Born to Run – A rare 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP

Gary Anderson, Richard King
Denis L. Tanney
Upon encountering a gorgeous, impressive piece of automotive history on the show field, such as this red 1911 Mercedes, don’t you wish you could point a smartphone or tablet at an ID marker on each area of the car and have a virtual docent explain to you through earphones all you ever wanted to know about that element of the car? Having now done the research with the help of the owner and the custodian of the car, let me take you on a virtual tour and answer your question

Born to Run

An exclusive guided tour of a rare 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP

that has inspired both passion and admiration for over a century

 

Article GARY ANDERSON  •  RICHARD KING

Images DENIS L. TANNEY

 

 

Upon encountering a gorgeous, impressive piece of automotive history on the show field, such as this red 1911 Mercedes, don’t you wish you could point a smartphone or tablet at an ID marker on each area of the car and have a virtual docent explain to you through earphones all you ever wanted to know about that element of the car? Having now done the research with the help of the owner and the custodian of the car, let me take you on a virtual tour and answer your questions.

 

The history of this motorcar

 

Looking at the identification sign in front of the car, you’ll notice that Richard and Marcia King, of Redding, Connecticut, are the current owners of this 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP.

 

The Kings have had the car for 20 years. “Of all the cars I have owned, the 90 HP overhead-valve engine [Mercedes] is the most significant,” Richard said. He acquired it from Charles LeMaitre, a Massachusetts collector who had displayed the 37/90 in a small museum. Richard visited the car several times as he worked with LeMaitre to find a mutually acceptable purchase arrangement. 

 

LeMaitre acquired the car at some point in the 1990s. It had been stored away by an unknown owner and not seen much since the 1950s; LeMaitre always seemed to know where the best cars were. Its previous owner of record was James Melton, who had enjoyed ownership since the early 1930s.

 

There are many photographs of Melton with the car. Several pictures from the 1940s and ’50s show him in the passenger seat, with the 37/90 being driven by American racecar driver Ralph DePalma (see The Star, November-December 2017). King says the raw horsepower of the engine was probably too much for Melton to handle, but in the hands of DePalma, it must have been quite a show-stopper.

 

The significance of the 37/90 HP

 

The first 20 years of automobile development after Daimler, Maybach and Benz inventions in 1886 had been focused on improving performance and gaining market acceptance by fierce races held among the major companies. However, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft had withdrawn from racing in 1908, believing that the company should concentrate on transportation applications. Nevertheless, DMG still worked on improving the speed and handling of its automobiles.

 

With Paul Daimler – founder Gottlieb Daimler’s son – working as an engineer with Wilhelm Maybach, the company introduced the Mercedes 37/90 HP in June 1911 as the top model in the firm’s product line. The first of the two numbers is the theoretical output of the engine – based upon bore diameter and stroke length – and used to calculate road tax; the second is measured output. The 4-cylinder 37/90 included a variety of significant changes from the predecessor 6-cylinder models produced during the previous four years.

 

Halfway through 1913, the 37/90 HP, like the other models in the Daimler sales range, was given a new model designation, 37/95 HP. One and a-half years later, the displacement was raised to 9.8 liters and the model designation was changed once more: 38/100 HP.

 

Historically interesting, the 37/90 was the first to carry the three-pointed star as the marque’s emblem, only recently successfully registered along with the Mercedes brand name with the German patent office.

 

 

 

An impressive engine

 

The Paul Daimler-designed 9.5-liter engine reveals major technical advances that captivate the eye whenever the engine covers are lifted. Looking at the details is rewarding, both for the craftsmanship and the technical insight gained into how the engines of this period operated.

 

To improve combustion, the 37/90 engine had an especially large intake valve and two smaller exhaust valves for each of the four cylinders in a single block, taking up nearly all the space in the head. This valve arrangement allowed for shorter gas cycles and, as a result, more efficient combustion. The valves were operated via pushrods and rocker arms by a lateral camshaft, driven by toothed gears from the center of the crankshaft.

