"The world's first sports car" is how Bonhams is billing the upcoming auction of a 1914 Vauxhall "Prince Henry" at its Bond Street Sale in early December. It's a simple concept yet at least four cars are regularly claimed to be the world's first sportscar. Mike Hanlon looks at the validity of the claims of the four contenders and adds another four, choosing a new winner.
"Many historians acclaim the model as the first sportscar in history," reads the press release and it is absolutely true. Many automotive historians have written those words. The only problem is that automotive historians are an eccentric bunch, and across the 120-year timespan of the profession, some have been quite cavalier with bestowing the title of the world's first sportscar ... and many more have simply regurgitated the statement.
Sometimes the "world's first sportscar" chosen by journalists is based on their particular definition of the term "sportscar", sometimes by myopic national bias, sometimes by a complete failure to look at history, but mainly because it has repeatedly been regurgitated by people who don't know and can't be bothered investigating. After studying the subject for some time, by my reckoning, they're all wrong!
In addition to the Vauxhall Prince Henry, other cars regularly acclaimed as the "world's first sportscar" are the Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich designed and driven by Ferdinand Porsche, the Benz Prinz Heinrich Wagen partly-designed and vigorously driven by Fritz Erle, and the Hispano-Suiza Alfonso VIII designed by Mark Brigit and driven most famously by King Alfonso VIII of Spain.
As if that's not enough, we're about to add a few more cars to this contest because it appears a few logical contenders have been conveniently overlooked.
Who was Prinz Heinrich and what is the Prinz Heinrich Fahrt?
Prinz Heinrich (pictured above in his Benz) was the younger brother of German Emperor Wilhelm II, and a passionate motorsport enthusiast who was the patron of one of the early reliability tours in Germany. In 1907, a Kaiserpreis (Emperor's Prize) was held, with entries limited to touring cars with engines of less than eight liters.
In 1908, the Prinz Heinrich Fahrt (Prince Heinrich Trial) was inaugurated, and like the Kaiserpreis before it, entry was limited to four-seat cars to prevent manufacturers from fitting lightweight two-seat bodies on their cars for improved performance. The aim of the trial was to determine the best standard car on German roads. Many claim this event was the forerunner to the German F1 Grand Prix, but it was probably more the forerunner of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM).
It ran as a competitive trial in 1908, 1909 and 1910, with one final year in 1911 that was not staged as a speed-based event. As the rules were strict and designed for standard touring cars, the prestige in winning the event was immense, and several replicas were produced of cars that participated successfully in the trials.
Vauxhall C10 Prince Henry (1911-1913)
The Vauxhall Prince Henry was named after three 20-hp A-type Vauxhall cars that competed in the 1910 Prinz Heinrich Fahrt, with the British Vauxhall company anglicizing the name for its primary public.
The epic 1910 event covered 1,495 km (927 miles) from Berlin to Bad Homburg (near Frankfurt) and was both gruelling and had timed sections based on outright speed, so it was unquestionably a sporting contest.
Vauxhall sent a factory team driving Vauxhalls, which successfully completed the challenging 1910 tour and Vauxhall launched the new 20-hp C-Type model in 1911, adopting the v- shaped radiator and fluted bonnet as used by the factory cars in the Prinz Heinrich Fahrt.
The "Prince Henry," as the C-type became known, was initially offered in 20-hp guise, then increased in engine capacity to the four-liter 25-hp model in 1912. The Vauxhall Prince Henry went on sale in 1911 for £485 (excluding the body) and its reliability and speed won countless trials, races and hillclimbs in the next few years, including the Swedish Winter Trial in 1912. Despite its four seats, it was a sports car, but was it the "first sportscar"?
Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich (1910-1913)
The Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich was modeled on the car that finished 1-2-3 in the same 1910 trial in which the Vauxhall competed, with the winning driver being a 34-year-old Ferdinand Porsche, who continues to influence sportscar design to this day. Porsche had designed the cars and headed the works team that filled the top two tiers of the podium at the event.
Austro-Daimler was an Austrian subsidiary of the German DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) that merged with Benz to become Mercedes-Benz 15 years later. The Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich used a four-cylinder, 5.7-liter motor producing 95 hp and if you look closely, you'll see the attention paid to aerodynamic efficiencies, such as the curved radiator and aerodynamic headlights.
Second in the race and driving an identical car to Ferdinand Porche was Austro-Daimler Board Member Eduard Fischer and third was Count Heinrich Schonfeld, the first of seven privateer Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrichs. Production of the car appears to have been based on the 1909 Prinz Heinrich entrants and hence seven privateers were able to participate in the trial because production had already begun. In total, around 50 of these cars are believed to have been built, though only a handful survive.
Benz Prinz Heinrich Wagen (1908-1911)
While the best known Prinz Heinrich "race replicas" were produced by Austro-Daimler and Vauxhall in 1911, the Benz Prinz Heinrich Wagen was a replica of the car that won the inaugural 1908 event and was available in 1908, three years ahead of the 1910 Prinz Heinrich Fahrt replicas from Vauxhall and Austro-Daimler that didn't hit showrooms until 1911. It was available as a production vehicle across four model years from 1908 to 1911 and was listed in the Mercedes catalog, albeit on special request, so it predates either the Vauxhall or Austro-Daimler as the world's first race replica and hence sportscar.
