In 1886 Carl Benz invented the automobile as a means of transport: his motor vehicle was a technical masterpiece that would change people’s everyday lives. The Mannheim inventor expressly wasted no thoughts on competitive sport during the early years.
He even voiced criticism of such activities: “Instead of taking part in races which provide no benefits in terms of experience, but on the contrary cause damage, we will continue to set store by the production of robust and reliable touring cars,” were the words of Carl Benz in 1901. Even 15 years after his invention Benz apparently held a low opinion of the innovative power of motorsport and its strong promotional impact on the public.
And yet as early as in 1895, two Benz cars were among the first eight to cross the finish line in the Paris – Bordeaux – Paris race. And a Roger-Benz finished fifth in 1894 in the first car race in history. Benz & Cie. had been making what can positively be described as racing cars for two years when the company founder voiced his criticism. The driving force behind this involvement were Benz’s sons, Eugen and Richard. The first car of the brand uncompromisingly designed for sport was the 8 hp Benz racing car of 1899, with which Fritz Held scored a class victory and won the ‘Grand Golden Medal’ in the Frankfurt – Cologne long-distance run over 193.2 kilometres, averaging a speed of 22.5 km/h. Another Benz 8 hp car with Emil Graf as driver was runner-up.
Also in 1899, Baron Theodor von Liebieg won the first International Race in Vienna in the 8 hp (5.9 kW) car. Further successes were achieved in 1899 with the uprated, now 12 hp (8.8 kW) engine by Fritz Held, who placed second in the Innsbruck – Munich run and emerged from the Berlin – Leipzig run as winner for the shortest travelling time, together with Richard Benz. Benz also posted successes in America: Oskar Mueller was the only driver to finish in the first automobile race in the USA from Chicago to Waukegan and back on 2 November. In another competition a few weeks later he took second place.
In 1900 and 1901 Benz & Cie. offered a production racing car in it sales range, derived from the 8 hp racer. Price: 15,000 marks. In this vehicle the output of the two-cylinder horizontally opposed engine (‘Contra’ engine) already had risen to 16 hp (12 kW). It had central lubrication, a water pump, and a gear train permitting four ratios and a reverse gear. On its very first use in the Eisenach – Oberhof – Meiningen – Eisenach mountain race in 1900, the car, driven by Fritz Scarisbrick of Hanau, finished second and averaged a speed of 30.1 km/h. In the Mannheim – Pforzheim – Mannheim long-distance race to commemorate the journey of Bertha Benz in 1888, that took place on May 13, 1900, the winner was Fritz Held in a 16 hp Benz.
Also in 1900, for Benz & Cie. Georg Diehl developed a 20 hp (15 kW) racing car with a four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine. This was the brand’s first competition car that had an angled steering column with steering wheel. In an international track race in Frankfurt over a distance of 48 kilometres on 29 July 1900, Mathias Bender, 25-year-old Benz chief mechanic, won in this car. His time computes to an average speed of 47.5 km/h – just short of the limit of 50 km/h postulated by Carl Benz, the automotive pioneer, as maximum speed for safe and sane driving. Scarisbrick took second place with the 16 hp two-cylinder model. However, the successes of 1900 could not be repeated with this car in the period following because the competition from DMG in Cannstatt with the new Mercedes simply was too strong.
Carl Benz’s scepticism of motorsport may also have been connected with the slower development of automobile racing in Germany as compared with France: Whereas the world’s first official car race in 1894 was followed by several thousand people, four years later only relatively few spectators marvelled at the first German motorsport competition (in which Benz and Daimler cars were at the start). The enthusiasm for motor racing had to have time to grow in Germany – like the spread of the automobile itself.
1903: Benz avows motor racing
The differences of opinion between Carl Benz and his partner Julius Ganss regarding the alignment of the model range had the result that in 1902 a second design department headed by the Frenchman Marius Barbarou was set up at Benz & Cie. in Mannheim. One task of the team was to build an up-to-date racing car to compete with Mercedes. Barbarou designed the 60 hp ‘Parsifal’ racing car, consistently applying lightweight design principles: the vehicle weighed 782 kilograms, and especially the engine was very light compared with the Mercedes engines.
In 1903 the car, featuring a four-cylinder engine displacing 11,260 cubic centimetres, saw action only once in a long-distance race. Barbarou himself drove the Parsifal in May 1903 in the Paris – Madrid race as far as Bordeaux, where the competition was called off on account of numerous accidents. On 19 June 1903 Barbarou then won the Kilometre Race of Huy in Belgium in a lightweight version of the Parsifal racing car averaging a speed of 119.2 km/h.
