Titanic went down 107 years ago today, taking a French luxury car with it

It’s been 107 years since the RMS Titanic met its doom on a frigid April night in 1912. In a tragic and well-known story, a “perfect storm” of events claimed 1517 lives and sank the most luxurious ocean liner in history—along with a single luxury automobile.

The seas were remarkably calm as night fell on April 14, so there was very little water breaking at the base of the icebergs in the area, making them difficult to spot. An overconfident Capt. Edward J. Smith—who, legend has it, remarked that “even God couldn’t sink Titanic”—maintained a top speed of 22 knots despite repeated ice warnings. And the radio room was so busy wiring personal messages from passengers that the final and most dire warning from another vessel never reached the bridge. After the ship struck an iceberg and water began to overtake the vessel, too few people reached too few lifeboats, and two-thirds of those aboard Titanic perished when the majestic liner broke apart and went down about 2:20 a.m. on April 15, some 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

Despite the public’s fascination with the pride of the White Star Line, some may not be aware that there was an automobile in the Titanic’s cargo hold on the ship’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic. (Leonardo and Kate steamed up the windows in that thing, remember?) Even those who may vaguely remember the presence of a car would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what it was and why it was aboard.

Bound for America

The only automobile aboard the doomed Titanic was a 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville owned by William Carter of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The 36-year-old Carter, wealthy heir to a coal and iron fortune, purchased the Renault while traveling Europe with his wife, Lucile, and their two children, 14-year-old Lucile and 11-year-old William. The family had traveled from the U.S. to England aboard the Lusitania in May 1911 and had originally booked return passage aboard the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, scheduled to depart April 3. They decided to stay another week and purchased tickets aboard Titanic, departing Southampton on April 10 along with their maid, manservant, and chauffeur.

The night of the sinking, William Carter and his family were separated in the chaos. Mrs. Carter, the children, and their maid boarded a lifeboat while the men stayed behind. As one of the last lifeboats was lowered, Mr. Carter stepped aboard with another male passenger, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. Carter’s manservant, Alexander Cairns, and his chauffeur, Augustus Aldworth, perished. Aldworth was the last person to drive the luxurious Renault when he chauffeured the family to the docks in Southampton.

For all the creative license that James Cameron took in bringing his 1997 hit movie Titanic to the big screen, he did not neglect this detail. A 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville can be seen hoisted onto the ship at the beginning of the film, which won 10 Academy Awards. The Renault also played a key role in the memorable—although fictitious—scene later in the movie when Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) consummate their relationship in the back seat of the car.

1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville

1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville on crane
1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville Paramount Pictures
1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville jack and rose in car
1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville Paramount Pictures

1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville jack and rose find car
1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville Paramount Pictures

The Renault featured a 25-horsepower, 2.6-liter L-head inline four-cylinder engine, which afforded the car a cruising speed of 30–35 mph. The Renault sported a sleek, sloping nose with the radiator positioned behind the engine. Unlike many cars of that era, it featured a shaft drive instead of a chain drive, which was helpful on the less than ideal roads of the day.

The Renault was stored in the Titanic’s port-side Orlop Deck storage area. After the disaster, Carter filed a claim with Lloyd’s of London, seeking reimbursement from White Star Line for the value of the Renault, which was $5000. That equates to about $130,000 today.

Priceless treasure

Titanic sinks headline
London Evening News

No known photographs of the Titanic car exist. In the years since the ship’s discovery at the bottom of the north Atlantic, several expeditions have attempted to locate the Renault, to no avail. It is likely that after 107 years, little is left of it anyway.

A similar 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville sold for $269,500 at RM Sotheby’s 2008 Arizona Auction, making the Titanic Renault—had it been recovered—virtually priceless. Perhaps the real “Heart of the Ocean” wasn’t Rose’s necklace after all.

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