Origins: While we can establish that the car in question does now indeed reside in a Viennese museum, no other part of the tale has been confirmed. Its resemblance to another "death car" story — one involving the Porsche Spyder James Dean was killed in gives us pause, though.
Of all things jinxed, few can have bestowed more misery than a motor car owned by the Hapsburg dynasty of imperial Austria. The open-topped limousine was given to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the troubled throne. He rode in it in July 1914 on a state visit to Sarajevo. Sarajevo then was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state recently annexed by the imperial court of Vienna. In the car with the Archduke on this ill-fated day were his wife, General Potiorek of the Austrian army and three other dignitaries, plus a driver.
A fervent young nationalist called Gavrilo Princip stepped in front of the vehicle on its official tour of the city and shot the Archduke and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie. More catastrophic still, this event was to trigger the First World War.
General Potiorek became the next owner of the car. Several weeks into the war his armies suffered a rout at the hands of the ill-organised army of Serbia. The General was summoned back to Vienna by the Emperor Franz
[Another version adds the detail of Potiorek becoming an impoverished lunatic who eventually died in the almshouse.]
A captain of Potiorek's staff took charge of the jinxed vehicle; nine days later in a terrible accident he killed two peasants on the road before swerving into a tree and killing himself.
After the war, the governor of newly independent Yugoslavia took charge of the car. He endured a succession of terrible accidents, one of which cost him his left arm. [Four accidents in four months, according to another source.] The car was then sold to a doctor, who was crushed to death when he overturned it into a ditch. [He had the car six months before it "turned" on him.] The next owner was Simon Mantharides, a diamond dealer. He fell to his death from a precipice. [The other version gives a slightly different sequence of events. According to it, the car passed from the crushed doctor to a wealthy unnamed jeweler who enjoyed it for all of a year before committing suicide. Its next owner was yet another doctor, one whose patients deserted him out of fear for his cursed car.]
The car passed into the hands of a Swiss racing driver who was later killed in an accident in it. [Thrown over a stone wall to his death, says another source.] A Serbian farmer, who paid a fantastic sum for the car which had acquired great historical value, was the next owner and victim. He cadged a tow from a horse and cart one morning because the engine would not turn over. He forgot to switch off the ignition and the engine caught suddenly. The car lurched forward into the horse and cart, and overturned, killing the farmer.
Finally, a garage owner lost his life in the car returning from a wedding. He tried to overtake a long line of vehicles and was killed as the car spun out of control. [On his way to the wedding, says the other version. And the spin out killed both him and four of the six friends with him.]
The car now rests harmlessly in a Viennese museum. It is never taken out on the road.
Last updated: 23 March 2011
Blundell, Nigel and Alan Hall. Marvels and Mysteries of the Unexplained. London: MacDonald & Co., 1988 (pp. 119-120). Edwards, Frank. Stranger Than Science. New York: L. Stuart, 1959 (pp. 139-141).