From 1902 to 1903, William K. Vanderbilt Jr. traveled throughout Europe. Here he found magnificent open roads to drive as fast as he dared and an education in the new sport of automobile racing. On May 2, 1902, he set the world’s kilometer record in a 40-horsepower Mercedes, averaging 111.8 kilometers per hour or 68.4 mph. He was hailed in the French magazine La Vie Au Grand Air as “Un Millionaire Recordman.”
In July 1902, he earned an impressive third place in the 311-mile Belgian Circuit des Ardennes Race in a 70-horsepower Mors. Vanderbilt competed against the world’s best road racers. (Courtesy of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum.)
Vanderbilt returned to Europe in May 1903 to compete among 216 cars in the infamous Paris-to-Madrid Race driving his 80-horsepower Mors. While it must have been disappointing at the time, a cracked cylinder on the first day of competition spared him exposure to the numerous accidents that earned the event the name “Race to Death.” At least eight people were killed during the race, including car maker Marcel Renault, ending the first great era of motor racing, the European city-to-city races on open roads.