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The Car That Started The War

Today is November 11th – Armistice Day and the UK’s day for remembering soldiers who were killed in the wars, kind of like ANZAC Day here in Australia and New Zealand.  So in honour of the day, let’s take a little look at a particular car that played a role in detonating World War 1.

The car in question was a Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton built in 1911.  It was smooth, large and luxurious, having the grand total of two cylinders and having a maximum power output of 32 horsepower – heady stuff back then!  Gräf and Stift was a company that was just breaking into the new field of automobiles, and was based in Vienna, Austria.  They specialised in luxury cars popular with royalty, and buses and trams.  Over the years, the luxury cars have dropped by the wayside, and Gräf and Stift kept on going with the buses.  In fact, they still do make the buses, although the company got the new name MAN Nutzfahrzeuge Österreich AG courtesy of a bunch of mergers (a bit of a mouthful but probably easy to say if you speak German).


The fateful Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton was the property of Count Franz von Harrach rather than Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  The Archduke certainly had motor vehicles of his own – in fact, he once employed the brilliant Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche as his chauffeur when Herr Porsche was doing his compulsory stint in the military.  Fans of the 911 and the Boxter are probably very grateful that Austro-Daimler bagged him once his military service was over.  Just think what the world would have missed if Porsche had stayed on in royal service and had continued as the Archduke’s chauffeur.  Instead, the car’s owner was the driver that day.

Why did they choose that particular car for the Archduke for his motorcade procession through the streets of Sarajavo?  It was probably because it was large and luxurious, and because it was a soft-top convertible so the Archduke and his wife, Duchess Sophie, could be seen sitting side by side – something slightly controversial and radical, given that she was not of royal birth and it was a “morganatic” marriage.  The Rules said that because of her humble origins, she could only be by his side if he was acting in a military capacity but not on other state occasions.  As the Archduke was going on an official inspection of the Bosnian Army, they took the chance to appear in public together and to be seen as a proper royal couple.  Hence the need for a large car with an open top so they could be in comfort.

Would a different car have changed the course of history by making it harder for an assassin to have reached the Archduke?  Possibly.  The more closed in design of the 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost would have protected him.  The lack of a running board on the 1910 Mercedes  Skiff, plus the extra “windscreen” in front of the back seat could have made it harder for the assassin to get close to the royal couple.

The fact that it was a soft-top saved them during the initial assassination attempt where a bomb was thrown at the motorcade.  This bomb hit the Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton all right, but it hit the folded down soft top and bounced off, rolling under another car, where it exploded, wounding a number of the crowd.  Ultimately, this led to a change in plans that saw the route of the procession being changed so the Archduke and the Duchess could visit the wounded in hospital.  Unfortunately, some of the drivers weren’t informed of this change, and some started heading along the original route.  During the few moments when the mistake was being realised and cars were being reversed to get back on the right road, a Serbian rebel named Gavrilo Princip saw his chance and stepped in with a pistol…


Then everything went mad across Europe as treaties and alliances called one country after another into conflict, with the colonies across the world following suit.

It’s interesting to speculate about what would have happened to the automotive world if World War I had not broken out.  The desire for better weapons and more efficient troop transport spurred development and design.  Would technology have been delayed without this spur?  Perhaps… but perhaps not.  The glamour sport of motor racing was doing its bit to encourage development (nothing’s changed there!), so who knows?

And what happened to the Gräf and Stift Double Phaeton?  Because of its significance in history, it has been preserved in the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna.