Wilhelm Maybach: 175th anniversary of the birth of the “King of Designers”

Wilhelm Maybach: 175th anniversary of the birth of the “King of Designers”

Feb 2, 2021
  • Gottlieb Daimler’s associate was born on 9 February 1846
  • In France he was given the honorary nickname of “King of Designers”
  • Maybach influenced the contemporary car with numerous inventions and developments

Stuttgart. On 9 February 1846, i.e. 175 years ago, Wilhelm Maybach was born in Heilbronn, Germany. The second-eldest son of a carpenter would go on to influence the development of the car. This applies particularly to the period when he was Gottlieb Daimler’s associate until he passed away in 1900. Maybach was gifted with outstanding technical talents. His inventions formed a crucial contribution to making Daimler’s visionary concepts for motorised mobility with various means of transport a reality. Today his name also lives on in the Mercedes-Maybach brand.

Augustus Wilhelm Maybach (his full name) was born as the second-eldest son of carpenter Carl Maybach in Heilbronn, Germany. At the beginning of the 1850s, the family moved to Stuttgart, a city in which Maybach would suffer hard misfortunes: his mother passed away in 1854 and a mere two years later he also lost his father. Family friends made various efforts to find a home for the orphans, including a newspaper advert placed in “Stuttgarter Anzeiger” on 20 March 1856. Wilhelm Maybach was taken in by Bruderhaus (“house of brothers”) in Reutlingen, an institution established by Protestant theologian Gustav Werner and his wife Albertine. Bruderhaus ran so-called orphan asylums, schools and factories.

From confectioner to designer

Wilhelm Maybach was initially trained at Bruderhaus as a baker and confectioner. However, Pastor Werner saw the boy’s vast technical talent and nurtured it. Consequently, Maybach started an apprenticeship at the drawing office of the machine shop in 1861, with physics and free-hand drawing lessons at the city’s advanced training facility, as well as maths at secondary school later on. Additionally, he was given English and French lessons from day one of his career. In 1863, Gustav Werner recruited 29-year old engineer Gottlieb Daimler as an inspector of Bruderhaus’ “Vereinigte Werkstätten” (united workshops).

Daimler’s work in Reutlingen marked the beginning of a productive partnership, as the workshop inspector identified and fostered Maybach’s skills. In September 1869, it was thus a logical consequence for the young designer to follow Daimler when he was appointed to the management board of Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft Karlsruhe. Maybach worked at the local design office. In 1872, both once again took on new jobs and relocated: Daimler was appointed to the management board of Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz AG. The company had been established as a limited company by Nicolaus August Otto and the families of entrepreneurs Langen and Pfeiffer that same year.

Once again Maybach followed Daimler to become head of the Deutz Design department in 1873. He worked on bringing Otto’s four-stroke engine to production maturity level. He ran trials with liquid fuel and a converted gas engine in as early as 1875. In 1876, Deutz sent Maybach on a trip to the United States of America, where he used his older brother Karl’s contacts to get in touch with piano builders Steinway & Sons. In 1888, Gottlieb Daimler and Steinway would go on to develop the North American market.

Daimler’s visions and Maybach’s inventions

Daimler already had the vision of a compact, fast-running combustion engine that was also suitable for use in vehicles when he worked at Deutz. However, he was unable to make his ideas a reality at the company. In mid-1882, Daimler left Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz to pursue a self-employed career in Cannstatt near Stuttgart. He had already signed an employment contract with Wilhelm Maybach in April 1882.

This would be where Maybach and Daimler brought the automotive pioneer’s dream of motorised mobility “on water, on land and in the air” to life: from 1882, the first specimen of fast-running petrol engines were developed at Daimler’s home at Taubenheimstrasse 13. Along with these engines, known as “grandfather clocks” due to their appearance, the world’s first motorcycle (“Reitwagen”, 1885), the world’s first motorboat (1886) and, last but not least, the world’s first four-wheel car (Daimler’s “Motorkutsche”, 1886) were developed. Drives for rail vehicles followed soon after (Daimler motorised Waggonet, 1887) as did Wölfert’s motorised airship (1888).

Maybach further advanced recently established automotive technology with designs, such as the four-speed, gear-only transmission featuring movable gear wheels and the two-cylinder V-engine (built on licence by Peugeot from 1890). The inventor was not even deterred by the conflict between Daimler and the company he had established at the beginning of the 1890s: Maybach developed the Phoenix in-line two-cylinder engine and the spray-nozzle carburettor at Hotel Hermann’s garden hall, a facility the company had rented at the time. The Phoenix engine enjoyed so much success that international licensees managed to reinstate Daimler und Maybach at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1895.

The first modern car

Wilhelm Maybach, now technical director at DMG, continued to provide one pivotal invention after the other: in 1897, the tube-based radiator was registered as a utility model. 1899 saw the development of a four-stroke engine for Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s airship. In 1900, DMG registered Maybach’s honeycomb radiator as a patent and, on 22 November that same year, the first Mercedes 35 hp was completed in Cannstatt. Considered to be the first ever modern car, it was commissioned by Emil Jellinek, Daimler’s most important distributor at the time. Maybach’s completely new vehicle concept (lightweight design, high-performance engine with innovative radiator, long wheelbase and low centre of gravity) dominated the internationally renowned “Nice Week” motorsport event between 25 and 29 March 1901. This brilliant success finally established Maybach’s honorary nickname: “King of Designers”.

