1 April 1903, the motoring greats were set for the literal high-point of Nice Week – the hillclimb from Nice to La Turbie. 1903 was planned and expected to be a huge year for the sport, and Mercédès in particular. There were 12 of their 60hp machines in Nice, including a brand-new one for Count Elliott Zborowski.
Zborowski – that great racer and lover of Ireland, fresh from scouting the Gordon Bennett route and proposing British Racing Green – was delighted with the machine. As previously arranged, he would settle the bill after Nice Week, once it had been refreshed for the upcoming Paris-Madrid race.
Zborowski and his mechanic, Wilhem van Pallant, sit at the start line in Nice – chassis rocking with the 9-litre motor ticking over – they know that the dash to the first corner is vital. Through this turn the road climbs almost continuously for 16 kilometres as it becomes the Grande Corniche, all the way to La Turbie.
The Mercédès starts cleanly and Zborowski has it singing towards the first turn, and the start of the climb.
60, 65 mph…
What happened next is only partly clear.
Zborowski knew he had to carry the momentum, and he knew these Mercédès intimately, yet he arrived & turned-in at much too high speed. The Mercédès yawed as if to make the turn, then leapt off the road to the right – smashing head-on into the exposed cliff face. This first impact broke Zborowski, and tossed him into the road. Pallant somehow hung on and survived, as the machine leapt once again and made a second impact with the cliff, at the site of the 1900 memorial to Wilhelm Bauer.
The worst sound in motorsport – sudden silence, a collective intake of breath.
As the dust settles – and a photographer runs to capture Zborowski dead on the road – the race is stopped. The Prefect of Nice immediately cancelling racing to La Turbie… until 1909.
What had gone wrong?
It was later said that one of Zborowski’s cufflinks had moved the Mercédès hand throttle on the steering wheel. Lifting, at the last possible moment, perhaps the revs didn’t drop and it was too late to avoid the dangerous bend? Whatever the truth, it was tragic.
There was, of course, a flurry of telegrams to & from Emil Jellinek in Nice and Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft in Stuttgart. When a formal letter by way of reply arrived from Cannstatt it shared their shock at the awful event. DMG did however remind Jellinek that the car had not been paid for…and included an invoice for the 21,000 Francs owing.
Jellinek was incensed, but those men in that time were a remarkable band. Baron de Caters bought the wreck of the 60hp and cleared the debt on behalf of Zborowski’s widow. Jellinek & Rothschild assisted the family and the injured Pallandt – much as they had with Bauer’s family, three years prior.
A year so full of promise had got off to an awful start. It would get worse.
Next, the Paris-Madrid.
It would become known to history as ‘The Race of Death’.