Monday 23 April 2018

Story of the first Merc in Ireland revealed

IT'S September 1968 and Mercedes-Benz has just brought home one of its own to Stuttgart, Germany – a yellow 1902 Benz Spider. The car is over 65 years old but has been restored and is in perfect working order.

IT'S September 1968 and Mercedes-Benz has just brought home one of its own to Stuttgart, Germany – a yellow 1902 Benz Spider. The car is over 65 years old but has been restored and is in perfect working order.

Sold to Mercedes-Benz by an English collector, little is known about this particular model's origins – the registration plate 'IO 68' from Kildare, Ireland, is the only visible clue to the car's past.

Fifteen years later, while reading the newspaper in his Dublin home, John Murphy comes across a report of a vintage car rally that catches his eye. A 1902 Benz Spider bearing the registration plate IO 68 – "with an air of mystery" about it – is one of the cars taking part in the rally.

The car had been brought specially to Ireland from the Mercedes-Benz heritage fleet in Germany to take part in a vintage car rally to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Gordon Bennett Motor Race.

"I knew that was grandad's car," John recalls, as he holds an original photograph of his grandfather, John P Murphy, in the driver's seat of the 1902 Benz Spider beside his wife Alice, taken outside their home in Rathangan, Co Kildare in 1905.

That newspaper report triggered a series of events that would eventually lead John to Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart to be reunited with his grandfather's car and provide Mercedes-Benz with some vital details about the car's early life.

The car was, in fact, Ireland's first Mercedes-Benz, and its story begins at the turn of the last century, when John Peter Murphy of Murphy Brothers, Rathangan, was operating a thriving malting business, providing much valued employment in the town. He had a technical mind, putting the first diesel engine into a canal boat to transport malt to the Guinness plant in Dublin and, naturally, he had a keen interest in cars, too.

"I believe he paid 8,500 gold marks for the car. It was an awful lot of money at the time," says John. The car was used to power the threshing machines so the Benz Spider was a working car for the Murphys, as well as being one for recreation.

In the early 1900s, cars were a rarity on Irish roads. Only 16 years had passed since Carl Benz invented the automobile in Germany. The 1902 Benz Spider had two cylinders producing 15hp and a top speed of 60kmh.

While it is unknown what made John P Murphy choose the 1902 Benz Spider in particular, and how he went about importing it into Ireland, it was the first Benz to be delivered from the Benz factory to Ireland.

John has vague memories of his grandfather's Benz Spider being stored beside bags of coal in the garage at his childhood home in Rathangan. The car was in the Murphy family's ownership for the best part of 50 years before being sold to Charles Taylor from Athy in the late 1940s, who paid the family £500 for it.

By the 1960s, the car had passed to an English collector, RG Sloan, who sold the car to Mercedes-Benz in 1968 to raise funds to build a hotel.

Today, the car is of huge value to Mercedes-Benz, as Christoph Knecht of Mercedes-Benz Classic explains: "The car had a front-mounted, horizontal opposed-piston two- cylinder engine with chain drive to the rear wheels. With this 15 hp engine, it had a climbing ability of 20 per cent and top speed of nearly 60 kmh. In this configuration, it is a unique car in our collection."

It has been displayed in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart and, in 2006, John and his daughter Sharon visited Mercedes-Benz to see the car. In the intervening years, Mercedes-Benz has taken part in a number of vintage car rallies with the 1902 Benz Spider, including the London-Brighton Run.

The 1902 Benz Spider now lives a charmed life as a much respected member of the Mercedes-Benz heritage fleet. One would think that IO 68 would be settling into retirement now, but Mercedes-Benz has other plans for the 1902 Benz Spider – to take part in a historic 60-mile run from Hyde Park in central London to the seafront in Brighton on the Sussex coast next year.

"We are preparing the car for the London-Brighton Run in 2014. That means we are overhauling the technical components like the engine, gearbox and the brake system," says Knecht.

In preparation for this historic outing, the Benz Spider has revealed yet another secret. The car was painted yellow weeks before Mercedes-Benz bought it in 1968 but they suspected that this was not the original paintwork.

"We had doubts that the bright yellow was the right colour. During the overhauling of the car we carried out a spectroscopic analysis on the old paint and found out that the original colour scheme was bicolour; we call the colour purple/sand yellow," says Christoph.

IO 68 has been on quite a journey from the early days with the Murphys in Rathangan. The London Brighton Run in 2014 will be just another chapter in the very interesting story of a car that keeps revealing a little more of itself as the years go by.

Sunday Independent

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