Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and motor sport

Mar 10, 2014
  • 1894: vehicles powered by Daimler engines win the world’s first car race
  • Epoch-making Grand Prix victories in 1908 and 1914
  • Supercharger era begins in 1922
The automobile was only at the tender age of eight when it first competed publicly in 1894. The competition was sponsored by French newspaper “Le Petit Journal” and led from Paris to Rouen some 126 kilometres away. 21 vehicles were admitted, 17 of them reached the finish line. The top finishers were powered by a Daimler engine built under licence. This design based on Gottlieb Daimler’s original plans produced 2.6 kW (3.5 hp) and made an average speed of 20.5 km/h possible. First place was shared by a car of the Peugeot brothers and an automobile of Panhard-Levassor. Two more Peugeots finished in third and fourth place, and fifth place was awarded to a Roger-Benz with an output of 3.7 kW (5 hp).
In the years that followed, various vehicles powered by Daimler engines won numerous victories and substantiated the excellent reputation of the cutting-edge technology from Stuttgart. The manufacturers realised the publicity value success in motor sport had, and began using it to promote the sales of their vehicles. “Win on Sunday – sell on Monday” quickly established itself as a successful communications recipe for many brands in selling their vehicles.
At that time there was no clear distinction between the car as a means of transport and as a racing sports car. Its inventors envisaged motor vehicles mainly in terms of their pragmatic utility, but soon they were also pitted against each other in public racing events. There was also a direct link in the other direction, because ideas for the improvement of competition cars directly fed back into production vehicles. This remained the case well into the first third of the 20th century. Hence the first competition in 1894 not only marked the beginning of motor sports in the modern sense, but also the start of rapid advances in automotive engineering.
The first competition for automobiles with internal combustion engines was at the same time a farewell event for the older steam technology: while a De-Dion-Bouton steam car was actually the first vehicle in the field to cross the finish line in 1894, the “antiquated” vehicle was too heavy to comply with the rules of the competition, and was thus awarded only honorary second place.
Among the thousands of people who followed the race were Gottlieb Daimler and his son Paul. The latter subsequently described his impressions of the day in these words: “ On the early morning of that race day my father and I were not far from Porte Maillot near Paris. Huge crowds came to witness what was a unique spectacle in those days, cars lining up at the start of a race. [...] We ourselves – Paul and Gottlieb Daimler – accompanied the race in our car. The different vehicle types made a curious impression; we watched the stokers on the heavy steamers, dripping with perspiration and covered with soot, working hard to put on fuel; we could see how the drivers of the small steam-powered three-wheelers kept a watchful eye on the pressure and water level in the small, skilfully fitted tubular boiler and regulated the oil firing; and in contrast to that we saw the drivers of the petrol and paraffin-powered cars sitting calmly in the driver’s seat, operating a lever now and again, as if they were simply out for a pleasure trip. It was a very strange scene, and an unforgettable one for me.”
The following year it was a similar picture in the Paris–Bordeaux–Paris race over 1192 kilometres, regarded as the first true car race: among the first eight finishers were again six cars equipped with engines built under Daimler licence, and two Benz vehicles. In 1896, cars with Daimler engines then scored a triple victory in the Paris–Marseilles–Paris race over 1728 kilometres at an average speed of 25.2 km/h. Daimler engines consistently dominated the early races in France: For example, in the Paris–Dieppe race (triple victory) and Paris–Trouville race (victory) in 1897, or in 1898 in the Marseilles–Nice (triple victory) and Paris–Bordeaux races (winner René de Knyff).
