If you were asked to name a car that was part of a significant historical event, what would you nominate? Arguably in living history would be Lincoln, and the assassination of John F Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. But there is another make that trumps that by far, as it bore witness to the trigger that would start the war to end all wars (if only it were true). That car was the Austrian Gräf und Stift.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
It was while riding in a Gräf und Stift that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June 1914 at Sarajevo, the spark that set the world ablaze in the holocaust of World War 1. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, set in train a series of diplomatic events that led inexorably to the outbreak of war in Europe at the end of July 1914.
Ferdinand - and his wife Sophie - were killed by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip while on a formal visit to Sarajevo. Princip shot Ferdinand at point blank range while the latter was travelling in his car from a town hall reception, having earlier that day already survived one assassination attempt. Standing on the car's sideboard was Count Franz von Harrach. A witness to Ferdinand's assassination he subsequently recounted the events of the day.
Memoir of Count Franz von Harrach
As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right check. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, "For God's sake! What has happened to you?".
At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees. I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, "Sophie, Sophie, don't die. Stay alive for the children!"
At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, "It is nothing!". His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, "It's nothing!" Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor's residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.
The origins of the Gräf und Stift
The origins of the Gräf und Stift were relatively humble: in the 1890s the three brothers Gräf - Karl, Franz and Heinrich - were running a cycle repair business in Vienna. Sometime during that period, they built a voiturette to the design of one Josef Kainz. The car, which had a front-mounted De Dion engine, had the unusual feature of front-wheel drive, with the universal joints inside the enlarged steering
pivots. A date of 1895 is often claimed for this car (another date is 1897, and Wikipedia has it listed as 1902) but since the power unit was the water-cooled single used first on the De Dion vis-a-vis of 1899, it seems likely that the first Gräf car was not built until 1900.
In any case, it was a one-off, and it was not until Willy Stift, former owner of the Automobilfabrik Celeritas, joined them sometime around 1902 that production began. Their first cars were built especially for Vienna's biggest motor agent, Arnold Spitz, dealer in De Dion Bouton, Benz and Mercedes cars, and were marketed under his name; designer of this new model was racing driver Otto Hieronymus, who later inserted a 40 hp engine in a Spitz chassis, entering this hybrid for the 1903 Semmering hill-climb.
A variety of Spitz models were built by Gräf und Stift, with one, two and four-cylinder engines of French origin: their 12hp, 16hp and 24/30 models were especially noted as vehicles of high-quality, with a useful turn of speed. When the Spitz association was terminated in 1907, Gräf und Stift continued building the same basic design under their own name.
The car in which Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated was a 5.8-litre 28/32 hp double phaeton (engine no. 287), delivered to the Gräf Harrach on 15 December 1910: power output was, it seems, only 32 bhp, a somewhat alarming level of inefficiency. Edwardian Gräf und Stifts were all four-cylindered, shaft-driven machines, with four-speed gearboxes and power units with T-head cylinders cast in blocks of two and then joined together. Swept volumes ranged from 4.2 to 10 litres; annual production, if the engine number of the Sarajevo car is anything to go by, seems to have been no more than 100, probably a good deal less.
There were, of course, the token appearances in sporting events which were virtually obligatory for quality cars at that time: Cotourier drove a Gräf und Stift in the Eliminating Trials for the 1907 Kaiserpreis, but failed to qualify, while there were also works entries in the Austrian Alpine Trials. These sporting excursions were, however, no bar to the marque's acceptance by the octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, whose attitude towards motor vehicles was generally one of suspicion and mistrust since one of these infernal machines had run amok at an Army manoeuvre at which he was present. Indeed, until his death in 1916 he rode in virtually no other make of car than a Gräf und Stift.
The Ecce Homo touring car race from Vienna to Berlin
His heir Karl continued the tradition, and rode into Swiss exile in his Gräf und Stift when the Austrian Empire collapsed after World War 1. Thus the car that had played its part in the event that started the war now acted as pall-bearer to the Holy Roman Empire. But the loss of their most prestigious customer seems not to have worried Gräf und Stift, and in 1921 they announced a new model which, while retaining all the refinement of its predecessors, threw off their conservatism of design.
This was the Type SR4, with an overhead valve six-cylinder engine of 7745 cc, which was capable of developing 110 hp, sufficient to move this impressive car (which scaled 2.5 tons in open tourer form) at 85 mph. There was even a racing version of this car, developed by Fritz von Solnay, which won the euphoniously named Ecce Homo touring car race from Vienna to Berlin.