The inaugural 1908 Prinz Heinrich Fahrt was won by a Benz driven and designed by another important motorsport figure in the form of Fritz Erle. Erle was already the head of the racing department for Benz, also driving the cars in major races with plenty of success, and he would lead the development of the 200-km/h (124-mph) Blitzen Benz of 1909 that eventually captured all race and speed records until 1919. Initially a run of 100 cars was planned for production, but around 50 were built before WW1 got underway.
Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII (1911-1914)
Alfonso XIII, the King of Spain, was an avid motoring enthusiast, and instituted the Copa Catalunya, a race for Voiturettes, in 1908. Sadly for the understandably nationalistic king, the French Peugeot cars driven by the likes of Jules Goux and Georges Boillot won the first three runnings of the Copa Catalunya.
Hispano-Suiza's chief designer Marc Birkigt got to work and the company's Voiturette had two convincing wins over the powerful Peugeot on its home turf in the Coupe d'Ostende on 4 September, 1910 and Coupe des Voiturettes at Dieppe on 18 September, 1910, and the success prompted him to create a road car based on the racing car. The chassis of the new car (above bottom right) on display at the 1912 (Paris) Salon de l'auto shows how proud the company was of the new design, which had raced its way to glory in Ostend and Dieppe.
King Alfonso drove the new model and was so enamoured with it, he not only purchased one, but gave permission for his name to be used. In all, more than 500 units are believed to have been sold, which explains perhaps why this is sometimes referred to as the first sportscar, based on its large production numbers. The car pictured above is a 1913 Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII Torpedo Tourer.
Mercer Type 35R Raceabout (1910-1914)
The European automotive press seems to have disregarded the American Mercer 35R Raceabout as a sportscar, despite a string of major victories in American racing from 1911 onwards.
The 35R Raceabout sold for US$2,250 at that time, the price of a modest home, so it was not only very expensive, but a genuine production sportscar with a powerful 300 cubic inch T-head four-cylinder engine producing 58 hp at 1,900 rpm.
RMSotheby's sold a 1911 Mercer Type 35R Raceabout for $2,530,000 at Monterey in 2014, producing the above video to promote the sale, which gives a real feel for what the car was like. Hemmings estimates there are between 30 and 35 T-head Mercer Raceabouts extant, validating the production status of the Raceabout, which was unquestionably a sportscar.
GN Cyclecar (1910-1925)
From the auction description of the above 1914 GN Cyclecar: Cyclecars were, in many ways, the Brass Era version of microcars. Just as the BMW Isetta and Messerschmitt would find "reverse chic" popularity in post-war Europe, spindly little automobiles powered by motorcycle engines were enjoyed by high society on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1910s and early 1920s. There was not much to a cyclecar, but they were cheap and fun, and thanks to the limited displacement of their engines, they could be registered as motorcycles, saving owners considerable tax dollars.
The London-based GN Cyclecar was sold from 1910 onwards, with the marque name derived from the surnames of its founders, H.R. Godfrey and Archibald Frazer-Nash, who would both go on to create a name for themselves with sportcars. Cyclecars usually used big v-twin motorcycle engines and, thanks to their light weight and exceptional power-to-weight ratio, were both fast and handled well – Frazer-Nash in particular scored some impressive racing results to promote the brand. It's a sportscar and was available well before the 1910 Prinz Heinrich Fahrt.
Bugatti Type 13 (1910-1920)
It might look tiny in comparison to cars of today, but there was something very special about Ettore Bugatti's Type 13, which began production in 1910 with a 1368 cc four-cylinder engine and four-valves per cylinder. Bugatti entered one of these cars in the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1911 with Ernst Frederich behind the wheel (below).
Despite being just one tenth the capacity of the Grand Prix monsters of the era, the 30-hp, 300-kg (661-lb) car motored on solidly as the bigger cars crashed or faltered to finish in second place. Not bad for a first race start and the car remained competitive in racing until the 1920s. Most of these cars were built as road cars, and with the familiar two-seat layout of a sportscar and a second place in a Grand prix indicating its sporting prowess, it's hard to overlook the Type 13 as a sportscar, although most of history's automotive scribes appear to have done so.
Apperson Jack Rabbit (1907-1914)
There can be little doubt from looking at the advertisements above from 1907 that the American Apperson Jack Rabbit was a sportscar in every sense, with a guaranteed top speed of 75 mph (121 km/h) and the advertisement reading: In presenting 'The Jack Rabbit' we are catering to that limited class of owners who want a car that can be put to any service - racing or touring.
The Jack Rabbit was a two-seat roadster with a 96-hp, four-cylinder engine with 4-speed transmission and was performing well in the inaugural 1910 Indianapolis 500 when a freak accident (the car was in the pits when another car crashed into it) took it out of the race, but not before it had been timed at 91.83 mph (147.78 km/h).
