William K. Vanderbilt Jr. was among the first generation of people who grew up with the automobile. With his family’s fortune predicated on transportation perhaps it was inevitable that he was drawn to the latest innovation in machinery to transport goods and people from one place to another. Regardless, his fascination with the new mechanical marvels led him to some of his greatest adventures in a very adventurous life. Today's focus: His 1902 Mors.
In 1902, Willie K found magnificent winding roads and enough open space in Europe to drive as fast as he dared. Imagine his delight when he acquired a more powerful car, a 60-HP Mors. To test his driving skills and his new automobiles, Vanderbilt entered the major European city-to-city road races competing with some of the best professional drivers of the era.
Paris-to-Vienna Race (1902)
On June 26, 1902, Willie K raced his new Mors in the Paris-to-Vienna Race, which included the 1902 edition of the James Gordon Bennett Cup. Fifty thousand spectators lined the roads outside Paris cheering and basking in glorious French sunshine as Panhard’s Rene de Knyff led at the end of the first day. 24-year old Willie K. can be seen standing on the far right just prior to the start of the race.
Vanderbilt encountered a series of mechanical problems that slowed him considerably during the first stage of the four-day race. Vanderbilt was in a spirited duel with a driver named Chaudard in a French Panhard. But the Mors began to misfire and Vanderbilt spent nearly an hour working on the engine at the side of the road. He was able to re-start the car and continue to a control point where it stalled again.
Determined to continue, Willie K found some success starting the car by pushing it down hills to engage the gears while in motion. However, he destroyed his brakes by riding them downhill until firing the engine. He ended his run after only one day when he decided the Mors needed more extensive work than could be provided on site. Vanderbilt finished 60th of the 140 entries at the end of the first stage.
The eventual winner was Marcel Renault with a car bearing his name, but Willie K’s European vacation would not end without accomplishment.
Belgian Circuit des Ardennes Race (1902)
The Belgian Circuit des Ardennes Race produced one of Vanderbilt’s most impressive driving efforts in his racing career. Vanderbilt drove against 75 other entries to finish third. Two of the best drivers in the world finished ahead of him, Charles Jarrott in a Panhard and Fernand Gabriel in a Mors identical to Willie K’s. Vanderbilt marveled at winner Jarrott’s daring when he said, “I saw Jarrott, who was coming at a daredevil pace, take hair-raising chances of being shouldered into a ditch.”
Vanderbilt, who received some nasty lacerations a week earlier when thrown from a 60 horsepower Renault, admitted to some timidity at the start. But competition rekindled his spirit and he soon recovered his form. He was forced to stop five times for water, as a vandal had tampered with both his radiator and his gear shifter. The damaged gear shifter made it difficult to select gears, and it had to be secured with a rope to maintain fourth gear.
Jarrott won the race with his 70 horsepower Panhard in 5 hours, 53 minutes.
August 26, 2011 Update: On Thanksgiving Day 1903, Vanderbilt took his 60-hp Mors to West Orange, New Jersey, and won the Eagle Rock Hill Climbing Contest. He broke the record time for the steep, curvy, one-mile hill. After his victory, crowds surrounded Vanderbilt, who wore a fur coat to protect against the wind while driving.
Links to related posts on William K. Vanderbilt, Jr's automobiles on VanderbiltCupRaces.com and the Internet: