1898: The world’s first bus series launched by Daimler – a milestone for passenger transport

Apr 1, 2008
  • Acid test in the Welsh mountains
  • Spectacular orders from all over the world
  • Platform shared with trucks
Four different models for between six and sixteen passengers, engine output ratings from four to ten horsepower: the first bus series was launched by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in May 1898. The automotive pioneer thus became the world’s first supplier of a complete series of motorized buses.
Hoofs, steam and electricity
There had been a large number of forerunners: horse-drawn buses had been operating in cities and industrial areas for quite some time. Experiments with steam-powered buses had been made in Britain as early as the 1820s, and in 1882, Siemens presented an electrically powered trolley bus in Berlin. The bus as a means of passenger transport had been preceded by railways, streetcars and taxis.
Carl Benz had produced a motorized bus as early as 1895; in the same year, it started operating in regular line service on the 15 kilometer route between Siegen and Deuz. The eight-seater bus set out in Netphen at 6:00 hours in the morning, commuted between Deuz and Siegen four times in the course of the day and finally returned to its starting point at 8:55 p.m. A journey along the complete route cost 70 Pfennigs. However, this bus was still a clearly visible derivative of the horse-drawn coach, featuring an eight-seater landau bodywork and a single-cylinder engine installed horizontally at the rear.
Breakthrough for the motorized bus
A lot speaks in favor of quoting the year 1898 as the start of motorized bus operation. In that year, Benz supplied three twelve-seaters to Llandudno in Wales where they were operated on excursion routes throughout the summer. In this case, the design was based on a horse-drawn bus concept known as the Kremser Pate, an open vehicle with soft-top, driven by a 15 hp two-cylinder engine. At the time, the “Birmingham Daily Mail”, reporting on a planned city bus line, wrote: ”Since they coped well with the tough conditions encountered on Welsh roads and in the Welsh mountains, there need be no worries concerning their suitability for the forthcoming line service in Birmingham.”
The first regular-service bus from Daimler started operating in the same year. After trial driving with a Victoria car, in which Gottlieb Daimler himself had taken part, a company called “Motorwagen-Betrieb Künzelsau-Mergentheim GmbH” was founded as early as February. However, it was not before September that a converted Victoria car with 10-hp engine (7.4 kW) started operating, with a stage coach body with capacity for ten people serving as passenger compartment.
The country line had to contend with a number of problems. A filling station network was not yet in place, and the fuel-selling chemists did not always have sufficient quantities on stock. In rainy weather, the high and narrow wheels occasionally got stuck in the mud, and it took a team of farm horses to pull the vehicle out again. And finally, the three-meter high vehicle’s road-holding was far from satisfactory, since its high center of gravity called for great sensitivity on the part of the driver.
First double-decker bus for London
And yet, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) had already proved earlier that difficulties such as these could be avoided. As early as April 1898 DMG had supplied a significantly more elegant double-decker to England, ordered by Motor Car Company. Its wheels were smaller and wider. The driver sat at the front, directly above the 12 hp (8.8 kW) engine, and the enclosed passenger compartment accommodated twelve people. Another eight were seated on the open-top upper deck. The vehicle reached a top speed of 12 mph (18 km/h).
In a newspaper report, the bus’ maiden journey from the small harbor of Gravesend to the City of London on April 23 was described as follows: “Every man, every woman and every child in Long Acre and along Piccadilly stopped and stared at the vehicle as it thundered past, pursuing its course steadily and with determination. ... One must have seen the three-tonner, working its way through dense traffic at that speed, with one’s own eyes to gain an impression of what it was like, but this impression is as intense as the circumstances are astounding.”
More likely than not, it was the success of this early double-decker that prompted Daimler to launch a complete bus series as early as May 1898.
Maximum possible parts commonality with trucks
The motorized Daimler bus is available in different sizes, and engines of different output ratings are fitted to match local conditions. Less powerful engines are chosen for level routes, while the vehicles have to be equipped with more powerful engines for routes through hilly terrain.” That’s how Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft described its novel vehicle in 1898, praising the engine, in particular: “Power is supplied by the new Daimler Phoenix engine whose design – specially matched to vehicle propulsion – is unsurpassed in every respect.”
Gottlieb Daimler’s ingenuity lay in identifying new applications, time and again, for the gasoline engine he had developed together with Wilhelm Maybach. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the chassis, the 4 – 10 hp (2.9 to 7.4 kW) engines, the glow-tube ignition, the three- to four-speed gear-only transmission and the pinion drive were all completely identical with what was, at the time, the second generation of Daimler trucks.
The smallest bus model had been designed for six passengers and 200 kilograms of luggage; the largest bus had a capacity for 14 – 16 passengers and 450 kilograms of luggage. Cruising speeds ranged between four and 16 km/h and, provided the engine was sufficiently powerful, the buses climbed inclines of up to twelve percent. The unladen weight of the smallest version was 1.1 tons, whereas the largest model tipped the scales at 2.5 tons. The six-seater’s net price amounted to 6,800 Reichsmark; the larger models cost 8,000, 9,200 and 10,500 Reichsmark, respectively.
These prices did not include the simple but effective heating system for the driver’s seat and passenger compartment, with engine coolant being circulated under the floor. Depending on the model, this extra cost between 180 and 260 Reichsmark. Another option at an extra cost of 500 – 600 Reichsmark was a set of rubber tires – “recommended only for the smaller models, however”. Where the two heavier models with unladen weights above two tons were concerned, Daimler advised its customers to stick to conventional iron-clad wooden wheels.