Fiat 24-32 hp Corsa (1902-1905)
In 1902, Fiat introduced a racing car named the 24 HP Corsa, which is arguably the first car ever to be specially designed for racing that was not derived from a series production automobile. The Corsa had a steel chassis, a 7,238 cc four-cylinder engine producing 40 hp and weighed 450 kg (992 lb).
As was the case when cars were still evolving from horse-drawn carriages, the car was available over the subsequent years as a chassis upon which others could create the body. It is also regarded as the first car with a gas pedal on the floor, and the Fiat 24/32 hp won many races in this period. The image above is from the Wheels of Italy Encyclopedia, which has a detailed write-up on the car. RM Auctions sold a 1905 Fiat 24/32 HP Series 2 Rear Entry Tonneau in 2007, with more details.
The Sunbeam "Coupe de L'Auto Replica" (1913-1914)
The Sunbeam "Coupe de L'Auto Replica" was a limited production road car that was sold by Sunbeam in 1913/14. It is the only production road car in history that was simultaneously successful in Grand Prix racing and the holder of multiple land speed records. Using the banked Brooklands circuit in England, the Sunbeam's first record was to cover 92.45 miles (148.78 km) in an hour in August 1912, but further efforts saw that record beaten and in October 1913, the car covered 107.95 miles (173.73 km) in an hour.
It was a replica of the Sunbeam 3.0 liter "voiturette" (think F3) that competed in the French Grand Prix and "Coupe de l'Auto" of 1912, achieving a spectacular result against state-of-the-art open class Grand Prix cars.
The major race in Europe for 3.0 liter "voiturette" racing cars at that time was the French "Coup de l'Auto" and in 1912 the race was run simultaneously with the 1912 French Grand Prix on 25–26 June in Dieppe. A massive field comprising 15 different makes of car started at one minute intervals, completing 10 laps of the 47.8 mile (77 km) course each day with aggregate time over both days deciding the result.
In the Voiturette class, the 3.0-liter Sunbeams took the win with Victor Rigal behind the wheel, but with Dario Resta second, Emile Medinger third and Joseph Christiaens fourth, all in identical cars, Sunbeam had a 1-2-3-4 result. In the Grand Prix class there was a high attrition rate with only 15 of 48 starters finishing the gruelling 957 mile (1,540 km) distance and the lightweight, sweet-handling and very quick Sunbeams placed 3-4-5-6 in the open class, scoring a podium position in the French Grand Prix, the most important race in the world at the time. The Sunbeam was beaten only by the new 7.6-liter DOHC 4-valve Peugeot Lion of French superstar Georges Boillot and the 14-liter Fiat S74 of Louis Wagner.
The company publicity focussed heavily on its Dieppe result, and the Sunbeam "Coupe de L'Auto Replica" was put on sale for the bargain price of £425 in 1913. At that time, a Rolls-Royce cost £1500, so it wasn't even frightfully expensive.
Imagine what a road-going competitive F1 car that could also break the world speed record would sell for today?
And the winner is ... the 1901 Mercedes 35 hp
The Mercedes 35 hp of 1901 is often referred to by automotive scribes as the first modern motorcar. It's the first time the Mercedes name appears in automobile production, though the instigator of the car, Austrian diplomat and entrepreneur Emil Jellinek, did have a prestige auto dealership in Nice that used the Mercedes name prior to this car. In owning a prestige car dealership and running a racing team to promote his wares, Jellinek had a few ideas he wanted to try and he negotiated with DMG to produce for him 34 cars to his basic design and specification. The car was designed by Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler to Jellinek's requirements.
His concept was to lower the center of gravity of the cars at the same time as lengthening the wheelbase and widening the car, all resulting in much better roadholding. The design is quite distinct from the stagecoach layouts inherited from the horse-drawn era that dominated automobile design previously.
Jellinek gave the car and the business the same pet name he had for his daughter: Mercedes. The car's racing debut in January 1901 at Grand Prix du Sud-Ouest was unspectacular, with teething issues perhaps resulting from the first of the 34 cars being delivered on 22 December 1900. The next competitive outing in March at Nice Speed Week (pictured in the two images above) produced a clean sweep of the Nice-La Turbie event, raising the average speed from the previous best of 19.4 mph (31.3 km/h) to 31.9 mph (51.4 km/h) and the Mercedes was reportedly timed at 53 mph (86 km/h) during the race. The Mercedes also won the 1901 Nice-Salon-Nice race in the hands of Wilhelm Werner, averaging 36 mph (58 km/h) during the week of automotive festivities.
This car went into series production as the Mercedes 35 hp and would have been the fastest road car in the world at that time. Indeed, given that it was designed primarily as a racing car, which it excelled at, and subsequently sold in vast numbers as the Mercedes Simplex due to its simplicity, speed and roadholding, it unquestionably was a sportscar. It may not look like the cars we now consider to be sportscars, but after scouring the period from 1885 through to the Prinz Heinrich Fahrt, the Mercedes 35 hp fits the bill perfectly.
Even if you don't accept the Mercedes 35 hp as the first sportscar, there are at least four sportscars that beat the Prinz Heinrich replicas into production.
We would be delighted to entertain comments and add cars to this article if there's a compelling argument put forward by any of our readers.