The birth of the modern automobile in 1901

Apr 30, 2017

The modern automobile owes its origins to two visionary men – and a little girl: the Mercedes 35 HP built by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) dominated “Nice Week” in 1901. The vehicle was created by Wilhelm Maybach, the brilliant head design engineer at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, and Emil Jellinek, a highly motivated and well-connected businessman with an intuitive understanding of his customers’ needs. The new Daimler automobile acquired its name from Jellinek’s eleven year-old daughter, Mercédès. The high-performance Mercedes 35 HP sports car and its less powerful sister models gave rise to the Mercedes-Simplex model family, beginning with the 40 HP model in 1902. These vehicles established the supremacy of the automobile powered by a combustion engine over the other drive technologies which were in contention at the time. A passion for innovation, visionary drive and technical creativity shaped the “Mercédès era”, as this ground-breaking time came to be known. There is a parallel here to today: The Mercedes-Benz CASE strategy is now applying the same values to advance the future of mobility. Like the very first Mercedes, the future EQ models are fundamentally designed to make optimum use of an innovative drive concept – in this case the electric drive.

On those spring days back in 1901, the powerful sound of four cylinders heralded the future: the Mercedes 35 HP built by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in Cannstatt appeared able to control at will the diverse competitions at the “Nice Week” (“ Semaine de Nice”) motorsport event. “The French design engineers clearly have nothing to challenge it,” wrote the “La Presse” newspaper on 30 March 1901 in the face of the third win for Mercedes in the space of a few days.

The vehicle was not only the newest and most powerful model from DMG – it has since come to be recognised as the very first modern automobile. The Mercedes 35 HP was systematically designed for performance, weight savings and safety, its key features including a lightweight high-performance engine, a long wheelbase and a low centre of gravity. With these attributes and the honeycomb radiator organically integrated into the front, it gave the automobile its own distinct form: the first Mercedes was no longer reminiscent of a carriage pulled along by a combustion engine instead of horses. Rather, it was a new construction which had been systematically designed from scratch for the innovative new type of drive. Experts were immediately aware that this vehicle marked a profound change in the field of automotive engineering. Paul Meyan, the founding member and secretary-general of the Automobile Club de France (A.C.F.), is on record as having commented: “We have entered the Mercédès era.”

Nice presented the ideal backdrop for the Mercedes 35 HP, as in 1901 the Côte d’Azur was a prominent centre of the motoring world. This is where the high society from all over Europe and also from overseas gathered in the winter months. The Nice–La Turbie hill climb had been staged since 1897. The world’s first hill climb was the climax of “Nice Week” with its series of motorsport competitions. In 1899, businessman and automobile enthusiast Emil Jellinek entered a Daimler 12 HP racing car with a “Phoenix” engine in the event under the pseudonym “Mercédès”, inspired by the name of his daughter, who was born in 1889.

At Nice Week in March 1900, Wilhelm Bauer died at the wheel of a Daimler 23 HP “Phoenix” racing car while taking evasive action to avoid hitting spectators who were running onto the course. This prompted DMG to consider withdrawing from motorsport. Jellinek instead argued the case for designing an innovative, safe and even more powerful automobile. This gave rise to the Mercedes 35 HP as an integrated system of perfectly coordinated solutions. The innovations ranged from the engine through the frame to the radiator and clutch. In 1901, the first modern automobile won the Nice–La Turbie hill climb and the Nice–Salon–Nice long-distance race over 392 kilometres, as well as completing various record runs in Nice.

The first Mercedes and its less powerful sister models designed according to the same principles gave rise in 1902 to the Mercedes-Simplex model family, which initially comprised three models. The “Simplex” designation alluded to the vehicles’ ease of operation by the standards of the day. The most powerful variant in 1902 was the Mercedes-Simplex 40 HP, the direct successor to the Mercedes 35 HP. The Mercedes-Simplex vehicles were equally successful as innovative racing cars and as sporty everyday luxury automobiles. They also triumphed at Nice Week: In 1902 the Mercedes-Simplex 40 HP won the Nice-La Turbie race, followed by the 60 HP model in a new record time in 1903. A particularly memorable feat was the victory by Camille Jenatzy in a Mercedes-Simplex 60 HP in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race, which was the leading international motorsport event of the day. The original plan was to field the markedly more powerful 90 HP racing cars, but these were destroyed in a fire at the DMG factory in Cannstatt three weeks before the race. DMG thus raced the privately owned near-series Mercedes-Simplex 60 HP. The vehicle belonging to American millionaire Clarence Gray Dinsmore won the race with Jenatzy behind the wheel.

The final models bearing the Mercedes-Simplex designation appeared in 1904. These included the 28/32 HP model, a more advanced variant of the 28 HP model from 1902. The “Simplex” designation disappeared from the naming for Mercedes automobiles in 1905, but the unique, global success story of the series production vehicles and racing cars which began with the Mercedes 35 HP in 1901 continues to this day.

The totally new concept for the future Mercedes-Benz EQ models exploits the potential offered by the state-of-the-art electric drive to the full. As such, more than 115 years after the first Mercedes, the Stuttgart-based brand is once again reinventing the automobile with a ground-breaking milestone.