1907 Renault – First Supercar

Written by tonks on January 19, 2007

First SupercarRenault’s reputation was created in the open-road races of Europe at the turn of the 20th century, in vehicles that were built and driven by Louis Renault and his brother Marcel. Even though Marcel was killed in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race and Louis quit racing, the company itself only took a year off.

Competition was the most effective way to promote Renault’s products and demonstrate speed and reliability. In 1905, Renault built a 12.3-liter monster for Gould Brokaw’s entry into the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island. Driven by Maurice Bernin, it did not finish, but captured the Eagle Rock, New York, hillclimb later that year.

For 1906 the ACF announced the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the grand prize in automobile competition. Organized on a 103-kilometer circuit over public roads located east of Le Mans, it was held over two days, with six laps scheduled each day. Open to all comers, it was vital for competitive manufacturers. Renault rolled out a new, purpose-built racecar, the Type AK, powered by a giant 13-liter, four-cylinder engine with shaft drive. Driver Ferencz Szicz pulled out an immediate lead, taking the opening day well ahead of his closest competitor. He was so far ahead on the second day that he was never threatened.

The performance of Szicz in the Grand Prix and Brokaw’s Renault in the Vanderbilt Cup caught the attention of William Kissem Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, like many of his wealthy counterparts, was an early enthusiast and in 1907, he arranged for a run of sporty Renaults to be built. Patterned after the 1906 Grand Prix de l’ACF winner, they were based on the lighter Renault AI chassis and built specifically for his friends.

Sleek, powerful and reliable, they were ideal for an afternoon’s entertainment on the smooth, banked, and protected Long Island Motor Parkway. This car sold for $1,100,000 in Oxnard, California, at the Gooding & Company auction October 21, 2006.

This is the world’s first production supercar. In 1907 this car was the Ferrari Enzo of its day, exclusive, fast, beautiful, and exciting. Its purpose was to generate adrenaline and provide bragging rights at the club to those few with the inclination and the means to indulge themselves. Perhaps a bit of historical background will help.

“Willie K” Vanderbilt, of the legendary family, was at the height of his powers when the automobile became practical, and he embraced it as a very rich and powerful magnate. He organized the first serious American auto races, and when it became obvious the cars were faster than the available roads would allow for, he fixed the roads.

His answer was the Long Island Motor Parkway, a mesh-reinforced concrete private road that ran from Queens down the center of Long Island to Lake Ronkonkoma, a distance of 48 miles. Built in 1907, it was the world’s first limited-access highway, fully fenced, with bridges for the few crossing roads, excellent sight lines, and banked turns. It was a place where you could actually drive fast safely. Heeding the old adage “Never start vast projects with half-vast concepts,” he arranged for the construction of some cars to test what he was building.

Though in recent history the French have only been bit players in the American market and are now effectively non-existent, for the first few decades of the automobile they were the dominant nation. Renault demonstrated a clear superiority with its “AK” Grand Prix racer in 1906 and had a well-established New York sales agency, so approaching them for a short run of gentleman-racers made sense.

Posted Under: Supercars

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