, whose car Jenatzy drove. Lord Montagu, says it was left to M. Charley, the Paris Mercedes agent, to supply the race cars, but I think this simply means that those owners who volunteered to lend their cars were asked to send them there, for the touring bodies to be removed and replaced by the light racing bodies with a pile of tyres behind, and higher ratio driving sprockets fitted, ready for the race.

The other two cars were driven by Baron de Caters, a Belgian, and by an American, Foxhall-Keene. How an American owner’s cars could be in France is perhaps explained by the number of English, and presumably some American, owners who spent much time abroad. Anyway, Dinsmore had the services of works drivers, Werner for instance competing for him in the Castlewellan hillclimb after the GB, and he possessed two 60s, both of which he later sent to the Semmering hill-climb. So it was quite reasonable to suppose one or both were in Europe in that crucial month of July.

Another mystery is what happened to the winning car after the race. I think that in later years Mercedes would have provided three brand new 60s to replace those loaned to them for the GB race. But with their production stopped by the fire, perhaps all they did in 1903 was to overhaul the race cars, replacing the broken back-axles on the two Mercedes that failed to finish. We know that Dinsmore sent both his 60s to Austria that September, so the winning car could not have been left in Ireland, unless Jenatzy had driven so hard — and the eminent historian Kent Karslake has suggested that never had a racing car been driven harder— as to virtually destroy the American’s car. In which case Mercedes might have found Dinsmore a new one, while they had the converted race rebuilt; or, being a millionaire, Dinsmore could have bought himself another.

If you accept that theory, the Jenatzy car could well have been re-fitted with a touring body and sold off to an admiring patron in Ireland. The matter is simplified if we take Lord Montagu’s statement that the Paris Mercedes agent supplied the cars for the race literally. That would imply that there were three 60s available from that source and that the volunteers did not need to sacrifice their own cars, although Dinsmore’s may have been there awaiting him, which would link his name to the Jenatzy car. It would then be easy to leave the winning car in Ireland and find a new one for the influential owner from the USA.

Be that as it may, of the three Mercedes 60s now in this country, can one of them possibly lay claim to being the Jenatzy car? Well, in 1930 E. Martin, wanting an exciting car for the Brighton Run and other veteran events (they were racing such cars at Brooklands) heard of an old Mercedes in Dublin, bought it, towed it to the docks, on very dubious tyres, had it shipped across the sea, and towed it to his garage, Friary Motors of Old Windsor. Now Sir Stanley Cochrane, the mineral-water magnate, lived in Woodbrook, Co Dublin. Ignoring the wise dictum of Sherlock Holmes, the co-incidence seems too good to pass up . . . Perhaps one of our Irish readers could discover the pre-war history of this car, which had the number 1K 133?

In due time it was acquired by Lord Selsdon and then by Peter Hampton. I do not think Peter has ever categorically implied that he has the famous Mercedes 60, that won the only British Gordon Bennett race all those years ago, but, as things stand at the moment, I would not care to be against it. WB