The Mercedes era
Businessman and Austrian Consul General Emil Jellinek bought his first Daimler car in 1897. In 1898, he ordered two Daimler Phoenix 8 hp vehicles, the first Daimler automobiles equipped with a four-cylinder engine. Jellinek resold the automobiles from DMG, primarily to the upper echelons of society on the French Riviera. The business boomed. In 1899, he took delivery of ten DMG vehicles, by 1900 the number had already risen to 29. Meanwhile, the Austrian was calling for increasingly powerful and faster cars, which he also personally entered in racing events. His drives at Nice Week, where he appeared as “ Monsieur Mercédès” were to become the stuff of legend – he borrowed the pseudonym from his daughter Mercedes who was born in 1889. In April 1900, “Mercedes” became the product name when Jellinek and DMG signed an agreement on the sale of cars and engines, and Daimler promised to develop a new engine that was to be called “ Daimler-Mercedes”.
The first car equipped with the new engine, a Mercedes 35 hp, was delivered on 22 December 1900. This first Mercedes designed by Maybach marked an early high point in the development of the modern car: it had a 5.9-litre four-cylinder engine, whose formidable power output of 26 kW (35 hp) permitted a top speed of 100 km/h. Other features included a low centre of gravity, a pressed steel frame, a lightweight engine design and the revolutionary honeycomb radiator at the front – an element which characterises the appearance of the products from the Stuttgart-based brand in modernised form still today.
The Mercedes automobiles dominated Nice Week in March 1901: Wilhelm Werner won the Nice–Salon–Nice race over 392 kilometres at an average speed of 58.1 km/h. Werner also dominated the Nice–La Turbie Hillclimb in the two-seater racing car category, followed by Lemaitre in a second Mercedes 35 hp. Additionally, in a record-breaking attempt Claude Lorraine-Barrow attained an average speed of 79.7 km/h over the standing-start mile (1609.34 metres), setting a new world record.
The general public and experts were thrilled. The Mercedes became the standard of a new era in automobile construction. Anyone who could afford it wanted to own such a car. Customers from all over Europe sent their purchase orders to DMG and accepted long waits. Paul Meyan, general secretary of the French Automobile Club, acknowledged the new supremacy of the German brand: “Nous sommes entrés dans l’ère Mercédès” (“We have entered the Mercedes era”), he wrote after the 1901 Nice Week.
He was to be proven right, as the Stuttgart-based company also dominated the racing events on the French Riviera around Nice in 1902 and 1903 with the evolution of the Mercedes 35 hp – the Mercedes-Simplex 40 hp.
1903: Gordon-Bennett victory in Ireland
The Mercedes-Simplex 40 hp designed by Wilhelm Maybach produced 29.4 kW (40 hp) of power and was strictly designed for more power, easier operation and greater reliability. In this racing car, Count William Eliot Zborowski took second place in the heavy-car category in the Paris–V ienna long-distance race in June 1902. The stretch from Paris to Innsbruck also served as the third event in the series of races for the Gordon Bennett Trophy. At the time, the Gordon Bennett Trophy was the most important competition series in international motor sport, created by American publisher James Gordon Bennett. The Gordon Bennett races of the early 20th century gave rise to the tradition of national colours for racing cars. DMG started for Germany in cars with a white livery. Other colours which became established during these years were green for England, red (originally black) for Italy, blue for France, black and yellow for Austria-Hungary, red and yellow for Switzerland.
The Gordon-Bennett races in Ireland marked the beginning of the era of circuit racing in 1903. DMG had intended to enter the new generation of Mercedes Simplex racing cars in the event, using the more powerful variant with a 66-kW (90-hp) engine built specifically for competition. However, the 90-hp Mercedes racing cars fell victim to a major fire that gutted the Cannstatt factory in June of 1903. Instead, three Mercedes Simplex 60 hp cars lined up at the start in Ireland which DMG had borrowed from private customers with racing ambitions. Despite the setback, Belgian Camille Jenatzy won at an average speed of 79.2 km/h.
As a consequence of the Daimler triumph, the next Gordon Bennett Trophy race was held in Germany in 1904. On a circuit near Homburg in the Taunus region, French driver Léon Théry came out on top. This time, Camille Jenatzy driving his Mercedes 90 hp racing car – almost identical to the vehicles destroyed in the 1903 fire – could manage only second place, followed by Baron de Caters in a second Mercedes.