The frictions in the company management of Benz & Cie. were reduced appreciably when Carl Benz left the company in 1903 and returned as a technical advisor in 1904. 1905 was a year of consolidation of the model range and of the development of new vehicles. In 1906 the new 38/60 hp Benz high-performance racing car with 8.9 litre engine and 60 hp (44 kW) output was created. At the Targa Florio in April 1907 the three Benz drivers Fritz Erle, Paul Spamann and Duke von Bojano managed to win the team prize for regularity in this vehicle. Clocking nine hours eleven minutes and 15 seconds, Erle also finished 15th in the overall ranking. These successes are also indicative of a major shift in the attitude of Benz & Cie. towards motor racing around the turn of the century.
The Targa Florio racer of 1907 also was the basis of three cars with which Benz & Cie. participated in the Emperor’s Prize Race, a German racing event announced by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. The rules of this race called for a minimum weight of 1175 kilograms and restricted engine displacement to a maximum of eight litres. Fritz Erle used two different engines, an oversquare engine with a bore of 145 millimetres and a stroke of 120 millimetres, and a rather undersquare powerplant (130 x 140 millimetres). But neither variant was destined to succeed: Neither Benz nor Mercedes scored well in the race that took place in June 1907 in the hills of the Taunus. Winner of the Emperor’s Prize was the Italian Felice Nazzaro in a Fiat; the bester German driver was Carl Jörns in an Opel.
1908: Prince Heinrich as promoter of motor racing
In June 1908, in a 50 hp Benz Erle won the 3rd Herkomer Rally (Dresden – Eisenach – Mannheim – Lindau – Munich – Augsburg – Frankfurt/Main) to capture the Herkomer Challenge Trophy. The Benz touring car also won the 1st Prince Heinrich Rally in 1908: the race in June from Berlin to Frankfurt/Main was the first of a series of, in all, three Prince Heinrich Rallies in the years 1908 to 1910, which upheld the heritage of the Herkomer competitions of the years 1905 to 1907. The purpose of these rallies was to cultivate motor tourism and perfect the touring car. However, various trials along the way definitely had racing character.
In July 1907 Prince Heinrich of Prussia, the brother of the German emperor and very keen on automobiles, donated the Challenge Trophy for his major international rally that was to be held in 1908 and after. The regulations limited entries to four- or six-cylinder four-seaters which were licensed to drive on public roads and could prove at least 2000 kilometres in service on the day of acceptance.
Benz & Cie. took part in the first Prince Heinrich Rally from 9 to 17 June 1908 over a distance of 2201 kilometres with a total of eleven vehicles that had rated outputs of 25, 50 or 75 hp (18, 37 and 55 kW). In a field of 129 participants, Fritz Erle in his Benz 7.5 litre special touring car with nominal 50 hp (37 kW) came out on top in the end.
The second Prince Heinrich Rally from 10 to 18 June 1909 covered a distance of 1858 kilometres over the route Berlin – Breslau (Wroclaw) – Tatra-Lomnicz – Vienna – Salzburg – Munich. The field numbered 108, including eight Benz special touring cars with rated outputs of 20 hp (15 kW). Winner in the overall placings was Wilhelm Opel in an Opel; the best Benz, driven by Edward Forchheimer, managed a fourth place finish.
The third race of the series was held from 2 to 8 June 1910 over a distance of 1945 kilometres on the route Berlin – Braunschweig – Kassel – Nuremberg – Strasbourg – Metz – Homburg vor der Höhe. Benz developed ten completely new special touring cars for this rally, four with 5.7 litres displacement and six with 7.3 litres displacement. Unlike the Benz cars entered in previous Prince Heinrich rallies, the 1910 cars were equipped with propeller shafts and had aerodynamically optimised coachwork with a characteristic pointed rear end.
As in 1909, for Benz the 1910 Prince Heinrich Rally did not end with the hoped-for victory. Fritz Erle in a 5.7 litre car with 80 hp (59 KW) finished in fifth place as best driver of the brand. Most of the Benz cars for the Prince Heinrich Rallies of 1908 to 1910 were used for other races and rallyes after they served their intended purpose, and then were sold to private customers with sporting ambitions.
