Feb 26 2011

Willie K’s Cars #3:The 1902 40-HP Mercedes Simplex- The Oldest Surviving Mercedes

The Mercedes Simplex was designed by Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart, Germany and produced by Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft from 1902 to 1909. DMG's  intention was to improve on the car's predecessor, the 35-HP Mercedes, by providing "comfort by means of simplicity", according to 1902 standards, hence the Simplex name.

Although William K. Vanderbilt Jr. already owned the Red Devil, a very fast 35-HP Mercedes, he was always looking for the newest and fastest automobile and immediately placed an order for the Mercedes Simplex. On March 12, 1902, Willie K. and his friend D.W. Bishop picked up the fifth Mercedes Simplex ever made at the DMG plant in Cannstatt, Germany. Vanderbilt and Bishop then set off on a 375-mile trip to Paris, France and then to Nice. Not surprisingly, Vanderbilt was accused of speeding in  Luc-en-Dios and was told to stay overnight to await a trial. As described in his 1908 book  " Log of My Motor", Willie K. decided to skip town on a cold March night:

" About three a.m., finding it impossible to stand our suffering any longer, I told Bishop that I would go across the way and start the machine, and when I would blow the horn. He was to push the man aside who had been placed to watch us, jump into the car, and we would proceed on our way."

"As luck would have it, these 40 Mercedes were absolutely noiseless, so the starting of the car caused no excitement.  A few minutes later the door was reached, and the horn blown. Bishop as agreed pushed the Frenchman aside, jumped in, and we were off."

On his way to participate in the Circuit du Nord race, on May 2, 1902, Vanderbilt challenged Bishop and Baron Henri de Rothschild to a kilometer match race between Ablis and Chartres. Willie K. not only won the race but established a one kilometer "flying start" speed record of 111.8 kilometers per hour (69.5 mph).Vanderbilt was hailed by the French as "Un Milliardaire Recordman".

On May 15, 1902, Vanderbilt  was leading the 537-mile Circuit du Nord Race (Paris-Arras-Paris) when his 40-HP Mercedes broke down due to a broken sprocket wheel.

He described the breakdown in his book "Log of My Motor".
"...everything went well for a short time; but it being impossible to control the speed of the car, it was only a question of time before the inevitable break would occur. It took place on leaving one of the controls, at which time by letting the clutch in too quickly the sprocket wheel snapped in two, an accident that I never thought possible, and, therefore, an extra part had not been supplied...The records show that I was first at the time of the breakdown, having two minutes to spare on Henri Farman (the eventual winner), who was following up in a Panhard."

 After Willie K's ownership., the car was bought in 1923 by a German race car mechanic who had emigrated to the USA and serviced the cars of movie stars. In 1930, the car was sold to the Scripps family,  the San Diego newspaper publishers. The Simplex was used by the Scripps as a learners' car until the 1940s before being placed in a barn for storage. In 1950, the Scripps sold the car to Bill Evans, Sr., who displayed it in his San Diego Bahia Hotel.

As noted by Stephanie Gress, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum,  in March 2008, Willie K's 40-HP Mercedes Simplex was eventually acquired by the Mercedes-Benz Museum where it is displayed today. Note the number "508-M" on the front of the car that matches the photo when it broke the kilometer speed record in 1902.

The car is considered the oldest existing Mercedes and one of the few surviving cars of the Simplex series.

As part of the Mercedes centennial celebration in 2000, Jurgen Hubbert, then head of the Mercedes passenger car division, took the Mercedes Simplex on the road. Willie K. would have been proud!.


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