After the Stuttgart-based company had won again in 1904, the race increasingly sparked criticism in France because the rules only allowed three racing cars per nation to compete. France saw itself at a disadvantage, because six or seven French manufacturers alone were considered potential favourites to win. After prolonged internal squabbles in 1904 and 1905, the Automobile-Club de France announced in 1905 that this was going to be the last year it would organise the Gordon-Bennett race and that it would create a new event, the Grand Prix de l’Automobile-Club de France. The Grand Prix of France thus replaced the Gordon-Bennett races as the most important international motor sport event.
1908: victory in the French Grand Prix
For the team from Stuttgart, which was accustomed to success, the poor showing in 1906 and 1907 was more than enough incentive to no longer leave anything to chance in 1908. And the good preparation paid dividends: On 7 July 1908 Christian Lautenschlager won the most prestigious race of the time at the wheel of the new Mercedes 140 hp Grand Prix racing car. He won the Grand Prix of France ahead of two Benz vehicles. The event was raced over ten laps on a 77-kilometre circuit of public roads near Dieppe, covering a total distance of 769.88 kilometres. 48 cars took part, 9 of them from Germany: 3 Benz, 3 Mercedes, and 3 Opel vehicles. France naturally wanted to underscore its role as the “grande nation” of motor sports in this race against a spectacular backdrop created by some 300,000 spectators, but this hope was dashed by the triple victory of the German racing cars.
The tyres of the Mercedes cars took a beating, with eventual winner Christian Lautenschlager in his Mercedes 140 hp Grand Prix racing car making 22 tyre changes during the race. Despite the adverse conditions, Lautenschlager crossed the finish line in first place after 6 hours, 55 minutes and 43 seconds, almost 9 minutes ahead of Hémery and Hanriot, both in Benz cars. His average speed over the entire distance was an impressive 111.1 km/h. Team-mate Otto Salzer turned in the fastest lap, in a time of 36 minutes and 31 seconds, equivalent to an average speed of 126.5 km/h. Issue No. 29 of 1908 of the Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung reviewed the day’s events as follows: “It was wonderful to see how the Mercedes sped around the course.”
The engine of the Grand Prix car had twin camshafts in the cylinder block, overhead intake valves and side exhaust valves. It was thus built according to Wilhelm Maybach’s design concept for racing engines of the years from 1903 to 1906. From a displacement of 12.8 litres the engine developed a power output of 99 kW (135 hp) at 1,400 rpm. The winning car at Dieppe was also the basis of the Mercedes 150 hp Semmering racing car, entered for the first time in the open racing car class in 1908, in which Otto Salzer won the tenth Semmering Race on 20 September 1908.
The 1908 French Grand Prix marked the birth of modern formula racing. However, after the disappointing outcome of the race from a French perspective – there were only two French cars among the top ten finishers – and the dominance of the German racing cars, the Grand Prix was boycotted in the following years. After the cancellation of the 1909 Grand Prix, France did not stage another Grand Prix until 1912. During this period, DMG did not enter any works teams in races, but continued to build top-flight racing cars for interested private parties – for example, the Mercedes 37/90 hp racing car introduced in 1911 and powered by a 9.5-litre four-cylinder engine. From 1911 to 1913, two of these cars, with Spencer Wishart and Ralph de Palma at the wheel, scored numerous racing victories in the US. Both had wooden spoked wheels and were fitted with a V-shaped radiator cowling.
1914: triple triumph in the French Grand Prix
Mercedes finally surpassed its 1908 success when Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner, and Otto Salzer scored a triple win in the 1914 French Grand Prix, raced on a 37.6-kilometre circuit south of Lyon. For the first time, the rules imposed a limit on displacement, permitting no more than 4.5 litres. DMG entered its new Mercedes Grand Prix racing car. This vehicle had a four-cylinder engine with a completely new design that employed an overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder, marking a first for a Mercedes engine. The racing engine with shaft drive delivered a peak power output of 78 kW (106 hp) at an unprecedentedly high 3,100 rpm.
