1911 – The “Blitzen-Benz” becomes the world's fastest car in America

Mar 17, 2011
  • The record-breaking Benz 200 hp becomes the “Blitzen-Benz” in the USA
  • Absolute speed record of 228.1 km/h is achieved
The first record-breaking outings of the Benz 200 hp provided early indications that this was a model destined to push back all previously known boundaries. For example, the speeds which this awesomely powerful car was aiming for meant that it quickly outgrew the confines of European race circuits. Benz & Cie. knew that there were suitable circuits on the other side of the Atlantic in the USA, and the decision was therefore taken in Mannheim to undertake record attempts there. Achieving success with the record-breaking car in North America – an important overseas market – would in any event not be bad for business.
After completing a series of trial runs around Mannheim, the car was therefore shipped off to America in January 1910, complete with new body. The plan was for George Robertson to go head-to-head with the car against Ralph de Palma, who held records on a host of American circuits. However, not everything went according to plan: after discovering that Jesse Froehlich had taken delivery of the car, event manager Ernie Moross proposed a deal with the New York-based Benz importer: he offered his 150-hp Grand Prix Benz plus 6000 dollars in exchange for the record-breaking racer.
The wily businessman even had a catchy name in mind – this was a lightning-fast car, so why not call it the “ Lightning Benz”. The name was painted onto his new purchase. Moross’ driver Barney Oldfield lined up at Daytona Beach in Florida on 16 and 17 March 1910 without any kind of specific preparation for his record attempt - and duly posted a new best of 211.4 km/h. As such, the steam car record set by Marriott had been broken. However, the A.I.A.C.R. (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus), the highest authority in car racing and the precursor to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) which governs motorsport today, refused to recognise the record because the Benz had not covered the distance in the opposite direction as well – as specified in the competition guidelines – with the average from the two runs being used to determine the valid speed.
Subsequently Moross organised a series of show events for the “Lightning Benz”. However, the car’s name was soon to lose its sheen in the eyes of its restless owner, who replaced it with the German translation “Blitzen-Benz” – presumably with the aim of further accentuating the car’s roots – and also had a small German Imperial Eagle painted onto the right-hand side of the hood. In late 1910 the American Automobile Association (AAA) took the step of excluding Barney Oldfield from all racing activities. In his most recent outings, Oldfield had subjected the Blitzen-Benz to such a severe battering that Moross had to have it repaired. His seat for the following season was taken by the former Buick works driver Bob Burman – much to the annoyance of Oldfield, who was well aware of the reserves of speed still locked up inside the car.
Burman duly lined up at Daytona Beach on 23 April 1911, this long, wide expanse of coastline providing the perfect venue for high-speed trials. Tapping the car’s full potential, he squeezed out an average 228.1 km/h for the mile with flying start and 226.7 km/h over the kilometre with flying start. This was an absolute land speed record which was to remain unbroken by any other vehicle until 1919. Only Ralph de Palma was able to establish a new world record, clocking up a speed of 241.2 km/h (149.875 mph) over the flying mile at Daytona Beach on 12 February 1919 in his Packard.
In 1911, the record-breaking Benz 200 hp was not only faster than all other cars and locomotives (the rail vehicle record of 1903 was 210 km/h), but also twice as fast as the aircraft of the time. The “Blitzen-Benz” spent the rest of the season decked out in “war paint”, with an imposing Imperial Eagle and thick trim lines being added to the paintwork. The car was now also fitted with a speedometer, with the transfer shaft located outside the car itself and extending forward to the right front wheel.
The “Blitzen-Benz” embarked on a tour across the USA, becoming something of a sensation on wheels. However, a change in the regulations in 1913 stopped it in its tracks. With displacement limited to 7.4 litres, the legendary “Blitzen-Benz” was passed on to Stoughton Fletcher, who hired Burman to carry out the necessary conversion work during 1914. In October 1915, Fletcher then sold the car to Harry Harkness.
On 2 November 1915 the car made its return to public life, re-badged as the “Burman Special” for a race against Ralph de Palma’s Sunbeam at Sheepshead Bay, New York, USA. However, the record-breaking car of years past was barely recognisable, with its wire spoke wheels now containing more tightly arranged spokes, concertina-type dampers fitted in place of spring-loaded shock absorbers, staggered seats, a bulge in the cockpit construction acting as a wind deflector, and a significantly longer and more rounded tail which sloped downwards towards the rear.
In 1916 Burman was killed whilst at the wheel of a Peugeot, heralding the return of the “Blitzen-Benz” to England. In Easter 1922 it appeared at Brooklands, where it sported white paintwork, a modified engine cover and a new radiator. Count Louis Vorow Zborowski had taken over the reins, but was unable to pilot the “Blitzen-Benz” to any further success. In 1923 he tore the car apart and used some of the powertrain components for a new project of his own, the Higham Special.
The "Blitzen-Benz" ("Lightning Benz") racing car of 1911.
50 horsepower from each cylinder: The Benz racing engine of 1911 powered the legendary 200 hp Benz race car, popularly known as the Lightning Benz.
Certificate of the "American Automobile Association" certifying the speed record Bob Burman had set at the wheel of the 200 hp "Blitzen-Benz" in Daytona Beach/Florida in 1911.
Record attempts in Indianapolis on May 29, 1911: Barney Oldfield at the wheel of the "Blitzen-Benz".
Record attempts in Indianapolis on May 29, 1911: Bob Burman at the wheel of the "Blitzen-Benz" sporting the speed crown.
200 hp Benz record car, the Lightning Benz of 1909 - 1911 (same version as the car in the Mercedes-Benz-Museum).