Alongside the SR4, however, Gräf und Stift built a more conservative 2-Iitre model, the VK, which had a four-cylinder side-valve engine, a cone clutch and a fixed cylinder head
. An updated version, the VK2, appeared in 1926: this had overhead valves (though power output was still only 30 bhp) and Perrot four-wheel-braking. Fritz von Solnay then built a new racing version of the SR4, with the engine linered down to qualify for the under 5000 cc class; this had the valves operated by a single overhead camshaft, and was translated into production form as the SPs from 1927 on.
The Magnificent Gräf und Stift SP8
Von Solnay's racer made fastest time of day at the Sernmering hillclimb in 1927, and was well placed in other hill-climbing events. The top speed of this motor car was nearly 100 mph. The SP5 was succeeded by the most magnificent Gräf und Stift of all - the SP8. This was a logical development of the SP 5, but had eight cylinders in line, with a swept volume of just under 6 litres. Built only to individual order, the SP8 weighed virtually three tons ready for the road, yet could equal the performance of the SR4. Its engine had a block cast from silumin alloy, with iron liners and a cast-iron detachable cylinder head
. A silent chain drove the camshaft, and the crankshaft was carried in nine plain bearings: power output was 125 bhp at 3000 rpm.
The Rolls of Austria
Mounted in unit with the engine was a four-speed gearbox, with the gearlever mounted on the steering
column, operating the gears with vacuum servo assistance. There was servo assistance, too, for the four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Syncromesh was fitted to the two upper ratios, and top was a geared-up 'overdrive' ratio. The chassis, carried on semi-elliptic springs all round, had a centralised lubrication system and hydraulic shock absorbers: wheelbase was an arrogant 12 ft 4 in. It was a car of such elegance and refinement that it was dubbed the 'Rolls of Austria', though the mascot of the Gräf und Stift was a silver lion rather than a silver lady.
But the market for luxury bespoke cars was a contracting one, and Gräf und Stift sought to widen their appeal by building popular foreign cars under licence, notably the six-cylinder rear-wheel-drive Citroen; there was also a reworking of the German Ford V-8, marketed as the Gräfford, a venture of some obscurity which failed to warrant even a mention in the official history of Ford's European activities.
But there was a more profitable shot in the Gräf und Stift locker - and had been since 1909 - in the shape of commercial vehicles. The last SP8 was produced in 1938, by which time this once impressive car had acquired an unbecoming Teutonic grossness of appearance: after which Gräf und Stift went over entirely to the manufacture of commercial vehicles. During World War 2 they built light caterpillar-tracked trucks for the Wehrmacht to the design of their compatriot company, Steyr.
Gräf und Stift made one last foray into car manufacture after the war, building the Jawa-designed Aero Minor under licence. But this utilitarian 615 cc saloon was somewhat of a blank Czech, and very far removed from the Viennese firm's earlier productions. For the sake of the reputation of the Vienna Rolls, it is as well to record that the Aero episode lasted only from 1949 to 1950, and that thereafter the company returned to commercial vehicles again.
Merger with Österreichische Automobil Fabriks-AG
In 1971 the company merged with Österreichische Automobil Fabriks-AG (ÖAF) to form ÖAF-Gräf und Stift AG, which in turn was taken over by MAN AG the same year. ÖAF-Gräf & Stift AG continued manufacturing under that name, as a subsidiary of MAN. Still based in Vienna, it was focused on supplying trucks and buses for the Austrian market, mostly based on MAN designs, and additionally specialised in trolleybuses. It was MAN's main trolleybus producer in the 1980s and 1990s, and these were sold under the Gräf und Stift name, with trolleybuses' being supplied to several European cities, including Salzburg, Solingen and Bergen (Norway), among others.
As of 31 December 2000, ÖAF-Gräf und Stift AG had 897 employees, and its sales for the six-month period from 1 July 2000 through 31 December 2000 (the company's "Short Fiscal Year 2000") totalled €111 million. Use of the longstanding Gräf & Stift name ended in 2001, when MAN renamed the company MAN Sonderfahrzeuge AG, as part of reorganizations following its June 2001 acquisition of Neoplan. This in turn became MAN Nutzfahrzeuge Österreich AG in 2004. In that year, MAN built a new plant on Gräf und Stift's original site in the Liesing district of Vienna and continues to be the biggest employer in the area.