Photo courtesy Simeone Museum.
The widely recounted story goes like this: William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., impressed by Renault’s win in the 1906 French Grand Prix, asked the automaker to build 10 scaled-down replicas of its 13-liter, 90-horsepower Type AK Grand Prix racing car for his enthusiast friends. These smaller cars, based upon the production Type AI chassis, would be powered by a 7.4-liter four with 35 taxable horsepower and 45 brake horsepower, giving them the Renault 35/45 name. Of the original batch constructed (as many as 15), just five are known to survive today, and one example, in the care of the Gibson family since 1928, has recently been donated to the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Remaining photos by Bob Goldstein, courtesy Simeone Museum, unless otherwise noted.
As David LaChance explains in the November 2016 issue of Hemmings Sports and Exotic Car, an alternate theory suggests the genesis of the Renault 35/45 may not be linked to “Willie K.” Vanderbilt after all. Some believe that Vanderbilt didn’t encounter the car until after a September 1907 race in which the Renault 35/45 covered an impressive 1,079 miles in a 24-hour period, but a period magazine article cited by Dr. Fred Simeone seems to counter this idea. Whatever the case, this much is clear: somewhere between 10 and 15 Renault Type 35/45s found their way into the United States, most purchased by friends of Willie K. As a result of the link between these cars and Vanderbilt, the Type 35/45 is most commonly referred to as the Vanderbilt racer, though none are known to have competed in an actual Vanderbilt Cup event.
As a racing car, the Renault Type 35/45 enjoyed only limited success, perhaps due to its $8,500 price tag (roughly $225,000 today) or production-car origins. Despite a curb weight of 2,575 pounds, the 7.4-liter, 45-horsepower four still proved capable of delivering a 90 MPH top speed, something that the driveshaft brake (operated by a foot pedal) and rear drums (operated by a hand brake) must have struggled to rein in. As with many old race cars, few were preserved past their glory days, and the remaining examples are extremely difficult to trace back to the original buyers.
The Vanderbilt racer gifted to the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum was purchased from its second owner by Kirk Gibson, Sr. in 1928. Reportedly, the car was found at a horse track, where it was used to tow a wet canvas bladder in between heats, grooming the surface and reducing dust on the course. At a time when few collected early automobiles (and fewer still collected early racing cars), Gibson and friend George Waterman saw value in preserving these vehicles, saving many from the scrapyard. Into the 1930s, the Renault was often exhibited alongside other competition survivors, including the Stutz Bearcat owned by Smith Hempstone Oliver, automotive curator of the Smithsonian Institution, and “Old 16,” the Vanderbilt Cup-winning Locomobile that now resides in The Henry Ford.
Kirk Gibson, Jr., had fond memories of childhood jaunts in the car, so in 1964 he purchased the Renault from his father. In a 2005 Autoweek article, Gibson, Jr. recalled that the car had been painted, but remarkably, never fully restored over its then-seven-plus-decades. While no records exist prior to the car’s second owner, Gibson, Jr. believes that period photos prove his car is the one that set the 1,079 mile, 24-hour record at Morris Park in 1907. If this is the case, period advertising also makes it the car that finished second at a Vanderbilt-sponsored Motor Parkway Sweepstakes in October 1908.
Photo courtesy Simeone Museum.
Potential racing provenance aside, the 1907 Renault Type 35/45 is a rare and valuable car, and a worthy addition to a museum dedicated to the spirit of competition. The Renault will join the Pre-World War I Racing collection, where it will be featured alongside a 1912 National Model 40 Semi-Racing Roadster, a 1913 Mercer Raceabout, and a 1916 Stutz Series 4C Bearcat.
For more information on the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, visit SimeoneMuseum.org.