1909 was a special year in the history of Benz& Cie, crowned by the achievements of a record-breaking car which has sealed its place in automotive folklore as one of the most inspirational models ever made. Powered by a quite awe-inspiring 21.5-litre 147-kW engine, the “Blitzen-Benz” reduced the then mythical 200 km/h landmark to a footnote in history.
No other road-going vehicle could compete, whilst the world’s fastest trains and even the aircraft of the time were left gasping in its wake. A land-speed record which remained intact for eight years represents a suitable legacy for this era-defining vehicle. Six examples of the Lightning Benz were built in total; these were used in Europe and the United States.
Of these, four have survived to this day: one Lightning Benz is in the possession of the Mercedes-Benz Museum, a second original vehicle, the only four-seater version, is in the hands of a collector in the United States. In 2004 another enthusiast for the brand in the US completed a private project to build a replica copy using many original parts. This project was carried out in close cooperation with the collection of the Mercedes-Benz Museum and the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. The fourth vehicle, built in England, is a replica of the blue Hémery car.
Faster than any plane, train or automobile
Der Name Benz klingt fast wie ein Synonym zum Automobil: Schließlich ist es Carl Benz, der am 29. Januar 1886 das Patent für seinen Motorwagen erhält – die Geburtsurkunde des Automobils. Gottlieb Daimlers Motorkutsche rollt nur wenige Wochen später das erste Mal. Bis zur Wende vom 19. auf das 20. Jahrhundert schwingt sich Benz zum größten Autohersteller der Welt auf. Die Fahrzeuge aus dem Werk in Mannheim genießen einen vorzüglichen Ruf, sie gelten als alltagstauglich und zuverlässig.
Das kann man noch lange nicht von jedem Fabrikat sagen, das zu jener Zeit die Straßen bevölkert. Denn eine Vielzahl von Marken ist entstanden. Und Benz muss feststellen, dass in dieser unübersichtlichen Landschaft ein klingender Name allein kein Garant für Markterfolg ist. Die Konkurrenten und nicht zuletzt die Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft wissen sportliche Erfolge ihrer Fahrzeuge geschickt für Werbezwecke einzusetzen. Dagegen hat Benz sich trotz Engagement im Rennsport gewehrt und lieber die Alltagswerte seiner erschwinglichen Fahrzeuge herausgestellt.
Julius Ganss, bei Benz & Cie. im Vorstand, hat sich intensiv mit der Wettbewerbsfähigkeit des Unternehmens beschäftigt und ist zu dem Schluss gekommen, dass auch Benz sich den modernen Marktmechanismen nicht entziehen darf. Er kennt die Qualitäten seiner Mobile und weiß: Das Unternehmen ist in der Lage, einen Sportwagen zu bauen, der schneller ist als alle andere Mobile jener Zeit – die Eisenbahn und das Flugzeug eingeschlossen.
Zu Beginn des Jahres 1909 gibt der Vorstand die Order, ein Auto zu konstruieren, das mühelos die damals magische Marke von 200 km/h überschreiten kann. Basis ist der Motor des Grand-Prix Benz 150 PS, doch diese Leistung reicht für das ehrgeizige Vorhaben nicht aus. Zwecks Steigerung greift man zu einer wirksamen Methode: Der Hubraum wird auf 21,5 Liter vergrößert – mehr wird nie mehr ein Renn- oder Rekordwagen von Benz & Cie., der Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft oder der Daimler-Benz AG haben. In der ersten Ausführung leistet der Motor 135 kW bei 1500/min, was durch sorgfältige Feinarbeit schließlich auf 147 kW bei 1600/min gesteigert wird. Das Gewicht des auch in seiner physischen Erscheinung gewaltigen Motors beträgt 407 Kilogramm.
Der Motor mit der Nummer 5100 kommt in ein modifiziertes Chassis des Benz Grand-Prix-Wagens. Das Fahrzeug erhält – der üblichen Namenslogik mit einer Leistungsangabe in PS folgend – die Bezeichnung Benz 200 PS. Fritz Erle, Konstrukteur bei Benz und später Leiter der Versuchs- und der Rennabteilung, nimmt am 22. August 1909 am Kilometerrennen in Frankfurt/Main teil und siegt prompt mit einem Spitzenwert: Er legt die Distanz nach fliegendem Start in 22,6 Sekunden mit einer Durchschnittsgeschwindigkeit von 159,3 km/h zurück und erhält den Preis der Großherzogin von Hessen.
Ein Rekordwagen ist geboren
The Benz name is synonymous with the development of the automobile, and with good reason. It was, after all, Carl Benz who on 29 January 1886 was granted the patent which now serves as the birth certificate of the automobile. Just a few weeks later, Gottlieb Daimler’s motorised carriage turned its first wheels. As the 1800s gave way to the final century of the millennium, Benz towered over the world’s auto makers, the cars produced at the Mannheim factory earning an enviable reputation for practicality and reliability.
