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History Hits: The Car(s?) of The Titanic

HeaderWhile many of us have been subjected to the purgatory that is James Cameron’s 1997 dramatic recreation of the RMS Titanic sinking and disaster, I will be the first to admit that I was much, much¸ too young when I first watched the film. While the film came out at the end of 1997, when I was four, I do not remember watching the movie until it’s home release; let’s be charitable and say I was 6 when I saw the movie. While nothing says, ‘child’s movie’ like the tragic death of over 1000 people, my two prevailing memories of the film have very little to do with the disaster at all; rather my memories almost exclusively pertain to the length of the film and the famous Jack and Rose car scene.

Funnily enough, my two main memories are slightly connected: the VHS release of Titanic—yes, it was that long ago—was so long that it required two VHS tapes, and THE car scene happened right before the VHS swap: the sign that the blessing of the halfway point was almost upon us. If you could not tell, I am not the largest fan of the movie, but it has gotten me thinking lately: what was the car they bounced each other’s bodies off of in the Titanic movie, and were there any cars that actually went down with the RMS Titanic, still resting on the bottom of the sea with her?

1912 Car
It was while watching James Cameron’s documentary Ghosts of the Abyss that I got the idea for this article. It is a great watch, and they supposedly find remains of the car during their dive at around 36:00 into the film. Due to copyright law, I am not allowed to grab a screenshot of the scene, but the movie is rentable on Amazon and is well worth the $3.

As it turns out, Mr. Cameron took some creative liberties when filming his movie, yet tried to stay true to historical fact when he could. As such, the car that Jack and Rose ‘got to know each other in’ was based on a real model, a 1912 Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville. This model of car is the only known car that was shipped on the Titanic on this journey, as it is the only car listed on the official cargo manifest. Here, it is labeled as “1 cs auto” belonging to a “Carter, W.E.”, which tells us a number of things; primarily the state it was shipped and the owner of the vehicle.

The first notation—“1 cs auto”—is the nail in the coffin for the possibility of the Jack and Rose ‘steam ‘em up’ actually taking place between passengers onboard the ship. ‘CS’ in the ‘1 CS auto’ stands for ‘case’, meaning the car would not be situated on some sort of car-sled as depicted in the film. As cars where equipped with wooden wheels, it is likely the car would have been shipped in pieces, or at least de-wheeled and on pallets, because wooden wheels are not very good at taking lateral loads without breaking; stresses a car would experience in the rolling cargo hold of a Trans-Atlantic liner.

How the car was stored and shipped in James Cameron’s Titanic.

This sealed box would more than likely have proved a barrier that passengers would respect when looking for a place for a quick romp.

The second bit of information the cargo manifest tells us is the name of the owner of the car, one “Carter, W.E.”. “Carter, W.E.” refers to Titanic survivor William Earnest Carter, a wealthy Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania resident who had purchased a 1912 35 (ish) HP Renault Town Car, and was shipping it back home. As travel between Europe and America tended to be for longer periods of time, due to the difficulty in the journey, it was not uncommon for extremely wealthy people to bring their vehicles with them.

This raises a further question: while the Renault Town Car is the only car on the still-extant cargo manifest, the cargo log has been lost to time, meaning the Titanic may have taken more stuff to the bottom than we are aware of. In fact, some people believe that simple math and the design of the ship show that there would have been more than a single car on board the ship. There were about 125 first-class passenger “heads of families” on-board, and it can be assumed that many would be returning their personal cars home or had purchased new cars in Europe. Automobiles would not have been strictly limited to first class passengers either; many 2nd class passengers could have both afforded a vehicle as well as the shipping costs of said vehicle.

Assuming even a small percentage of these people had cars on board, the number would surely be greater than a single Renault. Also supporting the theory that the Titanic carried more than one car on that fateful journey is the design of her hull. As the picture below shows, the Olympic-class ocean liners were designed with specific holding locations for automobiles, and assuming that they were empty on the maiden voyage of the vessel is not a logical step.

You can read the original article this diagram appeared in HERE, where the author also explores the theory of multiple cars on the Titanic.

As the Titanic has rested on the bottom of the ocean for more than 100 years, and metal automobiles tend to not react well to salt water, it is likely that we will never know how many more cars—if any—the ship carried beyond the 1912 Renault Type CB Coupe de Ville owned by William Earnest Carter. As it is a grave for hundreds of people who went down with the ship, this is probably for the best.

Like the article? Want to read more like it? Check out my website, for weekly history articles and more besides. If I missed something or if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit the like button.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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