Mercedes-Benz-Blog TRIVIA: Hunting for records: William K. Vanderbilt


Stuttgart, Germany, Dec 11, 2008

* A passion for motorsport from an early age

* Numerous world records with vehicles from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft

* The multimillionaire introduces America to race events

William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr. – known as Willie K. among his friends – was born in 1878 as one of three children of extremely well-to-do parents. His grandfather had laid the foundations for the wealth of one of the richest families in America with his railway and shipping businesses; his father had successfully increased the family's fortune. Initially, William ran several of his family's businesses together with his brother Cornelius before he retired from management in 1903. He was a philanthropist with a wide range of social and sporting interests.

Willie K.’s childhood was unspectacular. He was intrigued by technical matters and had access to the cars of his parents’ friends and acquaintances from an early stage onwards. The excursions on which he was taken must have left a great impression on him, as his great enthusiasm for cars proved in later years. In 1888 he spent time in France to get to know the Old World. Albert Jules Count de Dion, a friend of the family, automotive pioneer and manufacturer, invited Willie K., who was nine years old at the time, to a trip in his steam-powered three-wheeler. Together they traveled from Beaulieu to Monte Carlo. Vanderbilt remembered that "he steered with one hand and controlled the steam pressure with the other. More than anything else, I was impressed ... by the enormous speed at which we were traveling. Count de Dion was a very courageous man." But it was to take a while before Vanderbilt owned his own car.

Fast cars from an early age

In July 1899, Vanderbilt bought his first car – one with electric drive, as was not uncommon at the time – three months after his wedding with Virginia Graham Fair, daughter of a former Californian senator. He was not satisfied with the car's performance, however, and soon exchanged it for a steam-powered Stanley. "The boiler was thirstier than a stranded sailor," he wrote at a later stage. "We had to top up water continually. What was worse, the vapor occasionally escaped in uncontrolled fashion and prompted curious onlookers to seek cover until the commotion had settled again." Vanderbilt decided in favor of a gasoline-engined car, initially for a British three-wheeler which he sold again immediately, however, because he simply found it to be too slow. In 1899 he bought a French 6 hp Mors at a price of 5,000 dollars. This car already had a top speed of 32 km/h. Immediately after taking delivery of the car while being in Europe at the time, he covered the distance from Paris to Nice – more than 900 kilometers – in less than 40 hours.

In June 1900, Vanderbilt bought a Daimler Phoenix, his first Daimler and his first racing car for which he had to pay the impressive price of 10,000 dollars. This car – nicknamed "White Ghost" and powered by a 23 hp engine which accelerated the car to a top speed of just under 100 km/h – was at last completely to Vanderbilt's liking.

In this car, he cut the speed record between Newport and Boston to about half the previously recorded speed and remained only slightly above the railways' driving time – because he was arrested for speeding and not released until an hour later and only after putting up 25 dollars bail. "Otherwise I would have been faster than the railways!" he explained. The penalty of 15 dollars didn't really hurt.

Slowly but gradually, more Americans took a liking to sporty cars. But who was the fastest? Several, purely privately organized races were staged, with Vanderbilt being a frequent competitor. He meanwhile owned a Mercedes which he had christened "Red Devil". This car reached a top speed of over 100 km/h with an output of 35 hp.

On his very first outing in this car, Vanderbilt was again arrested for speeding – incidents he was taking with equanimity and always in a gentlemanly fashion. There is, for instance, the story of his passing a carriage, standing at the roadside on Long Island. The horse shied and bolted before the carriage collided with a telegraph mast. Although untethered horses were not allowed on the roads, Vanderbilt handed his business card to the owner without so much as batting an eyelid and promised to pay for the damage. He proved his generosity in several similar incidents – and this got about eventually. Many a farmer is said to have settled down to lie in wait along Vanderbilt's favorite routes, together with an old and weak horse, hoping to pocket a sizable compensation.

Circuit and long-distance races become established

In 1901, a small racetrack was built near Newport but its length of half a mile (some 800 meters) was hardly a challenge for Vanderbilt and his "Red Devil". Time and again, he traveled to Europe where motor sport was already much more popular. In March 1902, he took delivery of a 40 hp Mercedes Simplex with racing bodywork in Stuttgart-Cannstatt. He immediately set out on the 600 km trip to Paris where he arrived the next evening.