These were relatively rare qualities among the cars populating the roads at the time. A slew of new auto brands had emerged from nowhere, forcing Benz to recognise that a resonant name was not in itself enough to guarantee success in a marketplace with little structure or pattern. The company’s rivals, not least Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, had latched onto the potential of motor sport success as an advertising tool. Despite competing in a series of events, Benz had resisted the temptation to follow suit, preferring to accentuate the virtues of its affordable cars in everyday use.
However, after investigating ways of increasing competitiveness, Julius Ganss – a member of the company’s board of management – came to the conclusion that even Benz could not afford to ignore the intricacies of modern market mechanisms. With a thorough appreciation of the qualities inherent in the company’s models, he knew that Benz was perfectly equipped to build a sports car which could outstrip any other form of transport at the time – trains and aircraft included.
In early 1909 the board gave the green light to construction of a car which would glide effortlessly through the magic 200 km/h barrier. Providing the thrust to match the rhetoric was the engine from the grand-prix Benz 150 hp, yet even this output fell short of what was required to fulfil such an ambitious brief. In the hour of need, the engineers fell back on a trusted method and bumped displacement up to 21.5 litres – setting a standard no other racing or record-chasing car produced by Benz & Cie., Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft or Daimler Benz AG would ever reach again. The engine developed 135 kW at 1500 rpm in its original incarnation, before some technical trickery saw this figure rise to 147 kW at 1600 rpm. Weighing in at 407 kg, it was almost as imposing in its sheer physical size as in the power it produced.
The engine with the serial number 5100 was fitted in a modified chassis of the Benz grand-prix car. In line with the usual naming method stating the output in hp, the vehicle was designated the Benz 200 hp. On 22 August 1909 Fritz Erle – a designer at Benz and later head of the testing and motor sport departments – stormed to victory in the one-kilometre race in Frankfurt/Main in double-quick time. Erle covered the kilometre with flying start in 22.6 seconds, equivalent to an average speed of 159.3 km/h and enough to earn him the Grand Duchess of Hesse prize.
Mission accomplished: A record-breaking car is born
Works driver Victor Hémery drove the racing car for the first time on 17 October 1909, totally outclassing the competition in a sprint race in Brussels. And the tarmac had barely had time to dry on the newly opened Brooklands circuit in England when the Benz works driver arrived on 8 November 1909 to set a new land-speed record. Hémery covered the half-mile distance from a flying start at an average speed of 205.666 km/h and the one-kilometre distance at 202.648 km/h, breaking the all-important 200 km/h mark for the first time in Europe and proving that the car was capable of fulfilling its raison d’être. This was, after all, a machine built to break records, and other new milestones were soon to follow. The kilometre from a standing start was completed in 31.326 seconds, the half-mile in 25.566 seconds, and the mile in 41.268 seconds, equalling the existing records held by Darracq.
Historical photos show that the car already had its characteristic aerodynamic body at the one-kilometre race in Frankfurt/Main: Erle and Hémery made the car as narrow as possible in order to reduce wind resistance to a minimum, which explains why the gearshift and handbrake levers and the exhaust system were located outside the car body, with only bulges in the hood giving the exhaust rocker arms the space they required. The high-standing, narrow radiator core was accommodated behind a brass grille, whose upper end formed an expansion tank pointing out sharply from the front of the car. This “bird’s beak” helped to give the record-breaking machine its striking and somewhat aggressive appearance, whilst at the rear of the car the body tapered off into a pointed tail. When it came to the seat positions, the driver and co-driver – whose job it was to operate the hand-operated petrol pump – were literally shoulder-to-shoulder.
Pushing back the boundaries
The first record-breaking outings of the modified Benz 200 hp provided early indications that this was a model destined to push back the boundaries. Indeed, the speeds which this bull of a car was aiming for meant that it quickly outgrew the confines of European race circuits. Benz & Cie. knew that this would not be a problem in the USA and the decision was quickly taken to cross the Atlantic. Achieving further success with the record-breaking car in the States – an important overseas market – would not be bad for business, at any rate.
And so, after completing a series of trial runs around Mannheim, the car was shipped off to America in January 1910, new body and all. 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: 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 17 March 1910 without any kind of specific preparation for his first record attempt – and duly posted a new world best of 211.97 km/h.
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 motor sport 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 determining the valid speed.
Undeterred, 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 had a small German Imperial Eagle painted onto the right-hand side of the hood.
