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.

I introduce my self to Louwman and take my seat in the back, carefully climbing aboard without denting the fragile bodywork. Louwman’s daughter Quirina -- or "Queenie" as she's known -- slides in next to her dad. Both are dressed the part, wearing smart cotton sweaters and plaid hats with the obligatory goggles on top. I felt a little bland in my black suit and tie.

As the 5.7-liter engine, sporting close to 100-hp – a huge figure for 1910 – coaxes itself to life, the car judders like the ground at an NHRA drag race. My heart flutters incessantly. Louwman leans over the car, arm outstretched, and grabs the massive gear lever with his gloved hand and wrestles it into first. The gear grinds, reluctantly, but eventually surrenders. We’re off.

The crowd cheers and I feel like a gentleman of means. But I’m acting sheepish, knowing that I’m merely a guest; briefly thrown into a life I have no business living. Still, I can at least pretend for today, right?

The wind batters my face. Louwman and Queenie sporadically turn around and ask me if I’m all right: “I’m magnificent,” I reply.

Before long, we arrive at Laguna Seca raceway. So far, I’m beginning to doubt our 1910 machine can cope. Changing gears for the steep hills is becoming almost impossible, as Louwman notes that the shifter has too much play: “I have only driven this car for maybe 30 minutes since its restoration,” he says. “But if this is my only complaint, then I am happy.” "Before allowing you to drive with me," he continues, "I made sure you were not a large man. Otherwise we would never make it up these hills."

"I've never been so happy to be 5 ft. 7," I reply.

Onto the track we go, thundering over the crest and into turn one. You may think a car from 1910 would travel at around 5 mph. Well, they don’t. Or rather this one doesn’t. Instead, we seem to be rocketing around, with the car gripping mightily through the bends.

“The tricky bit is,” Louwman says, “we have no brakes.”

“Come again?” I say, rather concerned.

“I only have the handbrake,” he replies.

Shortly after swooping down the Corkscrew, goose bumps engulfing my skin in what was a moment I will treasure forever, we come to an abrupt halt as the parade exits the track. Louwman cranks on the handbrake and the back tires slide like an ice-skater out of balance. For a split second, I fear we’re going to rear end a stunning red Ferrari Dino. Fortunately, we grind to a halt just inches away.

Did we really just handbrake turn a car from 1910?

After our stop, we try to re-fire the engine. No life. Nada... A Mercedes engineer arrives and tinkers inexplicably for a few minutes before directing Louwman to try starting it again. Whatever he did, it worked. Coughing and spluttering, the old girl comes back to life.

The next couple hours are spent traversing the pacific coast past Point Sur. The ocean breeze turns bitterly cold, and my face starts to ache. I’ve forgotten my sunscreen, like an idiot, making my forehead gleam brighter than the shiny red Dino in front. The wind picks up and I begin holding my sunglasses to prevent them from blowing away. Queenie does not, however, and her goggles vanish from the top of her head, nearly knocking my head off in the process.

Arriving back where we started, 88-miles later along with too many crunching gear changes to count, the 1910 Prinz Heinrich Benz had done it. “She’s magnificient,” Louwman says.

Indeed she is.

This pea-green racecar has a heart, a soul and a temperament. She had to be coaxed up hills, using innate trickery to prevent her from stalling. Her heart still beats strong, albeit her bones appear brittle. She handles the cold ocean air with ease, and the Corkscrew with guts. What a truly wonderful machine she remains. What a fascinating story she has. What a life she’s lived.

Because of her, I have a new adventure to tell. One I'll likely never get chance to experience again.

What to Read Next