In the following years until 1904, Maybach evolved the vehicle concept from the Mercedes Simplex 40 hp to the Simplex 60 hp and Simplex 90 hp. However, following Daimler’s passing on 6 March 1900, Maybach could no longer rely on unconditional support within the company. This became particularly obvious after the chair of DMG’s supervisory board, Max von Duttenhofer, passed away in August 1903. The differences in opinion escalated in 1906: Maybach was a passionate supporter of motorsport as the driving force for automotive series-production technology (“That’s how you learn from races, there is no doubt that our touring cars completed them so quickly and that they remain just as important as they were years ago. Consequently, let’s continue racing.”). He developed a racing car featuring a six-cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft driven by a vertical shaft as well as a high-voltage solenoid ignition with two spark plugs. However, rather than using Maybach’s cutting-edge creation, a conservative design by Paul Daimler was used. After DMG also closed the test centre headed up by Maybach, he left the company in 1907.

New start with airship engines

In 1909 Maybach established Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH in Bissingen, Germany, together with Count von Zeppelin. The company, managed by Wilhelm’s son Karl Maybach, relocated to Friedrichshafen on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany in 1912. After the end of the First World War, the company, now trading as Maybach-Motorenbau, launched into automotive engineering. The first series-production car, the Maybach 22/70 hp (W 3), was presented in 1921 and remained in production until 1928. Thus, Wilhelm Maybach had come full circle over the course of his life.

After having left DMG, Maybach received numerous awards for his lifetime achievements: the Kingdom of Württemberg appointed him Royal Building Inspector in 1915, in 1916 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Stuttgart Institute of Technology. Last but not least, in 1922, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) awarded him the golden Grashof medal, the Association’s highest honours. Wilhelm Maybach passed away on 29 December 1929. He was laid to rest in Cannstatt’s Uff cemetery, where Gottlieb Daimler was also buried. In the last year of his life, Maybach witnessed the LZ 127 “Graf Zeppelin” airship’s flight around the world. The airship was driven by Maybach twelve-cylinder engines, which Karl Maybach had designed. In 1996, he was inducted into the “Automotive Hall of Fame” and in 2004 into the “European Automotive Hall of Fame”.

The Mercedes-Maybach brand

Automotive engineering at Maybach came to an end in 1941. However, in 2002 the legendary name was reborn as a luxury brand of what was DaimlerChrysler AG at the time. Model series 240 Maybach 62 and Maybach 57 luxury saloons redefine the standard at the pinnacle of automotive engineering.

In November 2014, the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (model series 222) celebrated its world premiere. Ever since, the brand has been a synonym for highly exclusive vehicles, providing a unique level of comfort and elegant design – on the basis of cutting-edge technology. Highlights include the debuts of the Mercedes-Maybach S 600 Pullman (2015) and the S 600 Pullman Guard with special protection (2016). The new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class of model series 223 has been continuing with this outstanding tradition since the end of 2020. The Mercedes-Maybach GLS 600 4MATIC is also part of the brand’s exclusive vehicle range (combined fuel consumption: 12.0 l/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 275 g/km).

Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929). Signed portrait photograph. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: A2002F640)
Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929). Shown on the Reitwagen (“riding car”), which Gottlieb Daimler registered as a patent in 1885. This vehicle, the world’s first motorcycle, was a test vehicle for the fast-running four-stroke engine that Daimler and Maybach had invented. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: B31358)
Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929), second from the right, on a trip aboard the motorboat driven by a Daimler engine on the River Neckar near Cannstatt in 1886. Gottlieb Daimler is seated on Maybach’s left. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 803931)
Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929), on the front passenger seat of a Mercedes-Simplex 18/22 hp. Photograph from 1903 taken in the factory yard of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft’s Cannstatt plant. Adolf Daimler and member of the ex ecutive board Gustav Vischer are seated behind Maybach in the rear. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: C36871)
Double page from a notebook owned by Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929), around 1889. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: U1003)
Double page from a notebook owned by Wilhelm Maybach (9 February 1846 to 29 December 1929), around 1889. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: U1004)
Drawings of the fast-running “gas/petroleum engine” with vertical cylinder developed by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. Daimler registered this engine, known as the “grandfather clock” due to its appearance, as a patent on 3 April 1885. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 13634_cl008)
Drawing of the tube-based radiator invented by Wilhelm Maybach dating back to 1897. The tube-based radiator was used in the Daimler “Phoenix-Wagen” for the very first time. It marks Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft’s first passenger car with a front-mounted engine. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 2001DIG67)
Drawing of the two-cylinder V-engine developed by Wilhelm Maybach. The major assembly celebrated its debut in the 1889 “steel-wheel car”. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 67606)
Drawing of the honeycomb radiator invented by Wilhelm Maybach. It was first used in the Mercedes 35 hp, the first modern car, a concept that was also developed by Maybach. The efficient radiator makes it possible to significantly increase vehicle output. The illustrated radiator design with a rounded top corresponds to the variant used from 1903 onwards. (Photo signature in the Mercedes- Benz Classic archive: 47866A)
Honeycomb radiator invented by Wilhelm Maybach. Detail of an exhibit on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Legend Room 2: Mercedes – Birth of the Brand, 1900 to 1914. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: D579738)
German Automotive Exhibition in Berlin, 1921: Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH showcases its first car, a Maybach W 3. The body was produced by Auer from Cannstatt. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 1981MTU2056)
Karl Maybach (second from the right) next to a Maybach W 3 in front of the Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH production facility in the mid-1920s. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: a2002f644.)
Model series 240 Maybach 62 luxury saloon. Photo from 2003. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: A2002F4847)
The new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (model series 223), Mercedes star and Maybach lettering on the radiator. Photo from 2020. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 20C0535_148)
The new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (model series 223), Maybach trademark on the C-pillar. Photo from 2020. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 20C0535_157)
The new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (model series 223), driving shot taken from the front right. Photo from 2020. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 20C0535_048)
The new Mercedes-Maybach S-Class (model series 223), driving shot taken from the rear left. Photo from 2020. (Photo signature in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archive: 20C0535_065)