George Vanderbilt and his automobiles
Estate History 12/18/14
Written By Judy Ross
Because Biltmore House had superb stables, we often think the Vanderbilts relied on horses and carriages for transportation throughout their lives. Certainly, when George Vanderbilt was born in 1862, trains, ships, and horse-powered carriages were the normal modes of travel, but even at that early stage engineers and inventors were experimenting with “horseless carriages.”
But it took until the early 1900s for the Vanderbilts and their friends to experience the speed and convenience of “automobiling,” as it became known.
Biltmore archives show that George Vanderbilt became an avid fan of automobile travel during a visit to Europe in 1903, when his good friend William (“Willie”) Bradhurst Osgood Field offered George and Edith the use of his car and driver. Vanderbilt wrote Field:
“I am so in love with this mode of travel that I mean to order an auto like yours when I get back to Paris, with the few improvements that have been made since. It makes travelling a different thing and simply a natural transition instead of an effort.
We have decided to remain over here all winter and hope to do some more automobiling next summer…”*
In a subsequent letter, Vanderbilt again comments on his affection toward the automobile, saying, “We are still enchanted with auto and indebted to you.”
His first car
We aren’t certain what kind of vehicle Mr. Vanderbilt purchased in Paris during this time, but photographs suggest the vehicle may have made by Panhard et Levassor–the most popular maker of automobiles in France in the early 1900s.
As planned, the Vanderbilts remained in Europe for several more months. In 1904, George mentions a “delightful” three-week trip along the Spanish coast (notwithstanding mechanical problem that delayed them for several days), a number of 2–3 day trips from their initial home base in Paris, a planned move to London allowing shorter road trips to visit cathedrals, and a six-week excursion throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.
While the Vanderbilts would continue to enjoy “automobiling” in Europe during their frequent trips, they would not purchase an auto in America until January 1907. Why the delay? Perhaps it was due to the fact that most American roads were typically in poor condition compared to European roads.
But by the mid-1890s, Biltmore’s roads were nationally recognized as being of the quality needed throughout the country. In North Carolina, “Buncombe County…had accomplished more road improvements by 1914 than any other county in North Carolina,” and George Vanderbilt was given much of the credit.
In 1907, George Vanderbilt ordered a Stoddard-Dayton car, which was delivered to his home in Washington, D.C. In 1911, he purchased a 1912 six-cylinder, six-passenger Model Y Stevens-Duryea for $4,000. Within a year, he traded the 1912 Stevens-Duryea for a 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six, which arrived in May 1913.
The Stevens-Duryea C-Six is the only vehicle that George Vanderbilt purchased remaining in the Biltmore collection, and is today an extremely rare model, believed to be one of only 10 still in existence. It has been carefully conserved but not restored and is on display in the Winery. When you view it, notice intriguing details such as Edith Vanderbilt’s monogram hand-painted on the doors, and the old-fashioned kerosene lamps that provided back-up for the car’s newfangled electric headlights!
Learn more about the Vanderbilts’ travels at the The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibition in Antler Hill Village, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt and their daughter Cornelia.
*George Vanderbilt to William B. Osgood Field, William B. Osgood Field Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York Public Library, New York, New York.
Top: 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six on display at the Winery.
Center: George (third from left) and Edith Vanderbilt (far left), friends, and chauffeur in Godesberg am Rhein, Germany, 1906.
Bottom: George Vanderbilt's North Carolina drivers license, 1911.