1908: The Benz Grand Prix cars
After a lengthier absence, Benz & Cie. sought to return to top-level international racing by participating in the 1908 French Grand Prix. Hans Nibel and Louis de Groulart took on the task of designing a powerful racing car for this purpose. Benz chief design engineer Georg Diehl directed the project. The Belgian de Groulart came to Benz in Mannheim in 1903 together with Marius Barbarou and soon made a name for himself as an engine designer.
The chassis design of the 120 hp Benz followed tried and tested principles. Distinguishing features of the vehicle included a frame made of pressed steel shapes with offset side members over the rear axle. It also had spring-band dampers on the front and rear wheels. The four-cylinder engine designed by de Groulart had overhead valves controlled via pushrods and rocker arms by a camshaft in the cylinder block. At 154.9 millimetres the bore was close to the permissible limit, and together with the stroke of 165 millimetres gave the engine a displacement of 12.4 litres.
The first car was completed in March 1908 and subjected to extensive testing. It saw its first racing action on the 1st of June in the Moscow – Petersburg race over a distance of 686 kilometres, with Victor Héméry scoring an overall win in the record time of eight hours 30 minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 80.6 km/h.
The very next race spelled the big challenge: the French Grand Prix on 7 July 1908 in Dieppe. The Benz drivers Victor Héméry and René Hanriot finished second and third behind Christian Lautenschlager in a Mercedes. Team manager Fritz Erle came in seventh. Mercedes and Benz thus shared the triumph over the French racing teams, which had expected a home win.
A direct derivative of the 120 hp model was the 150 hp Benz racing car, whose engine, thanks to the enlargement of its stroke to 200 millimetres, now obtained an output of 158 hp (116 kW) at 1500 rpm from 15.1 litres piston displacement. It was first used on 20 September 1908 in the Semmering race, in which Fritz Erle captured third place in the category of racing cars with displacements in excess of eight litres. In the same race Héméry came in third in the Grand Prix racing car category in a 120 hp Benz.
In the American Grand Prix held on 26 November 1908 in Savannah the company entered three 150 hp Benz racing cars. A minor accident forced Erle to retire, while Victor Héméry and René Hanriot came in second and fourth. In the USA, various drivers achieved many further successes in sprint races and record-breaking attempts with the 150 hp Benz in the years 1908 and 1909. Barney Oldfield (even more spectacular records would gain him fame later) attained a top speed of 183.4 km/h on 19 August 1909 on the raceway in Indianapolis, which had been completed shortly before; his average speed for the mile with standing start was 134.4 km/h.
1910: The ‘Blitzen-Benz’
This car is the absolute antithesis to the demand of Carl Benz for a ‘sensible’ car that would do no more than 50 km/h. The 200 hp Benz, celebrated and famous mainly under the name coined for it in America, ‘Lightning Benz’ or ‘Blitzen-Benz’, once and for all propelled the Mannheim brand into the focus of a motorsport-minded public. Speed records were its principal speciality, underscoring the evolution of the automobile into the fastest means of transport in the early years of the 20th century.
In this pursuit of ever higher speeds by the various car manufacturers, the Blitzen-Benz was one of the most successful cars of an entire epoch: 228.1 km/h – never before had a land vehicle travelled as fast as the Mannheim world-record car driven by Bob Burman on 23 April 1911 over the kilometre with flying start at Daytona Beach in Florida in the USA. Over the flying mile the car attained an equally spectacular average speed of 225.65 km/h. These records stood until 1919. The Benz was twice as fast as any airplane of the period and also beat the record for rail vehicles (1903: 210 km/h).
The design of the car can be traced back to the successful Benz Grand Prix cars of 1908. Engineers Victor Héméry, Hans Nibel and their colleagues created an impressive automobile which for a long time would be the fastest thing on wheels in the world with its mighty, exactly 21,500 cc four-cylinder engine. The enormous displacement itself is a record. No racing car or record-breaking car of either Benz & Cie., Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft or Daimler-Benz AG ever would have more cubic centimetres. In the first version this tremendous engine developed 184 hp (135 kW) at 1500 rpm, but careful fine-tuning by the engineers finally yielded 200 hp (147 kW) at 1600 rpm. The body was built around this engine, the basis being the chassis of the Grand Prix car.
The car gave a little foretaste of its performance on its very first use, in the Frankfurt/Main kilometre race, which Fritz Erle won clocking up an average speed of 159.3 km/h with a flying start. The 200 hp Benz visited the record-breaking circuits of the Old World. The concrete oval in Brooklands, England, for example. It pushed back all the known limits and soon showed that the courses in Europe were too short and too small for the targeted speeds.