Raising the bar: the land-speed record reaches 228.1 km/h
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 – to the disgust 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 225.65 km/h for the mile with flying start and 228.1 km/h over the kilometre with flying start – a new land-speed record which was to remain unbroken until 1919. At the time, this made the Benz twice as fast as an aircraft, whilst the rail speed record (1903: 210 km/h) was also blasted out of sight. The Blitzen-Benz spent the rest of the season decked out in “warpaint”, an imposing Imperial Eagle and thick trim lines 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 I was passed on to Stoughton Fletcher, who hired Burman to carry out the necessary conversion work over the course of 1914. In October 1915, Fletcher then sold the Blitzen to Harry Harkness.
On 2 November 1915 the car made its public return, re-badged as the “Burman Special” for a match-up 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 Europe. Its journey may have taken it via Mannheim on its way to the Brooklands track in England, where it appeared in 1922 sporting 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 second coming
Shortly after the first record-breaking car had been shipped to America in January 1910, the engineers in Mannheim had fitted another 21.5-litre engine (no. 6257) into a chassis/grand-prix body combination. Striking features included the triangular fuel tank mounted at the rear end. This was the model which Fritz Erle drove to victory in the sprint race in Gaillon, France, on 2 October 1910, recording an average speed of
156.5 km/h to comfortably top the unrestricted racing car class and set a new record into the bargain. Shortly after his return, Erle had improvements carried out on the car, with the body brought higher up around the cockpit to offer the driver greater protection, spoked wheels with central locks added, the frame endings covered and the two seats arranged parallel to one another.
Meanwhile, a second, more aerodynamically efficient body had been constructed for the car in the style of the original Blitzen-Benz and could be fitted to the chassis as an alternative. Erle entered the car in a series of races in 1911 and 1912, alternating the body variant from race to race but without being convinced by any difference in performance.
This second-generation Benz 200 hp was also shipped over to America, although it is unclear exactly when. What is certain is that Bob Burman competed in a race with the car at Brooklyn Brighton Beach on 7 September 1912 and improved on the track record set by Blitzen-Benz I.
Benz versus Benz
The first meeting of the Blitzen-Benz took place on 30 September 1912 in St. Louis, where the two Benz 200 hp cars came face to face on the starting line. The event captured the imagination of American sports reporters, prompting rather over-the-top references to the new car as the “300-hp Jumbo-Benz”, even though both cars had identical engines. The two cars lined up alongside each other for further record attempts on San Diego beach shortly before Christmas 1912, with the second-generation model now also afforded “Blitzen-Benz” status. During the attempt, a fire broke out on one of the cars, presumably Blitzen-Benz I, prompting the quick-thinking Burman to steer it quickly into the Pacific waters to put out the flames. Moross spent 4000 dollars on restoring the car to its former glory.
In 1914 the Blitzen-Benz II stretched its legs over the salt lake in Bonneville, Teddy Tetzlaff recording a speed of 229.85 km/h. The car went on to compete in various races up to 1917, after which things become less clear. It is likely that the Benz 200 hp was bought in 1917 by Ralph Hankinson, a dirt-track race organiser. However, with his business subsequently entering into bankruptcy it appears that the car was snapped up by a carnival society sometime around 1919. From there the trail runs cold.
Work on the third Benz 200 hp ever built was completed in 1912. Once again, Fritz Erle was the man at the wheel as the new car limbered up for the Gaillon Hill Climb in France on 6 October 1912. Erle was to further improve his record in the event, notching up an average speed of 163.63 km/h. Driver and car journeyed back to France for the hill climb at Limonest near Lyon on 25 May 1913, Erle taking victory in record time. The car was returned to Mannheim after the race to have the splash lubrication in its engine (no. 9141) replaced with a circulatory lubrication system.
It was then that L. G. “Cupid” Hornsted arrived on the scene in Mannheim. Inspired by success in an aging Benz racing car, the British-based Benz dealer had come to Germany to inquire about the possibility of getting his hands on a more powerful machine. The Mannheim management approved the sale of a Benz 200 hp. Hornsted immediately requested a series of modifications be made to the car, including a different radiator grille and – optionally fitted – a wind deflector as well as numerous technical tweaks. Bearing blue paintwork, the car made its debut at the Brooklands circuit in November 1913 and the following month Hornsted broke Hémery’s record with a speed of 118.4 km/h for the kilometre with standing start. On 14 January 1914 the Englishman racked up a total of seven new leading marks, including the highest two-way average speed – 199.3 km/h – for the half mile with flying start. Hornsted had already given a demonstration of his driving skill a week earlier, somehow regaining control of the Benz 200 hp after a puncture at around 190 km/h had launched the car into a series of spins.
