Fewer than 20 Renault AI 35/45 HP Runabouts were produced, and four of the five remaining 1907 racers — often called simply “Vanderbilt Renaults” — graced the 18th fairway at the 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
A bit of history: Founded in 1899, Renault soon emerged as a force to be reckoned with in racing. The marque won multiple early city-to-city races throughout Europe, including the 1902 Paris-to-Vienna race, where Marcel Renault finished first in his unassuming 16 HP car. The petite Renault beat several more established marques that had over four times the horsepower and arguably more prestige. Renault’s pedigree was later cemented by several additional wins, most notably that of the first French Grand Prix race, in 1906. These races put Renault on the radar of racing enthusiasts worldwide—and one stateside multimillionaire in particular.
As Renault was gaining in success, William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr. was making his own mark on racing history. The Vanderbilt heir, often called simply “Willie K.,” won or placed in a number of early races, and while competing, he also witnessed several Renault victories. He had participated in the 1902 Paris-to-Vienna race, but the grueling 645 miles of gasoline-fueled adrenalin destroyed his 60 HP Mors racer long before the halfway mark, while Renault’s endurance car pushed ahead for the win. Seeking to establish a major race in the United States, Willie K. would go on to found the Vanderbilt Cup in 1904. It was canceled initially after a spectator died in 1906, and in an effort to save his Euro-inspired experiment, Willie K. created the Long Island Motor Parkway, solving the safety issue for spectators and establishing what is now considered to be the first U.S. Highway.
Vanderbilt’s obsession with Renault was confirmed by their Grand Prix win with the Type AK race car, featuring a 13-liter, 90-horsepower engine. It is often said that “Willie K.” requested that a scaled down version be built for enthusiast racers, giving birth to the 35/45 HP Runabout. At least one early record seems to slightly contradict this, stating that the car was “specially built for Maurice Bernin for racing in the Vanderbilt Cup race of 1906, but it did not race because it was not competitive enough.” In any case, it is known that Willie K. was among the first to purchase one of these specially built Runabouts, and he soon became the face of the “Little Renault” in a series of ad campaigns by Renault’s New York distributor. This resulted in this Renault being forever associated with the prestigious Vanderbilt name.
The Vanderbilt Renault embodies an era of racing marked by iconic drivers and equally iconic race cars. The 2017 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was honored to reunite these spectacles of racing history. Our sincere thanks to the museums and individuals who brought these cars to share with others here: Robert Kauffman, the Owls Head Transportation Museum, the Price Museum of Speed, and the Frederick A. Simeone Foundation. Also present was a copy of the Renault Paris-to-Vienna Racing Voiturette shown by the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection)
Photos courtesy of Bob Brown and Kimball Studios. Special thanks to Noah Thanos for much of the text.
To read more about the 1902 Paris-to-Vienna Race, read Doug Nye’s excellent account, published this spring in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cars/features/paris-vienna-1902-chaotic-grandeur-city-to-city-racing-motorsports/