The history of the automobile is not a long one, spanning less than 130 years, and yet the amount of history and legend surrounding the device—and in particular specific examples—is expansive. As such, when I wanted to research something ‘creepy’ or ‘spooky’ involving automobiles for this year’s Halloween-themed History Hit’s, I was faced with a huge amount of source material.
Stories of haunted cars, cursed cars, and even cars that possess a murderous intent of their own all abound, and yet none of them seemed proper for the article at hand. Almost all the stories involved some sort of legend or paranormal activity, and it did not feel right putting speculation and hearsay under the banner of ‘history’. So rather than looking for ‘spooky’ cars, I instead decided to look for a car with a proven track record of decidedly unlucky passengers. Below is the car that may have the worst luck—and certainly has one of the worst of history’s events attached to it—that I was able to find and confirm.
June 28, 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His 1910 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton
One of the most important assassinations with the longest felt effects is that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. This unfortunate event is considered the impetus for the beginning of the First World War, and is one of the earliest assassination events wherein an automobile played a central role.
The automobile in question is an early automobile produced by Gräf & Stift, an early luxury car maker located in Austria. This 1910 model was produced in the Double Phaeton style of limousine, and was not actually the Archduke’s car at all. As the automobile was still in it’s infancy, the royalty of the Empire did not travel with or in their own vehicle, but rather sourced what they needed at their destination.
The car that the Archduke was a passenger in on the fateful day of the 28th of June 1914 belonged not to a royal, but rather to a logistics officer; one Count Franz von Harrach. Count von Harrach was more than likely an appointed officer—I could find little information on him—who served in the ‘Austrian army transport corps’. His vehicle was equipped with a not-at-all-powerful 31.5HP engine, and would prove to be unfamiliar to the drivers of the Archduke. This unfamiliarity would prove a factor in the killing.
While touring Sarajevo in Serbia on this day, several would-be assassins were positioning themselves around his route, prepared to take his life in the hopes of furthering their cause. It was one of these men who threw a bomb at his motorcade early in the day, only to be met with failure: the bomb bounced off the folded convertible top of the Archdukes car, bouncing under his entourages following vehicle, exploding and injuring many.
It was this failure that would prove key to the Archduke’s death, for with it the Archduke changed his route from the pre-prescribed one, and the remainder of his would-be assassins fled their posts. It was one of these assassins, 19-year old Gavrilo Princip, who pulled the trigger on the fateful shot which killed the Archduke and his wife, after a series of coincidences.
After wandering off from his initial post, Princip had become hungry and went to purchase some food at a local café. A while earlier, the Archduke and his wife had decided to visit the men injured by the earlier attempt at his life, and set off for the hospital where they were staying. While a local general had cleared the route for them, his driver was not informed of the route and was unfamiliar with the city anyhow.
On the way to the hospital, the driver—with the Archduke and his wife—made a wrong turn, and quickly realizing his mistake, attempted to make a multi-point U-turn. Unfortunately, where he attempted this turn was directly in front of the café Princip was visiting. The driver, wrestling with an unfamiliar route and an equally-unfamiliar vehicle, stalled, midway through his turn, a bare 5ft from where Princip was standing. A few seconds later, and two shots from Princip’s pistol, and the Archduke and his wife were mortally wounded.
It was this series of unfortunate events, capped by a stalling car presenting a stationary target, which led to the death of the Archduke and the start of the First World War and the deaths of millions. If that were not a morbid enough history for this unfortunate limousine, further legend surrounds this particular vehicle. While most are disprovable hogwash—such as the stories of its following owners all coming to disastrous ends, usually involving car-destroying scenarios, an impossibility as the car is well-preserved and on display—one of the stories does prove to hold enough truth for retelling.
For nearly a century, the odd coincidence that is the car’s license plate had gone unnoticed, despite being on public display. This coincidence regards the Gräf & Stift’s license plate, which reads AIII 118. While typed it may look innocuous, in person the ‘I’s look like ‘1’s, and as such, the plate can be interpreted as A (for Armistice) 11-11-18. This would seem that the plate—which has been confirmed as the plate on the car during the events of fame—predicted the end of the war, however it must be noted that Austria-Hungary had been knocked out of the war a week earlier, on November 4, 1918.
To read the full history of the un-founded ‘curses’ surrounding this car, read the wonderful Smithsonian article HERE.
Remember, be safe this Halloween!
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.