Jan 03 2015

The Unsolved Mystery of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.‘s 90-HP Mercedes Automobile(s) (1904-1908)

From 1904 to 1908, William K. Vanderbilt Jr. owned  90-HP Mercedes automobiles which he used as race car, a hill climber and a course patrol car.  The mystery is determining how many 90-HP Mercedes did Willie K. actually own during this period; 1,2,3  or 4?

How many different 90-HP Mercedes automobiles did Willie K. own from 1903 to 1908? Comments and opinions are welcome!

Below is the photographic documentation of Willie K.'s 90-HP Mercedes to help solve the mystery.



Howard Kroplick

1904 Daytona-Ormond Automobile Races, January 28- February 1, 1904

In 1903, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. ordered  a powerful 90-HP Mercedes from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. A fire at the DMG Cannstat factory in Germany delayed shipment of the racer until January 1904- just in time for the 1904 Ormond-Daytona Automobile Races.

Distinguishing features of this 90-HP Meredes:

-A wicker driver's seat

-No fenders

-A low mechanician's seat

-One hood strap

-Oil tank on mechanician's side

-Horn on the left side

-Bracket in front of mechanician's position

-No chain guards

Willie K. documeted the race car's success in his book Log of My Motor  (1899-1908).

This Mercedes was engraved on the Vanderbilt Cup trophy.

Several automobile journals reported that weeks after the 1904 races, Willie K. sold the Mercedes to Bernard M. Shanley, Jr. of Newark, New Jersey. Shanley entered the Mercedes, seen here, in the 1905 Ormond-Daytona Races.

His relative B. Michael Shanely wrote in VanderbiltCupRaces.com:

"My great Grand Uncle, B. M. Shanley purchased the 90 hp Mercedes- Willie K from WK V jr shortly after the race in 1904 Ormond Beach- yes the car that adorns the trophy was raced by my family until 1917. "

1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race October 8, 1904

William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. traveled to the first Vanderbilt Cup Race in this Mercedes. Distingusihing features:

-High mechanician's seat

-Chain guard and bracket on mechanician's side

-Curved fenders

-Headlight brackets

-Oil tank on driver's side

-Horn on the mechanician's side

-Another horn placed on steering wheel

-Solid non-wicker driver's seat

Willie K. and the Mercedes near the 1904 grandstand.

During the race, Willie K. toured the course with physicians to assist in any accidents.

Note the two passengers in the Mercedes including: chief race surgeon Dr. Louis Lanehart in the mechanician's seat.

1904 Eagle Rock Hill Climb Contest- November 24, 1904

Five weeks after the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race, Willie K. entered this 90-HP Mercedes in the Eagle Hill Climb Contest.

The oil tank on the right side matches his 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race course patrol car.

Vanderbilt finished second in the hill climb, only 3/5th of a second behind W. Gould Brokaw's Renault, which raced in the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup Race.

1905 Ormond-Daytona Automobile Races, January 24-31, 1905

Vanderbilt particpated in the 1905 Ormond-Daytona Races with a "new" Mercedes. Distinguishing features:

-Large shield over dashboard.

-Curved shifter

-Oil tank on driver's side

- No chain guards

-No headlight brackets

This 30-second film is the only known record of William K, Vanderbilt Jr. driving in an automobile race.

1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race, October 14, 1905

A Vanderbilt Mercedes returned to patrol the course during the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race. Dr. Lanehart was sitting in the mechanician's seat.

Distinguishing features:

-One headlight bracket

-No chain guards

-No fenders

1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race, October 6,1906

Willie K. and Dr. Lanehart were back on the course during the 1906 race.

Distinguishing features:

-One headlight bracker similar to the 1905 Mercedes.

-Grid pattern below the radiator

-Two fenders

1908 Vanderbilt Cup Race, October 24, 1908 (Courtesy of Robert Luttgen, grandson of driver William Luttgen)

Willie K. entered this Mercedes driven by William Luttgen in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup Races. The racer had the same front as the 1906 Mercedes.

Robert Luttgen emailed me the following information:

"I have been thinking about what my Grandfather told me about the 1908 race.  How much of this is fact, I am not sure, but you might find it interesting anyway.  I recall him telling me that he was not planning on being in the race.  Apparently Mercedes had promised that there would be three newer 120 hp models available, but something happened to one of the cars.  There could be a simpler answer, but I seem to remember being told that the third car had been in a crash in which the driver was killed.  I believe it was Mercedes who convinced Mr. Vanderbilt to enter the older number 5 with my Grandfather as the driver.  You are probably correct that it was a  90 hp, 1903 model.  My Grandfather said it only had 86 hp (I do not remember him saying 90) and everyone thought that it would not be competitive.  As it turns out the number 5 Mercedes handled better than the newer 120 hp models with their longer wheelbase.  I am guessing that it had been improved considerably over the previous 4 to 5 years, and I would love to see what the numbers were at the weigh-in.  Either way, my Grandfather credits the better handling of the number 5 Mercedes for his 4th place finish."

The October 31, 1908 issue of Automobile Topics noted:

"The most remarkable performance was certainly Mr. W.K. Vanderbilt , Jr.'s, 1903 Mercedes, with which he established, in January, 1904, the world's record for one-mile, on the Ormond Beach, of 39 4-5."


Jan 04 2015 Ariejan Bos 7:30 AM

In my humble opinion there have been three Mercedes racers (based on small differences in spring horns, chain wheels, gear and break levers a.o.):
1. The 1904 Ormond Beach car, which was sold;
2. The 1904 Vanderbilt Cup car, which was used during Eagle Rock Hill Climb, modified for Ormond Beach 1905 and used during the Vanderbilt Cup of 1906 as support car (still having the lowered seats);
3. The 1906 Vanderbilt Cup car, which seems to have been the same car as the 1908 Vanderbilt car (cf. the holes in the radiator support).
However I must admit I’m not too certain, because of the changing wheel colours of the second (1904-1905) Mercedes.
Therefore I would also suggest (if not done yet of course) to contact the Daimler-Benz archive, which must have rather detailed sales books of the period.

Jan 04 2015 S. Berliner, III 8:25 PM

There were at the very least two because of the perforated cross-member under the radiator, as I had noted in a much earlier post.  I find it difficult to determine wheelbase but there were clearly shorter and longer models.  Details such as brackets and wheels and such are easily changed during the life of a car.  Ariejan is spot-on about the D-B Archive; I have found them immensely cooperative and helpful.  Sam, III

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