As many invitations that I receive to drive the latest and greatest the automotive industry has to offer, my ears always perk up just a little bit more when the invite specifies a ride in a particular vehicle. Normally, I'd be expecting to ride shotgun in some sort of development mule or prototype, but during the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance last month, Mercedes-Benz offered to give me a ride in a fully restored 1910 Benz 21/80 Prinz Heinrich racecar. While hundreds of cars sat parked on the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island golf course, Mercedes shuttled me to a nearby road canopied by oak trees draped in Spanish moss to spend just 30 minutes with this super-rare antique racer.

Cars like the 21/80 were used in long-distance races between 1907 and 1911, and Mercedes-Benz says that they were among the first true sports cars. This particular example (wearing the No. 38) is owned by Mercedes, and it was recently restored to practically brand new condition at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

Driving Notes
  • After a brief walkaround/history lesson, the two-man crew with the 1910 Benz 21/80 Prinz Heinrich got to work getting the car started. The first step is delicately removing the engine cover and priming the engine with a hectane fuel. Then comes the hard work. While one man adjusts the various steering-wheel controls and foot pedals, the other stands in front of the car to crank the engine over. It took four good attempts at the hand crank, but the 80-horsepower, four-cylinder engine finally came to life with fuel leaking on the ground and the exposed cylinder valves clattering away. Life was good!
  • With the big Benz running, I hopped in the back seat... almost literally hopped. Back in the day, the car's single-piece, wheel-to-wheel running boards helped occupants get in the car, but you simply don't step on the freshly painted metal of a 103-year-old car. Getting into the back seat was a feat requiring athleticism and flexibility, but once in, it was like being transported a century back in time. There's just something very majestic about being chauffeured around on a cool Florida afternoon in a car with a suicide shifter.
  • Taking off was no easy task either. As the driver started to work the gas and clutch pedals, it felt like we were rear-ended by another car to get our forward momentum kicked off. Once up to speed though, there is nothing as exhilarating as driving through a neighborhood with the wind in your face watching as local residents and motorists alike do double, triple and quadruple takes of the car before letting out a grin and a friendly wave.
  • One of the requirements for the Prinz Heinrich racecars was that they must be production vehicles with seating for four passengers. Now while I'd like to tell myself this was one of those "bendable" racing rules, it's more likely just a telling sign that passenger size and personal space have both grown exponentially over time. I was obviously also a little taller than most 1910s-era passengers as the majority of my useable legroom was taken up by the spare tire, but some slightly banged up knees were more than worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
  • The driving route we took was along a standard side street, but at times it felt like the car was driving over whoopty doos thanks to its four-wheel leaf spring suspension, massive wheelbase and the fact that the rear passenger – me – was positioned directly over the rear axle. During this ride, we got up to around 40 miles per hour, but the car's handlers said that it is more than capable of hitting triple-digit speeds. Achieving such high speeds would surely have been thrilling in its time, but I can only imagine that things would get a little hairy every now and then considering that the car only has rear brakes.
  • Just sitting still, the Benz 21/80 Prinz Heinrich was imposing. About as long as the GL-Class we pulled up in, this car was painted in a dark green hue accented only by subtle pinstriping and various racing decals and badges. One interesting part of the car was its added nose piece, which I was told helped improve aerodynamics and controlled air flow to the radiator. The simple cockpit of the car featured just four gauges – we couldn't figure out what any of them were used for – mounted into the wooden firewall (how ironically dangerous does that sound?).
  • As exciting as it was to ride as a passenger in this timeless car, it was almost as fun to see it on display at Amelia Island the very next day alongside another Prinz Heinrich car – a privately owned car that eventually went on to race in the very first Indianapolis 500.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 1910 Benz 21/80 Prinz Heinrich