Dawn of the Automotive Age

Karl Ludvigsen
Ludvigsen Library and Daimler Archives

Only a handful of men could claim to have given birth to the automotive age. Three of them – Karl Friedrich Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Wilhelm Maybach – sit at the top of the lineage that traces directly to the Mercedes-Benz of today.

Karl Benz

Engineer Karl Benz was 35 years old when his first experimental engine putt-putt-putted to life on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1879. Born in a suburb of Karlsruhe, Benz had roots in the hamlet of Pfaffenrot in the Black Forest, where his forebears were blacksmiths and his father a railroad engineer. Although the senior Benz expired soon of pneumonia, Karl, sharp of eye and high of forehead, had already been bitten by the bug of locomotion.

Experience in other firms at Pforzheim and Mannheim qualified Benz to become a partner in a machine works in the latter city on the east bank of the Rhine River west of Heidelberg. By 1872, he was not only its sole proprietor, but also the proud husband of attractive and resourceful Bertha, whose dowry helped him assume the reins of the Iron Foundry and Machine Shop. The shop struggled, however, motivating Benz to create a product that he could sell. He settled on the idea of making an engine.

Discouraged from working on four-stroke designs by Nicolaus Otto’s 1877 patent on that technology, Benz concentrated on a two-stroke. With important insights, he arrived at the engine that was born in his workshop that New Year’s Eve. For an hour, he and Bertha watched it run with a mix of happiness and hope for the future. Their emotions were not misplaced. After initial setbacks, Benz became an important producer of such power units, in 1883 founding Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik in Mannheim to build stationary engines and experiment with a powered highway vehicle.

Daimler and Maybach

Gottlieb Daimler

Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach were employed at N. A. Otto & Cie. in Cologne, where the four-stroke engines that nudged Benz toward the two-stroke were being produced.

Born in 1834, Daimler was an experienced engineer whose work had taken him to England and France before he joined Otto’s firm as production manager in 1872. In 1873 he brought in Maybach, a draftsman, to head the design department, Only 27 at the time, Maybach was clearly a talent to watch.In 1882, both men left the Deutz engine company, successor to Otto’s firm, to develop ideas of their own for light, fast-running engines, working in the shed of a hotel in Cannstatt, near Stuttgart.

Wilhelm Maybach

Divining that Otto’s patent wouldn’t long stand, Benz in 1884 secretly turned his attention to a four-stroke engine. His single-cylinder effort appeared on the streets of Mannheim in 1886 powering a three-wheeled blend of steam-engine and machine-shop engineering with Benz inspiration and determination. Its first public appearance was on July 3 along the city’s Friedrichsring.

Steered by a single wheel at its front, Benz’s automobile was notable less for its details of design than for the raw fact of its nativity as a complete running vehicle conceived by one man. Its primacy as the first true automobile was confirmed by the German patent covering its design, filed on January 29, 1886, and granted later that year.

As for Daimler and Maybach, their aim was first and foremost the achievement of a high-speed, gasoline-powered, internal-combustion engine, a portable source of power that knew no equal for its size at that time. Progressive and impatient in his thinking, Daimler wanted to investigate all possible uses for his new engine, from boats to trolley cars, cycles, balloons, and carriages. In 1885-1886, Daimler’s first engines successfully powered his own two- and four-wheeled vehicles, built as demonstrators. Daimler’s first car was an off-the-shelf wooden-wheeled carriage ordered in March 1886 from a Stuttgart coachbuilder. In contrast to Benz’s well-integrated vehicle, it was little more than a mobile test bed for the engine.

In 1889, Peugeot and Panhard et Levassor reached agreement with Daimler for use of his advanced, high-speed power units, revving to 900 rpm, far above the 250-rpm limit of other engines. In 1890, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft was founded to produce engines for autos, railcars, aircraft, boats, and industry, and to continue the development of an automobile. Propelling Panhard et Levassor cars to many successes in the racing events of the late 1890s, Daimler engines powered the French auto industry to its early supremacy.

Daimler and Maybach were hampered in advancing further by disagreements with the majority shareholders of their company. By late 1895, these were resolved, with management placed in the hands of the company’s co-founder, Max von Duttenhofer. Maybach was made technical director, while Daimler was assured of a position as an expert adviser and “inspector general.”