The 37/90 was one of the first Mercedes models with external exhaust pipes, certainly a striking feature both visually and aurally when the car is driven onto the show field.

 

Perhaps the only technical feature shared with the previous model was the chain drive that connected the engine with the transaxle. However, the 1911 model had the chain enclosed in a case that allowed it to run in an oil bath, reducing noise and improving performance by reducing friction. The 37/90 represented the final improvement in the chain-drive system; subsequent Mercedes models would use the more-familiar drive-shaft connection from the transmission to the differential.

 

Equipped with a 4-speed manual transaxle, the 95-horsepower engine propelled the Mercedes automobile at a top speed of 70 miles per hour. With the focus on customer sales, the 37/90 was meant as a luxury touring car – comfortable for passengers, with an elegant and inviting interior – and was generally ordered with sports or touring-bodywork options.

 

The 37/90 engine also made a name for itself in racing. In 1912 and 1914, DePalma won the Vanderbilt Cup with a modified-Mercedes Grand Prix racing car from 1908 that had been given a 37/90 engine; he had also driven other 37/90s in competition. Melton mentioned in one article that DePalma was always convinced that the chassis under Melton’s rebodied Mercedes had been one of the cars that DePalma had raced.

 

 

 

A hand-built aluminum body

 

Though these 37/90s were technical marvels and performance wonders, they were not particularly admired for the elegance of their original body designs. Consequently, many of them were rebodied at some point early in their lives.

 

What is interesting about this particular example is not only that it is documented as having been rebodied during the period 1919-1923, but also that the resulting body was featured in a period automobile magazine, MotorLife, in its July 1923 issue. 

 

The article recounts that the creator of the 37/90 body we now see on the 37/90 was a jeweler, employed by a prominent Fifth Avenue firm, who did the work in his two-car garage on afternoons and evenings. In the words of Emory Pope, MotorLife’s author of the article: “His latest achievement is a four-passenger sport touring body in aluminum and brass, mounted on a ninety horsepower chain-drive Mercedes chassis. …he has avoided streamlines, seeking rather to express in the design the rugged strength of this powerful road car. There is no wood understructure; the car is built throughout, including even the hood, of 8-gauge aluminum. The top of the body is bound with 3/8-inch seamless brass tubing. There are no doors, but easy access is achieved on either side by two heavy brass steps of graceful design.”

 

 

 

A classic interior

 

Peering over those side panels, cut down for easy access, we can see the evocative interior details so characteristic of the period. In the words of Pope in Motor Life:

“The steering wheel has the usual gas and spark levers and the dash inside has the customer equipment of ammeter, motometer [water temperature gauge], speedometer, [oil] pressure gauge, oil [level] gauge and switch for single or double ignition.

“The front seats of the car are separate and slightly staggered, the driver’s seat being adjustable. All the seats are removable, as are also the floor boards, thus giving quick access to any part of the chassis.”

 

This 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP is undeniably an impressive automobile, and is all the more fascinating because of its very well-documented provenance, the result of having spent much of its 108-year life in public view, enjoyed by each of its successive owners.

 

Specifications

1911 Mercedes 37/90 Chain-drive

BODY STYLE: Four-passenger open touring car

ENGINE: Four-cylinder, 9.6 liters

     Bore 130mm • Stroke 180mm

Three over-head valves:

     one 3.25-inch intake valve • two 2-inch exhaust valves

POWER: 90 horsepower at 1,250 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual

WHEELBASE: 130 inches

 

 

 

A unique motorcar; a rare survivor: This spectacular 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP combines an attractive coach-built body with a powerful, technically advanced engine designed by Paul Daimler and fabricated to the highest standards of early 20th century craftsmanship.

 

 

Beautifully rebodied by a prominent jeweler between 1919 and 1923, this 1911 Mercedes 37/90 HP combines rugged strength and graceful lines along with an astonishing variety of elegant period detailing, all of which is sure to delight the eye of the attentive enthusiast.

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