On 4 July 1914, after intensive preparations, the Mercedes team started in the French Grand Prix in Lyon with five of these cars against supposedly superior competition. The race went over 20 laps covering a good 750 kilometres on a highly testing course. After more than seven hours, Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer scored a resounding triumph, the first-ever triple win for Mercedes, significantly surpassing even the Mercedes success of 1908. This outstanding outcome propelled Mercedes to the top of the international racing scene.
While the war put an end to further racing activities in Europe, at least one of the 1914 Grand Prix cars continued to compete in the US: Ralph de Palma bought one of the winning cars and scored numerous victories with it in the US between 1914 and 1916. The most spectacular result was the victory in the Indy 500 on 31 May 1915. After the war, a modified 4.5-litre car also saw action in Europe again in several races. One particularly successful driver was Count Giulio Masetti, who won a number of races in Italy in 1921 and 1922, including the 1922 Targa Florio.
1921: a new beginning after the First World War
After the end of the war in 1918, Mercedes returned to racing activities, but in the face of extremely difficult economic and political conditions. By themselves the restrictions placed on German and Austrian drivers participating in important competitions such as the French Grand Prix represented a turning point. The first post-war competition vehicle presented by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft after 1918 was the Mercedes 28/95 hp racing touring car of 1921. It was not an entirely new development, but based on the Mercedes 28/95 hp sports touring car of 1914. It was fitted with a new engine that, among other things, featured cylinders which were cast in pairs.
Mercedes achieved some initial successes with this car in 1921: Otto Salzer posted the best time and set a new course record in the 5.6-km Zbraslav– Jíloviště Hillclimb near Prague, driving a two-seater sports car with shortened wheelbase. In the Targa Florio in Sicily, works driver Max Sailer came in second in the overall standings and won the Coppa Florio, the prize for the fastest production car. Sailer drove the racing car to Sicily under its own power. In 1922, Sailer returned to the Targa Florio with the Mercedes 28/95 hp. For the first time, the engine now featured a supercharger that boosted power output to 103 kW (140 hp). Sailer won the category of production cars with a displacement of more than 4.5-litres and finished sixth overall. The overall victory in the gruelling race went to Italian privateer Count Guilio Masetti – also in a Mercedes. The experience gained by DMG in the mechanical supercharging of engines during the war now benefited its successful racing cars.
In 1923, Ferdinand Porsche, previously employed at Austro-Daimler in Vienna, was appointed the new Mercedes chief design engineer. Based on existing vehicles, he developed the racing car for the Targa Florio in April 1924 – a very promising candidate for victory. In January of 1924, the Stuttgart-based company sent two vehicles to Sicily. The eventual winning car was painted red instead of the customary white. This was not a friendly gesture toward the hosts, but shrewd tactics: as spectators were able to recognise the racing cars of other nations by their colour from a distance, some of them hurled rocks at unpopular rivals.
The gruelling 540-kilometre race ended in victory for Christian Werner. Christian Lautenschlager finished in tenth place, and a new driver on the DMG team finished in 15th place: 33-year-old Alfred Neubauer who had followed Ferdinand Porsche from Vienna to Untertürkheim. Neubauer went on to make racing history for Mercedes-Benz as racing director. “This victory is at the same time a success of the supercharged engine,” the Mercedes press office stated shortly after the race. The Targa Florio did indeed mark the beginning of a new era in motor sport. The supercharger became standard technology on Mercedes racing cars and until 1939 remained a guarantor for many magnificent victories. After the Targa Florio, the car saw some more action in a number of other races. For sprints and hill climb events, Otto Salzer even had a 4.5-litre engine from the 1914 Grand Prix car installed in the chassis, additionally fitting it with a supercharger. In this “ Grandmother”, as he dubbed the beast, he won the 13th Semmering Race in September 1924, and other races.
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