Willie Vanderbilt: On the Road a Century Ago

Traveling by Car through Europe, 1899-1911

William K. Vanderbilt II was an explorer by nature. He grew up on boats, and as a boy traveled the world with his parents on their yachts. When the automobile was invented, he became an early enthusiast and later a race driver. Between 1899 and 1911, he toured Western Europe in various cars he had specially built for him by Renault, Daimler, Mercedes, and Panhard et Levassor.

Vanderbilt Museum archives Mr. Vanderbilt in Mercedes, Paris-Nice trip, March 1902
William K. Vanderbilt II in Mercedes, Paris-Nice trip, March 1902. Vanderbilt Museum archives.

Cars were scarce. Roads were few, unpaved and often empty. But he was a young man who loved travel and adventure. And he eagerly piloted those early cars on the rural byways and roads of Europe. His wife Virginia often went with him. On some of those trips, he drove in auto races.

He kept diaries of their trips, and shot photographs along the way. Later he privately published a book, The Log of My Motor, 1899-1908 – Being a Record of Many Delightful Days Spent in Touring the Continent. He produced a second volume that covered 1908-1911.

In his foreword, Mr. Vanderbilt wrote that he started keeping his diary on the day he made his first automobile trip, on November 1, 1899. After getting requests from friends who planned to tour Europe, he decided to publish it.

Excerpts from the first book:

Hints to the Motorist

First: Take as little baggage as possible.

Second: Overhaul all extra parts, tools and tire supplies yourself before leaving Paris, and see that all are intact.

Third: Eat no solid food at the luncheon hour, as the vibration of the car prevents digestion.

Fourth: Remember, that all hotel-keepers are ready to “do” the motorist, and fix a price for rooms before retiring….

* * *

November 4, 1899 – the fourth day of the Vanderbilts’ first auto trip in France, which began in Paris:

After 3 hours and 30 minutes of mountainous roads, we drew up, just as it was getting dark, in the old village of Cluny…

Mrs V Europe car LR
Virginia Fair Vanderbilt in six-horsepower Panhard et Levassor, France. Vanderbilt Museum archives.

In one corner of the square was the hotel, and here we drew up and alighted, leaving the mechanic to refill the tanks. On entering I asked the proprietor if he had a room where he could serve us dinner, as Madame was tired and did not wish to go into the public dining-room. Much to my surprise the man said, “You can have what you want, Mr. Vanderbilt,” and showed us into a very clean little room at the back of the house.

Leaving us for a minute to get the menu, he returned, and his next remark absolutely made me believe I had gone insane. “How is Mr. Hoyt?” asked the man; but before answering him I inquired would he tell me how he knew Mr. Hoyt and myself. He then said he had once been cook on board my father’s steam yacht “Alva.” This is but another example of how small the world is.

Paris-Madrid Race, May 24, 1903

I started No. 60 and immediately on crossing the line was disqualified for having approached on the wrong side of the timer, having knocked over in so doing at least 100 men and women, who were stationed on boxes and barrels. There was considerable hub-bub for a while, but gradually the officials quieted down, and I was given my papers, and started out on the road the 64th car, instead of 60th.

Maurice Renault started just back of me, and on arriving at Rambouillet I had a long talk with him. The poor fellow was killed only a short time afterward, running into a tree on account of not being able to see, owing to the dust from the car ahead of him. His mechanic was also killed…

My car was working very well, and I passed a tremendous number of machines ahead of me; the dust interfered somewhat in places, but I managed to get by just the same; was the fifteenth car to arrive at Chartres, as I had started sixty-fourth from Paris. My time showed that I was well up to the front. Unfortunately, while in the Chartres control, for no reason whatsoever, the whole bottom of my engine fell out, putting me out of the race.

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