Meanwhile, the company’s ideas about cars were reaching maturity. In 1889, Daimler and Maybach introduced a V-twin-powered car, the elegant rear-engined stahlradwagen (steel-wheeled car), which was novel throughout. From then on, improvements in Daimler’s cars were made at breakneck pace, thanks to the ambition and skill of Maybach.

Once he’d brought his first motorcars to life, Benz took more interest in polishing their rough edges, getting them into production, and providing them with different body styles than he did in pressing for advancements in their basic design. Urged to do so by his French agent, Emile Roger, Benz adopted a four-wheel design in 1893, a sophisticated one at that. Roger already imported Benz’s two-stroke engines and became both an important customer for his cars and a goad to further improvements.

Practical and serviceable, sparked by advanced electric ignition, Benz cars became early market leaders. From 1890, Benz was partnered by Julius Ganss, whose genial oval face and thinning hair belied a shrewd and determined business brain. Ganss, said August Horch, “rightly rated as a first-class salesman and an organizer of grand format. Julius Ganss had as much value for the factory as an army to a commander. Whatever he took on, he took on confidently, generously, and at just the right moment. He had exceptional self-confidence, but without even an inkling of vanity.”

Already active in business in France, Ganss intensified the existing relationship with Roger, whose Roger & Schneider booked an order for 200 cars, each of which had to be reserved by a one-third payment in advance. With this cash windfall, Benz and Ganss expanded their production facilities on Mannheim’s Waldhofstrasse. From 67 in 1894, sales rose to 256 in 1897 and 572 in 1899, by which time 2,000 Benz cars had been produced. Hitting a record 603 in 1900, Benz was the world’s largest automobile producer.

Sons Eugen and Richard were active in the Benz company in the 19th century, as were such other pioneers as Horch, Franz Heim, who joined as an apprentice in 1897, and Fritz Erle, who had been with Benz since 1894. Particularly close to the Benz sons, Erle teamed with Eugen in 1896 to drive a Benz in the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race, entered as a “Parisienne.” Fritz Held and Ignaz Axtmann drove a sister car. Despite trailing the field at the return to Paris after 1,063 miles, the two “Parisiennes” were among only 14 finishers from 32 starters.

Benzes were not the only German cars sporting pseudonyms to curry favor in the important French market. The exotic Spanish name “Mercédès” cloaked a new Daimler product introduced in 1901, named after his daughter to suit a customer who had ordered a tranche of 36 units of the new model.

The customer, Daimler’s counterpart to Benz’s Emile Roger, was Austrian diplomat/entrepreneur Emil Jellinek, who wintered on the French Riviera with the people who would buy such cars. He took three cars in 1898, 10 in 1899, and fully 28 of Daimler’s output of 89 vehicles in 1900. He was granted exclusive sales rights for Austria, Hungary (the two countries he represented as consul at Nice), France, Belgium, and America; only in these countries was the Mercedes name to be used. He was soon a major buyer and distributer of Daimler cars.

Jellinek had been present at the speed contests at Nice in March 1900, when a Daimler works driver, foreman Wilhelm Bauer, suffered fatal injuries when his short-wheelbase Daimler-Phoenix failed to negotiate the first turn of the hill climb to La Turbie from Nice. Bauer’s car struck the outer wall head-on. While his passenger, Hermann Braun, survived, Bauer died the next day.

Learning from this tragedy, Jellinek pointed out to Daimler engineer Maybach that “the French appreciated long ago that to be stable a racing car must be low, wide, and long.” Although this was also evident to Maybach, Jellinek’s urging was concrete encouragement in this direction. On February 6, 1900, Maybach had already started work on a more powerful engine for the first Mercedes. On March 6 of that year, he suffered the loss of his mentor Daimler, already ill from overwork. Duttenhofer was now in sole charge at Daimler.Debuting in the Nice contests of 1901, the 6.0-liter Mercedes 35 PS immediately impressed with its low build, channel-steel frame, honeycomb radiator, and 4-cylinder T-head engine with cam operation for both inlet and exhaust valves. Strikingly, it was both quiet and quick. Suddenly Germany was among the leaders.

The 1902 Mercedes, with Adolf Daimler, one of Gottlieb's sons, at the wheel.

For the 1903 season, Maybach created two new engines, both with overhead inlet valves and side exhausts. While one, the 9.3-liter 60 PS, was intended mainly for touring-car use, the 12.7-liter 90 PS was a bid for outright racing victories. The 90, said one of its drivers, Otto Hieronimus, “possesses a speed which is simply awesome.”

