Conquering the Tour d’Elegance aboard a 1910 Prinz Heinrich Benz racecar
Allow me to share an observation: Cars from the early 1900s start by spluttering like an aging pensioner with a chest infection. Each gear-change grinds and scrapes, making you grimace in anguish. They don't stop, either. Not even slightly. But what they do offer is a unique visceral emotion: Each car has its own personality. Its own nuances. Its own stories.
The Tour d’Elegance proves that the glorious old machines showcased on the famous lawns at Pebble Beach are not merely ornamental. Cars embark on a voyage that garners Tour de France-like crowds, all desperate to get a glimpse of the storied vehicles as they thunder along, growling and barking, with their eclectic owners exuberantly waving.
For the 2013 Tour d’Elegance, the route balloons to 88-miles–the longest in its history, and arguably the most grueling. The journey includes a lap of the infamous Laguna Seca racetrack, along with steep climbs around the coast towards Big Sur. The variety of vehicles hitting the pavement remains vast, ranging from the first ever Duesenberg to a mid 1970s Lamborghini Countach. The participants, too, are a who’s who of vintage car show icons, led by ex-F1 great Sir Stirling Moss in his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing.
For regular folk, like myself, getting to participate in the Tour remains an unobtainable dream. Simply, unless you own - or are best friends with someone that owns - a car so special it competes in the legendary Concours d’Elegance, you simply don’t have a hope. So you’ll forgive me for squealing like a five-year old when an email arrives asking me to ride along in one of the most spectacular cars at this year’s show!
Needless to say, I agree, and my spot is confirmed at the head of the Tour aboard an incredibly rare 1910 Prinz Heinrich Benz. My first thought, other than the sheer jubilation at this bizarre turn of events, was how on earth is a car older than my grandparents going to complete this 88-mile course?
Prinz Heinrich, the younger brother of German Emperor Wilhelm II, adored speed. He raced sailboats, flew planes and raced cars. A 1,250-mile race across northern Germany was named the Prinz Heinrich Trial, after Heinrich himself offered to supply the event's prize money. The race was devised as a reliability test for four-seater touring cars, with a prerequisite that entrants must have at least two or three passengers riding with them. It became a prestigious race, won by Ferdinand Porsche in 1910 and Fritz Erle, a Benz engineer, a couple of years earlier. Benz, many years prior to joining forces with Daimler, decided to commemorate Erle’s triumph, creating a special machine named the Prinz Heinrich Benz. Only ten cars were made, one of which went on to compete in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 mile race.
I would be riding in the passenger seat in one of these ten historic automobiles. (Even as I write this, it remains quite surreal.) Evert Louwman, founder of The Hague museum in Holland, owns this particular car. It’s one of many treasures he possesses, including last year’s most talked about car from the Concours d’Elegance--the Swan Car.
As the morning of the Tour arrives, Louwman pulls up to the front of the parade in his spotless, freshly restored pea-green Prinz Heinrich Benz, still wearing its original race number, 36. It looks effortlessly sleek and simple. Its simplicity remains refreshing, and its tapered backend and curved hood attract attention from everyone. Amazingly, this rare car isn’t the only one in the Tour. Another Prinz Heinrich Benz is parked next to it. And two others will be joining the pair on the lawns come Sunday. All these cars in one place remains unheard of; a real score for the folks at Pebble Beach.