“Austria’s Rolls-Royce” and the Car Journey That Changed the World
By Andy Bannister
Since the invention of the motor car more than a century ago, it has changed the lives of millions, mostly for the better. Just occasionally, though, a car has itself been the centre-piece of a great historical cataclysm.
I’ve recently returned from Sarajevo, the capital of the small Balkan state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where possibly the most notorious example of this took place on a sunny day some 94 years ago, 28 June 1914. On what’s now a quiet and unremarkable street corner a Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton car secured its notoriety when the gruesome murder of its royal occupants triggered the events of the First World War.
Gräf & Stift, now largely-forgotten, was an Austrian automaker founded in 1902 by the brothers Franz, Heinrich and Karl Gräf and the investor, Wilhelm Stift. Their company, based in Vienna, was a renowned manufacturer of luxury vehicles, an equivalent of Britain’s Rolls-Royce.
It was natural, then, that when the heir to the Imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, paid a visit to Austria’s recently-acquired province of Bosnia, a local dignitary, Count von Harrach, should lend the Archduke and his wife an open 1910-model Gräf & Stift for what was supposed to be a triumphal parade before the local population of this ethnically diverse city.
The visit itself was ill-starred. Franz Ferdinand was an unpopular figure in the empire, and the tour of the city was scheduled on a particularly inappropriate date – St Vitus’ Day, the anniversary of a famous defeat of the medieval Serbian army by the Turks in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. This was – and is – a day of almost mystical significance to Serbian nationalists who in 1914 wanted to detach Bosnia from the empire and unite the province’s inhabitants with their Slav brothers in independent Serbia.
In sheer foolhardiness its equivalent can be imagined if another contemporary figure, King George V of England, had decided to parade through the unguarded streets of Dublin in an open car on St Patrick’s Day. In Sarajevo the local police were ill-trained and unprepared, the security measures were slapdash, and the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were sitting targets driving slowly through the narrow streets of Sarajevo.
Inevitably, despite a remarkably amateurish performance by a posse of conspirators (who let numerous opportunities pass, culminating in one of them throwing a bomb which missed the royal car) the Archduke ultimately met his destiny. Confusion over the route on the day meant the big Gräf & Stift took a wrong turn and ground to a halt in front of a crowd containing by chance the most determined of the would-be assassins, a young Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip, armed with a pistol. At point-blank range Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were both literally sitting targets and died within minutes of each other as the horrified spectators looked on.
Historians talk of the Balkans as a “powder keg” and the murder lit the fuse that set the great alliances of Europe at war with each other. Austria and Germany lined up against Russia, France, Britain and Serbia in a conflict in which umpteen million soldiers and civilians would perish.
The car in which this happened is nowadays on display in Vienna, and has itself given rise to various conspiracy theories about it being cursed. Over a long period of years it was involved in a number of accidents and several owners apparently met grisly deaths in it.
Sarajevo has no major relics of the fateful day except some grainy old photos and newsreels, but it houses a rather sad little museum about the murders, outside which is a plaque marking the spot where Princip stood. Under post-war Yugoslav rule he was celebrated for decades in Sarajevo as “the liberator”, but more recent events cast a different shadow over the city, which today makes little of its pivotal place in history.
The murder itself also sounded the death knell for Austria-Hungary, a country of numerous nationalities which simply fell apart with the fall of its monarchy in 1918. Equally, the Gräf & Stift company and its cars hardly benefited from its association with this most notorious of assassinations.
By the 1920s a severely truncated Austria was an impoverished and bitter republic and hardly the place for a major luxury car manufacturer to prosper. The company’s royal patrons had fled into exile, sounding the doom of the wealthy aristocratic court.
Despite this, in 1920 car production resumed with a mid-range model, followed by a family of large six-cylinder models available through the 1920s and early 1930s, which sold steadily in central Europe.
Refusing to be deterred by the gloomy world economic outlook, in 1930 the company presented its first eight-cylinder car, the sumptuous Sp 8, followed later by the Sp 9. Agreements with Ford and Citroën, meanwhile, unsuccessfully attempted to keep the volume production side of the company going, although by that stage it was playing second fiddle to the more lucrative areas of truck, bus and tram body manufacture.
By 1938, on the eve of another catastrophic war, the proud era of luxury cars was over forever. Since then the company continued to manufacture trucks and buses under its own name until the 1970s, eventually being absorbed by Germany’s MAN truck company.
Today, Sarajevo is an attractive and friendly little city, its delicate minarets and its Turkish and Austrian civic architecture mostly repaired and restored after the bloody siege in the early 1990s. I can heartily recommend a visit there and to the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is one of Europe’s least discovered travel destinations.
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