Ironically, it was the touring 60 that struck success after the team of racing 90s for the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland was consumed by a fire at the Cannstatt works, accelerating DMG’s move to a new factory at Untertürkheim. Mercedes 60s were recalled from their owners and stripped of their bodywork to serve as Germany’s flagbearers. The result in Ireland was resounding success for a 60 PS Mercedes driven by Belgian Camille Jenatzy.

This was the first great international success for the white Mercedes. Indeed, wrote historian Robert Dick, it was “the first victory of a foreign marque over the established French, in the first great race on foreign soil.” It may not be apocryphal that showman Jellinek arranged for the 60s to be fitted with their touring bodies before and after the race to emphasize that at heart they were ordinary road cars, not special racing models.

Such were the speeds being reached by the new century’s speedsters that Karl Benz called a halt to the building of special cars for racing. On October 15, 1901, he made clear to his company’s supervisory board his view that the advancement of automobiling was threatened by “the newly prominent passion for surpassing others in speed in competitions, for vying with fast trains, thereby wantonly endangering the lives of those people driving as well as those using the roads.”

Karl Benz seemed to be sliding into self-willed oblivion in the first years of the new century. Georg Diehl, who had worked under Maybach at Daimler, and Fritz Erle were allowed by Benz to take only the most hesitant half-measures to improve their products to follow the new trends established so decisively by DMG’s Mercedes.Internal war broke out over this issue at Benz & Cie. AG between Benz and his co-director Ganss, who was determined to see the firm move ahead with new designs. In 1902, Ganss imported a 26-year-old French designer named Marius Barbarou. Ganss set up Barbarou and members of his French team in a separate design office and charged them with engineering a more modern line of Benz cars.

Starting in October and continuing though the 1902-1903 winter, Barbarou designed the new Benz-Parsifal range with vertical front-mounted twins and fours and shaft drive. However, controversy within Benz over these cars and others with Diehl 4-cylinder engines in Barbarou’s chassis became so intense that Benz resigned from his firm in 1903, only to rejoin it as a consultant in 1904.

Beset by financial problems in the 1901-1903 period, Benz acknowledged that it was unable to match the leaps and bounds in power and speed being achieved by Maybach at Daimler. But Benz would be back. Future Benz cars would once again be designed by Germans – and by a distinguished alumnus of the Barbarou team.The intense activity with which he in effect invented the modern automobile had left its mark on Maybach. Aged 57 in 1903, his health deteriorated during these first years of the 20th century, when he bore virtually all the responsibility for the company’s technical and production developments. “He became severely ill,” wrote Karl

Schnauffer, “and had to distance himself from both the factory and his work for a period of three to four years.”

Regaining his fitness, Maybach faced challenges to his authority at the end of 1905 and in 1906. Finding his skills and ideas unappreciated, engineering genius Maybach left Untertürkheim on April 1, 1907. Replacing him was Paul Daimler. Eldest of the four sons of Gottlieb, Paul had joined DMG in 1897 as a design engineer at the age of 27. In 1907, he was recalled from a spell at Daimler’s Austrian sister company to succeed the departing Maybach.

At Mannheim, a similar crisis of confidence in the engineering department had been surmounted several years earlier. By 1905, a united Benz engineering team was devoting its full energies to both the company’s production models and its racing cars. In 1907, Benz’s design group, headed by Diehl, was at the peak of its powers. Erle was appointed head of the racing department. Among the designers were former Barbarou colleague Belgian Louis de Groulart, 27, and Hans Nibel, also 27, second in command in the design office.

Both teams produced new racing cars for the third running of the all-important French Grand Prix of 1908. Its rules were the first to place technical constraints on car design, limiting bore size of 4-cylinder engines to 155mm and imposing a 2,420-pound minimum weight. While the 4-cylinder Mercedes to meet these rules displaced 13.5 liters and developed a peak of 140 brake horsepower, its Benz rival had 118-123 brake horsepower from its 12.1 liters. Weighing 200-odd pounds more in race-ready trim, the Benz had a longer wheelbase than the Mercedes, while its track was narrower.

The upshot was a close and hard race between Benz and Mercedes that brushed their French rivals aside. While a Mercedes driven by Christian Lautenschlager won, Victor Hémery’s Benz finished second by only 8 minutes and 41 seconds after seven hours of racing. With a Grand Prix victory for Mercedes and the Kaiser having taken a shine to the products of Mannheim’s Benz, the two German auto makers had gained high distinction among motordom’s elite.