The 1907 Renault AI 35/45 Vanderbilt Racer was the Ferrari Enzo of its day -- exclusive, fast, beautiful, and exciting -- but not really a racer
Renault's reputation was made in the open-road races of Europe at the turn of the 20th century, in cars 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. (Courtesy of Gooding & Company)
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $1,100,000 in Oxnard, California, at the Gooding & Company auction October 21, 2006.
I think the most interesting things about this Renault are what it is and what it is not. It's not a race car--even though it's named a "Vanderbilt Racer" and certainly looks the part. Several of its sister cars were raced and it could have been raced, but it was not designed or built as a race car. It was sold to very wealthy "sporting gentlemen" for fast road use.
I suggest that 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.
Putting the smaller (60 hp vs. 90 hp) engine on a lighter chassis than the AK but making it look very similar to the GP winner may or may not have been Vanderbilt's idea. But he did arrange for ten of the eleven cars produced to be ordered by his friends on Long Island. At $8,500 each in 1907, these were very expensive toys (roughly $200,000 in 2006 dollars), so the accomplishment of getting them made and sold was a serious one. The cars were extremely exclusive and treated accordingly.
A friend of mine is an antique dealer who now deals in collector cars, and he taught me what I consider the most basic rule of collecting: What was special then is special now; what was ordinary then may be rare now, but it's not special.
If you are going to collect old things and are concerned with the investment aspects, always buy things that were "special" when they were new. Steuben crystal will always be more desirable than Depression glass; a Ferrari will be a better investment than a Fiat. I find it useful to refine this concept by adding rankings, sort of accumulating points for various characteristics. The most valuable set is for things that were special, even famous, in their own time (Ferrari GTO).
The second set is for things that were associated with special people or events (Clark Gable's Duesenberg), while a third can be assigned to simple rarity (a 3¢ stamp with the airplane printed upside down may just be a piece of paper, but it's the only one).
With something that can be played with, like a car, the question of how much and how easily you can play with it becomes vital in determining desirability. By looking at that factor you can get a pretty good feel for where virtually any collectable should fit.
Let's look at the Renault, then. Beautiful, exclusive, expensive, and fast, it was a pretty special car in its own right when new. On the down side, it never won anything important and is not a Mercedes. It was a rich man's toy, not a champion, so we'll give it excellent points but not ultimate.
In the second set, it certainly was associated with wealth and fame in its time, though the names Whitney, Vanderbilt, and Guggenheim mean more on Long Island than in Topeka. We'll call it a draw. On the rarity front, five of the original eleven have survived, so it's rare, but not hen's teeth. As the catalog points out, though, that high a survival rate is ample proof that these have always been considered great cars. I'd say good to excellent rarity points.
Now we're down to whether it's fun to own. What can you do with it? I have no personal experience, but I'm sure it would be a gas to drive, fast and light. As a gentleman's toy rather than a fire-breathing racer, I'd expect it to be relatively user-friendly, as the catalog asserts. It's too new for London–Brighton, but there is no shortage of events that would love to have it anywhere in the world. Did I mention it is fast? I'd assign high usability points.
If we tally the points, I'd say that the Renault is a 70 to 75 percentile car, and that's pretty much what the market said. It was valued well below the 1904 Mercedes and a bit below the Mercer Raceabout, but a little above the Simplex. I say we have a rational market and within it, the car was fairly bought.
Years Produced: 1907
Number Produced: 11
Original List Price: $8,500 (about $200,000 today)
SCM Valuation: $1.1m–$1.3m (at time of print)
Tune-up Cost: $800
Distributor Caps: Unknown
Chassis #: 29059
Chassis # Location: Plaque on firewall
Engine # Location: Unknown
Club Info: Vintage Sports Car Club, The Old Post Office, West Street, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5EL
Web Site: http://www.vscc.co.uk
Alternatives: 1911 Mercer Raceabout, 1905 Mercedes 28/32, 1908 Simplex Speedcar
Investment Grade: A