According to a contemporary Daimler brochure, the motorized vehicles were operational after just three minutes. In those days, readers were interested in information such as the specific weight of fuel and consumption per hour and hp under full load – the brochure states between 0.36 and 0.45 kilograms; at a top speed of 16 km/h, this was equivalent to anything between twenty and thirty liters per 100 kilometers. In the early days, however, customers were not familiar with fuel consumption in liters per 100 kilometers, so the information on fuel costs amounting to ten Pfennigs per horsepower and kilometer will have been more meaningful for them.
DMG endeavored to emphasize the vehicles’ operational reliability in every respect. The fuel tank with capacity for ten hours’ driving was located “in a protected area under the vehicle,” and the water cooling was “fully operational” even in winter. The manufacturer’s brochure went on to say that “gear-changes are performed in a perfectly safe manner” and that the foot-operated brake brought the vehicle “ quickly and reliably” to a standstill. However, the company did not let it rest at asserting these qualities but granted a three-month warranty on all parts.
Spectacular orders: Two double-deckers for London
Just about as little is known about the production volumes of the first bus series as about the majority of the early customers. The available documentation extends to spectacular orders which more often than not specified out-of-the-ordinary models, as well as illuminating the problems of regular bus services in the early days.
The interest of those responsible in London had not waned after the encouraging experience gained with the first double-decker bus. In its edition of September 30, 1899, the “ Autocar” journal reported that another two buses “were to start operating next Monday and provide service between Kensington and Victoria Station […], its route taking it across Westminster Bridge and down Victoria Street. The route was selected with foresight since the streets are paved with wooden blocks for the most part and the steepest sections are the ascents to Westminster Bridge from either side.”
Again, double-decker buses were supplied, now offering room for as many as 26 passengers. More likely than not, the fears concerning climbing ability were unjustified – the new buses were powered by new four-cylinder engines which Daimler had been offering as an alternative to his two-cylinder units since June 1899. However, the more powerful of the two four-cylinder engines with a rated output of 12 – 16 hp (8.8 to 12 kW) cost as much as 3,100 Reichsmark more than the largest two-cylinder engine with an output of 10 – 12 hp (7.4 to 8.8 kW).
A bus for Stockholm
An order from Stockholm illustrated the consequences of a preference for streets with wooden block paving. The DMG buses had caught the Swedes’ attention when King Gustaf acquired a car from Bad Cannstatt in 1899. However, when the fully occupied bus with its iron-clad wheels, weighing between four and five tons, rumbled across the wooden-block pavement of Drottninggatan in downtown Stockholm, the walls in the houses lining the street began to shake. Bus operation was discontinued after complaints by residents and house owners.
Five mail buses for Speyer
On February 1, 1899 a transport company was founded in Speyer with the intention of setting up several bus lines for both local public and mail transport. It was not before December 10, however, that line service was started on four routes, between seven and fourteen kilometers long. The five vehicles supplied by Daimler to Speyer for this purpose surpassed the conventional production models in terms of dimensions, weight and capacity. They were 5.60 meters long, 2.80 meters high and 1.80 meters wide, and in unladen condition they tipped the scales at four tons. The passenger compartment had capacity for 14 passengers; another ten were carried standing inside or on the rear-end platform. The power unit chosen for these vehicles was nevertheless a ten-hp two-cylinder engine (7.4 kW).
The five buses were running on iron wheels. It was not before 1904 that a vehicle was fitted with solid rubber tires which, however, had to be replaced very often – solid rubber tires were subject to high wear in those days. Pneumatic tires had already been invented but were still far from being suitable for commercial vehicles. Hence, where wheels were concerned, customers had no other choice but between fast-wearing rubber tires and rather uncomfortable, though durable, iron cladding.
Pragmatic design
Rubber tires also feature on a double-decker that is shown on the cover of the fourth-edition bus brochure of 1900 and that is likely to correspond to the previous year’s vehicles for London. By contrast, the covers of the second and third editions of the brochure (dating back to February and June 1899, respectively) show a vehicle with a long engine hood, while the first edition had been printed with a schematic drawing on its cover. Since photos of the first bus models are few and far between, the three illustrations provide the best impressions of the looks and function of these early Daimler buses.
Conspicuous differences between the model-year versions existed in the arrangement of the driver’s seat and the steering in relation to the engine. In the 1898 drawing, the driver’s seat is located immediately above the engine (indicated by dashed lines), with the driver’s feet resting just above the front wheels. In the double-decker of 1900, by contrast, the floor is at the same level as the upper edge of the engine hood and the seat is mounted correspondingly higher.
In contrast to these two “ cab-over-engine” versions, the vehicle shown on the cover of the two 1899 brochures features the “cab-behind-engine” design. Whereas the drivers of the other two buses were unprotected against inclement weather, the 1899 vehicle provided its driver – and the passengers on the rear-end platform - at least with roofs above their heads.
The route written in large letters on the 1899 bus’ side reveals that Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft received orders not only from London, Stockholm and Speyer. Since the brochure appeared in February, the bus shown on its cover must have started operating in line service from Munich’s Augustenstrasse via Theresienstrasse to Milbertshofen early in 1899 at the latest.