At the turn of the 20th century, Gräf & Stift built some of the world’s most exclusive luxury automobiles. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria rode in one when he was assassinated, an act that set off the world’s most violent war to that point. Legend has it that thirteen people met similarly violent ends in that car, but the true story of its license plate will make your hair stand on end.
Gräf & Stift functioned as a transportation manufacturer until 2001, making trucks and buses, but in the early part of the 20th century, it was known for building some of the finest automobiles known to man. One Gräf & Stift luxury limousine — a Double Phaeton carrying engine number 287 — was purchased by Count Franz von Harrach, an officer of the Austrian army transport corps. The limousine was used to shuttle Archduke Franz Ferdinand around the Austro-Hungarian city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
Early in the day, the Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were attacked by Nedeljko Čabrinović, who threw a grenade at their moving car. The bomb detonated behind them, injuring occupants in the car behind. After arriving at the Governor’s residence, Franz Ferdinand angrily shouted, “So this is how you welcome your guests — with bombs?”
After resting at the Governor’s residence, the royal couple insisted on visiting those who had been injured by the grenade.
The drivers in the motorcade managed to get themselves in a situation that required turning around. This was a time of carburetors and unreliable ignitions, of crank starters and low voltage. The cars backed into a side street and stalled.
Nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip — a member of Young Bosnia and one of a group of assassins organized and armed by the Black Hand — was sitting at a cafe across the street. He recognized his opportunity, walked across the street and shot the royal couple, badly injuring Sophie and killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Ferdinand’s assassination was the breaking point in tension between European nations, and it eventually precipitated World War I, a multinational confrontation that eventually claimed a staggering 16 million lives, one of the deadliest wars in human history.
What follows is a legend; that the 1910 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton was so irreparably tainted by the events, that owner after owner that followed met a violent fate. Trouble is, it’s difficult to prove any of this a century later, when record-keeping wasn’t as rigorous as it is today:
In the next 12 years, the Double Phaeton car saw 15 different owners. During that period, the car was involved in accidents that claimed the lives of 13 people.
One owner, an Austrian general, became insane and died in an asylum. Another — after owning the car for just nine days — collided with two peasants and a tree after a valiant attempt to avoid the crash. Another owner committed suicide.
And that’s just the beginning.
With this one car, the governor of Yugoslavia suffered four separate accidents, one of which cost him an arm. He sold the car to a friend who bought the “cursed” car on a dare. The friend flipped the car over and was crushed in the accident.
A Swiss racing driver met exactly the same fate.
The last owner of the car was Tiber Hirshfeld, a Romanian garage owner who drove the car to a wedding with five friends. The vehicle suddenly spun out of control and crashed, killing all but one on board.
Whether you choose to believe all that is up to you, but here’s something even creepier:
For the better part of a century, the car had been on display in Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. In the 2000s, a British visitor named Brian Presland noted a detail in the Gräf und Stift’s license plate, which reads AIII 118.
According to Mike Dash, a writer for the blog at the Charles Fort Instiute (“the world’s leading resource for scholarship and research in the understanding of strange experiences and anomalous phenomena”) the license plate could easily be interpreted as “A (for Armistice) 11-11-18 – which means that the death car has always carried with it a prediction, not of the dreadful day of Sarajevo that in a real sense marked the beginning of the First World War, but of 11 November 1918: Armistice Day, the day that the war ended.”
Dash continues: “[A] contemporary photo of the fateful limousine, taken just as it turned into the road where Gavrilo Princip was waiting for it, some 30 seconds before Franz Ferdinand’s death, shows the car bearing what looks very much like the same number plate as it does today. You’re going to have to take my word for this, to an extent – the plate is visible, just about, in the good quality copy of the image that appears in the photo sections of Smith’s One Morning in Sarajevo, and I have been able to read it with a magnifying glass.”
The Gräf & Stift has not been driven since, and still shows 8,596 kilometers.