In 1910 the car was shipped to America with a new body. There it was bought by event manager Ernie Moross, who gave it the appealing name ‘Lightning Benz’ – because the car was as fast as lightning. Soon Barney Oldfield broke the existing world record in Daytona Beach, clocking up a speed of 211.97 km/h. Without exception, such high-speed runs were carried out on sand tracks in those days; considering the rather poor roadholding compared with today and the lack of a windscreen, such achievements of these daredevil drivers merit particular respect.
Moross translated the name into its German equivalent – ‘Blitzen Benz’ – and continued to delight the public with the exploits of this amazing vehicle. The car became a popular attraction after the fashion of a travelling circus, travelling through the USA from one town to another. It was during this tour, in April 1911, that the ‘Blitzen-Benz’, with Bob Burman at the wheel, broke the world record set just a short time before by clocking up a speed of 228.1 km/h, which then stood for many years. Five other ‘Blitzen-Benz’ cars were made in addition to the record-breaking vehicle.
Neither Benz & Cie. nor Mercedes took any official part in motor sport activities during the First World War and for two years after the end of the conflict, although the triumphs of the German automobile were continued during these years by some individual drivers in their private capacity. At the beginning of the 1920s, Benz & Cie. again made a number of racing cars based on production vehicles. A modified chassis would be fitted with an aerodynamically optimised body, always with the distinctive pointed rear reminiscent of the ‘Blitzen-Benz’.
The Avus opening race on 24 and 25 September 1921 featured four of these Benz vehicles: two 6/18 hp and two 10/30 hp cars. The X B class event (for cars with up to 10 tax hp and overhead valves) was won by works driver Franz Hörner on one of the 10/30 hp vehicles, with an average speed of 118.1 km/h over the distance of 157.4 kilometres. In spite of a good start, the VI B class race ended less successfully, when the event was terminated in the second lap because of technical problems affecting all the competitors. Willy Walb withdrew because of a broken splint in the rocker arm retainer, in spite of the replacement of the splints for safety’s sake after the pre-race training session, when the entire engine had been dismantled and reassembled.
The Benz 6/18 hp did not have a large number of racing victories, but its design was nonetheless seen as very advanced, particularly the engine. The 1.6-litre unit developed 45 hp (33 kW), a very impressive figure for its time. This was achieved with a standard two-valve design, rather than four valves per cylinder as claimed in erroneous descriptions of the engine found in some automotive sources. The engine had an overhead camshaft driven by a vertical shaft, two valves and a crankshaft with friction bearing.
In October 1921, Willy Walb was the overall Class I winner at the Baden-Baden automobile tournament, in a Benz 6/18 hp. And in September 1922, Hörner won the Semmering race in his Benz 200 hp, with an average speed of 79.1 km/h – so 12 years on, the record-breaking car was still able to win on the racetrack.
1923: Benz Tropfenwagen
Four years after the end of the war, the Mannheim plant produced a truly spectacular car, in the Tropfenwagen (literally ‘drop car’, because of its shape reminiscent of the drop of liquid). The construction of four of these cars, for use as racing vehicles, had started in 1922, but the economic problems of the time meant that they were not completed until 1923. The original design was by Edmund Rumpler, who presented the vehicle at the Berlin Automobile Exhibition in 1921. Benz immediately acquired the construction rights for the vehicle, because of the truly revolutionary design featuring streamlined contours and a mid-engine.
The car made its debut on the racetrack on 9 September 1923 in the European Grand Prix in Monza. Of the company’s cars entered in the event, Minoia finished in fourth place and Franz Hörner in fifth. For the purposes of grand prix racing, the cars were fitted with an additional outside radiator in front of the engine on the right-hand side. A further modification one year later was to move the rear wheel drum brakes from the middle of the axle to the rear wheel hub. The racing vehicle also now included a new elbow-style stub axle instead of the continuous straight front axle.
From 1923, a modified body version of the Benz Tropfenwagen was also made as a sports car, with small production runs, and successfully competed in this form alongside the racing version in various races and mountain events. In 1925, for example, Adolf Rosenberger won the Solitude race for the up to eight tax hp class, and Willy Walb was the winner in the sports cars with up to five litres displacement category in the Schauinsland race in 1925.
The Benz Tropfenwagen was prevented from winning more races by the economic crisis in Germany, and also the collaboration between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft as from 1924, leading to the merger of the two companies on 28/29 June 1926 to create the Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft stock corporation. In the period leading up to the merger, most racing activities were transferred to DMG.
Source: Daimler AG