The Harkness Mystery

 In Stories

Harry Harkness was an early racing driver and airplane pilot in America. In 1903 he decided to take part in the Gordon Bennett race with his self-built racing car! The effort failed..

You can read a detailed biography of Harry at Early Aviators. He was the sole child of Lamon V. Harkness, one of the largest stockholders of Standard Oil and used the family wealth to satisfy his need for speed. He died at the age of 38 during the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

In 1903 he set out to build a racing car to participate in the Gordon Bennett races, which was not completed in time for the elimination trials. And this is where the head scratching begins. Horseless Age introduced the car in its 20 May, 1903 issue:

“We present herewith a photograph of H. S. Harkness racer which was built to compete for a place on the American team in the Gordon Bennett Cup Race, but did not appear at the eliminating trials and has now been taken over to France by its owner to compete in the various Continental races of the season. The car has a four cylinder, vertical engine of 5 inches bore and 7 inches stroke, all four cylinders being separate. The inlet valves are located on one side of the cylinders and the exhaust valves on the other, and the valve gear is similar to that of the Mercedes motor. The motor is rated at 75 horse power and was designed by E. T. Birdsall. The transmission gear is of the sliding type. The car has a stamped steel frame, made by the Standard Welding Company, of Cleveland, Ohio. The spring horns and brackets were welded on after the frame had been completed. As will be seen from the photo, the frame is hung very low. The car was assembled at the works of Gill & Co., South Brooklyn. The weight complete is 2,200 pounds. The machine was taken over to France in an incomplete state, to be finished in Paris”.

A couple months went by silently. Then in January, 1904 the Harkness racing car reappeared in a completely altered state. The American Register’s Sports Supplement featured the car in its January 23, 1904 issue.

It has a completely different body made from aluminum to resemble the 1903 Panhard of the Paris-Madrid race and an engine capable of 120-hp. It had a three-spead gearbox and a claimed top speed of 173 km/h.


As far as it can be deciphered Harkness did not race this version either. A few months later he returned to America and made two records. Unfortunately his „dash” from Boston to New York was deemed „reckless” and he was suspended by The Automobile Club of America „for exceeding the legal speed limits of three states”. Apparently the ban prevented him from racing either in America or Europe.

The fate of his racing special is unknown.

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