Biographies of the key protagonists: Wilhelm Maybach

Apr 30, 2017

Born 9 February 1846 in Heilbronn
Died 29 February 1929 in Cannstatt

Life was not easy for Wilhelm Maybach in his young years, as he lost both of his parents while still a child. Fortunately, protestant pastor Gustav Werner took him under his wing. In 1858, Werner founded the “Verein zum Bruderhaus” welfare institution in Reutlingen, in whose workshops items such as paper machines, agricultural machinery and weighbridges were produced. Maybach began an apprenticeship as a technical draughtsman here in 1861 and in 1863 he met Gottlieb Daimler, who was twelve years his senior. Daimler, who was responsible for reorganising the workshops, recognised Maybach’s outstanding technical capabilities. In 1869, then workshop director at the Messmer und Kessler company in Karlsruhe, Daimler asked the 23 year-old to join him. Maybach duly acquired experience in heavy machinery construction in the technical office.

On 1 July 1872 Maybach followed Daimler once again, this time to the gas engine manufacturer Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz, where he was appointed “head of the design department” and where he began to develop to production standard the engines designed according to Otto’s four-stroke principle. He also acquired a comprehensive knowledge of ignition and combustion in Deutz. When Daimler left the Gasmotoren-Fabrik at the beginning of 1882, Maybach also departed. In Cannstatt he worked unflaggingly on the development of the high-speed petrol engine at Daimler’s research and experimental workshop. Daimler and Maybach are credited with having reduced the weight and size of the four-stroke motor and having enhanced its performance by markedly increasing the engine speed. This paved the way for its deployment in coaches, boats, fire engines, airships and rail vehicles, for example.

Other inventions by Maybach which were crucial to the development of the automobile include the spray-nozzle carburettor (1893) and the tubular radiator (1897). A milestone in the development of the modern automobile was the motorised quadricycle, also known as the “Stahlradwagen”, or “steel-wheeled car”, which Maybach designed in 1889: this was the first Daimler automobile to embody a self-contained constructional design and also the first automobile to feature a gear-based variable-speed transmission. The quarrels between Daimler and the investors backing the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), which was established in 1890, also had repercussions for Maybach: On 11 February 1891 he left the company and from 1892 he worked at the development office financed by Daimler in the “Gartensaal” function room of the former Hotel Herrmann in Cannstatt.

It was the end of 1895 before Maybach (as technical director) and Daimler, who had also left the company named after him in 1894, returned to DMG. Business flourished on the two visionaries’ return.

In 1897 Emil Jellinek visited DMG for the first time. This marked the beginning of a new era of technical creativity for Maybach, as Jellinek continually called for innovations to produce ever more powerful, faster and more comfortable automobiles. Maybach valued this motivation, which was always informed by technical insight and an innate understanding of the customers’ needs. Legend has it that he told Emil Jellinek “you and I are the inventors of the Mercedes car,” summing up the esteem in which he held the latter.

Daimler died in March 1900, and in 1903 Max von Duttenhofer, chairman of DMG’s supervisory board, passed away. This meant the loss of two key supporters within the company for Maybach, who was respectfully referred to in France as “roi des constructeurs” (“ king of design engineers”), and he finally left DMG in acrimonious circumstances following protracted quarrels in 1907. Jellinek, who gave Maybach a gold pocket watch with stopwatch function in recognition of his services, wrote in a letter to the former head design engineer: “DMG without Maybach is like Russia without a fleet.”

After leaving DMG, Maybach supported his son Karl’s career. On his recommendation, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin used an engine designed by Karl Maybach to power his airships. The “aeroplane engine company” Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau G.m.b.H. was established in Bissingen (Enz) in 1909, and relocated to Friedrichshafen in 1912. Maybach senior and junior each had a 20 percent stake in the company. Maybach died in 1929, the same year as Carl Benz and Mercédès Jellinek. Also in this year, his son launched Germany’s first passenger car with a twelve-cylinder engine, the Maybach 12.