As far is this is known today, this Mercedes Simplex is the oldest still existing Mercedes car and one of the few cars from this series that has been retained to this day. Its curriculum vitae is documented completely. Today, it forms part of the Mercedes-Benz Museum’s collection.

Shortly after their arrival in Paris, Vanderbilt, his companion D. W. Bishop and a mechanic set out in the Mercedes to drive to Nice on March 18. After just under 300 kilometers, they reached Moulins in the evening. The next day, the weather was really bad; it rained and the car was open-topped as was customary at the time. And yet they wanted to be in Digne in the evening – so "we drove as fast as we could." The rain had meanwhile turned into snow, the gentlemen were dripping wet, and their destination for the day was still 100 kilometers away, behind a mountain pass.

Vanderbilt stopped in a small village to ask for the way as he didn't want to get lost in the snowstorm. He was promptly arrested by the local policeman and charged with having driven through a town 18 kilometers back at "a madman's speed". This was obviously a mistake as the car described had a completely different color, but the policeman was adamant. He would clarify the matter the next day. The men were taken to two drafty rooms, too cold for them to be able to sleep. At three o'clock in the morning they decided to escape. Their guard was not all that attentive, so Vanderbilt succeeded in moving the car to the door together with the mechanic ("These 40 hp Mercedes cars are luckily completely noiseless") and blew the horn briefly – the signal for Bishop to dash out of the building. And off they were into the night. After an adventurous trip, they reached Nice at 1.00 p.m. on March 20 and arrived in Monte Carlo half an hour later.

In the spring of 1902, Vanderbilt established a new speed record of 111.8 km/h over one kilometer from a flying start, driving his Mercedes Simplex on a road between Ablis and Chartre. Participation in the long-distance races, which were popular at the time, and, time and again, in record runs in Europe and America was a sporting pastime for Vanderbilt, boosted the reputation of Mercedes and provided Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft with a growing number of prominent customers. When LĂ©on Serpollet established the record for land vehicles by reaching a speed of 120.8 km/h in a steam-powered car, Vanderbilt felt spurred on. On a 60 hp Mors he raised the speed record to 122.4 km/h – thereby becoming the first American who was the fastest man on earth.

The “Vanderbilt Cup”

It goes without saying that the news spread rapidly in America. Interest in motor sport rose. In January 1904, a race was staged at Ormond Beach in Daytona/Florida – and Vanderbilt showed up with a 90 hp Mercedes. He established a new world record straightaway: 148.5 km/h over a mile was the highest speed ever attained in an automobile at the time.

Until then, motor races in America had virtually all been privately organized. Vanderbilt recognized the potential of such events for the public at large – and promised to create his own racing series. The first Vanderbilt Cup was staged on Long Island in 1904 – the first international motor sport competition in America.

Hence Vanderbilt can quite rightly be referred to as the man who brought motor sport to the United States. The winner’s trophy was designed by Tiffany’s in New York. The Vanderbilt Cup was meant as an incentive for American motor manufacturers to challenge the European competition. The racetrack was a good 48 kilometers long, and the race was staged over ten laps = 486.5 kilometers. As many as five Mercedes lined up at the start of the first race, and 50,000 spectators lined the track. But the race was stopped prematurely after a spectator had attempted to cross the track and been injured in the process. The competitors also criticized the poor condition of the road.

The latter was repaired for the second Vanderbilt Cup one year later, in 1905, which attracted 100,000 spectators. This time, four Mercedes cars lined up at the start. The initiator of the race had meanwhile become the owner of a 120 hp Mercedes but did not compete in the race himself. In 1906 the Vanderbilt Cup already attracted 200,000 spectators, making the race one of the most successful sporting events in the country. But it had still not been won by an American car. It was not before 1908 that a Locomobile Old 16 was the first to cross the finishing line. After that, Vanderbilt seemed to lose interest in cars and concentrated more and more on boats – a passion in which he had already been indulging earlier.

He also used Mercedes engines – specially modified for the purpose – for water going craft. His approaches to boats and cars were very similar – he came up with new boats time and again, and competed equally successfully in sporting events on water. A 1904 edition of the New York Times, for instance, reported on a race he won on the Hudson River, establishing a speed record in the process – almost a matter of course for him. The boat was powered by a 40 hp engine and had been christened Mercedes VI.
On January 8, 1944, William Kissam Vanderbilt died in his house on Park Avenue in New York, aged 65. His estate was estimated at 36 million dollars.

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