The car was subsequently transported back to the Mannheim plant, where it spent the duration of the First World War under wraps in the testing department. When the fighting was over, the mechanics set about putting together serviceable models from the materials available. Two such cars were completed, one of which was based on the chassis used for Hornsted’s Benz and fitted with a reproduction of the Blitzen-Benz II body. Among the distinctive details of the new car were the fully-covered wire spoke wheels, its sharply tapered rear end and the staggered seats. In 1922 it was brought over to Brooklands and presented to Horace V. Barlow as his works car, man and machine promptly roaring to victory in its first outing in August 1922. Competing in a different race on the same bill was Count Zborowski in the Blitzen-Benz II. Then, on
30 September 1922, Captain John Duff drove Blitzen no. 3 to a fastest lap of 184.21 km/h in the “100 MPH” short-course handicap race. However, a sudden braking problem caused the car to swerve off the upper edge of the high-bank curve, the resultant impact ripping the car to pieces. The mangled wreckage was transported back to Mannheim.
The “grandmother” knits together a series of fine performances
The fourth Benz 200 hp (engine number 9143) came to life around 1912. The latest incarnation sported a broad radiator, wood-spoke wheels and the racing body of the car driven by Erle in 1910/11. The car was entered in several races up to the outbreak of the First World War, with Franz Hörner – a junior driver supported by Hémery and Erle – among those given the privilege at the wheel. The wood-spoke wheels survived beyond the end of the war, giving the car a rather antiquated appearance and earning it the nickname “the grandmother” in its first races post-1918. Appearances, however, proved deceptive, with the Mark-IV Blitzen-Benz enjoying a consistent record of success throughout the 1920s. It was then that the car launched its second career as an ambassador for the Benz brand, exploiting the magnetic hold which record-breaking cars exerted over the public at large. A special exhaust system was added to the latest Benz 200 hp to maximise its promotional impact, a flap allowing the exhaust gases either to flow out directly and with an ear-splitting roar through truncated pipes, or to pass through a rather quieter system.
The Blitzen-Benz held by the Mercedes-Benz Museum
1935 was dominated by a major anniversary at Daimler-Benz. It had been 50 years since the company started to make automobiles, and another Benz 200 hp – the car which can currently be found at the Mercedes-Benz Museum – was built from the parts still at hand as an exhibition piece for the celebrations. Some of the components were taken from the “grandmother”, others – the hub locks, for example, and probably the radiator and the central section of the body – from the wreckage of Hornsted’s Blitzen. In order to make the car look slightly more aerodynamic, the wood-spoke wheels were fitted with aluminium covers. Plus, the engine cover, rear section and the cover of the truncated exhaust were all newly manufactured.
Lightning strikes twice
There were still two other Benz 200 hp cars in circulation. Madrid-based Benz dealer Treumann sold car no. 5 (engine number 9145) to Mr. J. Ratis in Barcelona and the customer received his Benz on 20 February 1913. What happened to it next is unknown.
Meanwhile, the Benz dealership in Antwerp, Belgium, sold Blitzen-Benz no. 6 to a Mr. M. Heje from Gent, who took delivery of the car on 24 December 1913, thereby setting himself a very special Christmas present. This was the only Blitzen-Benz (engine number 13280) with an extended chassis (3200 mm instead of 2800 mm) and a four-seat touring body. The latest model was also a frequent entrant in record attempts at Brooklands. The car remained in England for a long time, before being acquired by an American collector in 2002.
Their success vindicated the decision taken by Benz & Cie. to put these special cars into production. The technical excellence of a car capable of setting a record that stood for more than eight years was undeniable. With the company also enjoying success with other racing cars during the Blitzen era, it was no surprise that the brand was the source of widespread interest and sales were booming. The company was raking in the cash, but the lustre and flair conjured up by the Blitzen-Benz should not be calculated in economic terms alone, as its enduring appeal has proved.
A new chapter in the history of the Blitzen-Benz
Indeed, 2004 has seen the latest Blitzen-Benz taking shape, an American collector refusing to be intimidated by the costs involved and commissioning the construction of what is in effect the seventh Benz 200 hp. In a remarkable show of trust, the Mercedes-Benz Museum loaned him its own Blitzen-Benz for a period of a year to serve as a template for this most extraordinary of projects. Mercedes-Benz Classic also supplied the parts from the Hornsted car still held in its stocks– including engine no. 9141 and several other essential components – in order to add as much authenticity as possible to the reproduction. Sections of an original body, meanwhile, were still available in the USA.
At the same time, specialists were restoring the Museum’s Blitzen and preparing it for action once again. The history of the Blitzen-Benz roared gloriously back to life as the engine struck its first notes of the 21st century, the wheels turning again to the resonant tones from under the hood. The speeds they achieved may have been modest by today’s standards, but there is still broadly-held respect for those early drivers and the bravery they showed at the huge steering wheels of these imposing machines. All they had to protect themselves on those heroic record attempts at speeds of up to 228.1 km/h was a pair of glasses – and you literally shudder to think how the suspension must have felt north of 200 km/h. These were tough characters worthy of an awesome car.
Source: Daimler AG