1899: The first Benz racing cars
The ‘lightning Benz’ becomes the first internal combustion engine-powered automobile to break the 200 km/h barrier
The streamlined ‘teardrop car’ of 1923
Carl Benz invented the automobile in 1886 as a means of transport: his motor vehicle was a technical masterpiece that would change people’s everyday lives. The Mannheim inventor clearly had no time for races and competitions, and expressed some forthright criticisms of such activities: ‘Rather than taking part in races which teach us nothing useful and indeed actually cause harm, we will continue to focus on producing robust and reliable touring cars,’ he said as late as 1901. Even 15 years after his invention, Benz apparently had little regard for motor sport as a driver of innovation and for the advertising potential generated by its high public profile.
And yet as early as in 1895, two Benz cars were among the first eight vehicles to cross the finish line in the Paris–Bordeaux–Paris race. And even before that, in 1894, a Roger-Benz had successfully completed the first automotive competition in history from Paris to Rouen. At the very time when the company founder was voicing these criticisms, Benz & Cie. had therefore in fact been designing purpose-built racing cars for two years. This commitment was driven by 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, in which Fritz Held scored a class victory and won the Grand Gold Medal in the Frankfurt–Cologne long-distance run over 193.2 kilometres, averaging a speed of 22.5 km/h. The runner-up was another Benz 8 hp car with Emil Graf at the wheel.
Also in 1899, Theodor Baron von Liebieg won the first International Race in Vienna in a 5.9 kW car. Further successes were achieved in 1899 with the uprated 8.8 kW engine by Fritz Held, who placed second in the Innsbruck–Munich run and emerged from the Berlin–Leipzig race as the winner for the shortest travelling time, together with Richard Benz. Benz also posted successes in America, where after over eight hours, H. Mueller was the only driver to finish the first automobile US race from Chicago to Waukegan and back on 2 November 1895. In another competition a few weeks later he took second place.
In 1900 and 1901, Benz & Cie. offered a 16 hp Benz production racing car in its sales range, derived from the 8 hp racer, for a price of 15,000 marks. In this vehicle the output of the two-cylinder horizontally opposed engine (‘Contra’ engine) had already been boosted to 12 kW. It had central lubrication, a water pump, and a gearwheel hub drive with four ratios and a reverse gear. On its very first outing, in the Eisenach–Oberhof–Meiningen–Eisenach hillclimb race in 1900, the car, driven by Fritz Scarisbrick from Hanau, finished second and averaged a speed of 30.1 km/h. The Mannheim–Pforzheim–Mannheim competition on 13 May 1900 – an event held to commemorate Bertha Benz’s epic drive in 1888 – was won by Fritz Held in a 16 hp Benz.
Also in 1900, Georg Diehl developed for Benz & Cie. a 20 hp Benz racing car with a four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine and an output of 15 kW. This was the brand's first competition car to have an angled steering column with steering wheel. An international track race in Frankfurt over a distance of 48 kilometres held on 29 July 1900 was won by the 25-year-old Benz chief mechanic Mathias Bender in this car. His average speed can be calculated from the driving time as 47.5 km/h – just short of the limit of 50 km/h postulated by Carl Benz as the maximum speed for safe and sensible driving. Scarisbrick took second place in a 16 hp Benz racing car with a two-cylinder engine. However this car was unable to replicate these successes in the years after 1900 because the competition from DMG in Cannstatt with the new Mercedes was simply too strong.
Carl Benz’s sceptical attitude towards motor sport may also have had something to do with the slower pace of the development of automobile racing in Germany as compared with France. Whereas the world’s first official automobile competition in 1894 had been watched by several thousand people, four years later only relatively few spectators came to marvel at the first German motor racing event in Berlin, which included both Benz and Daimler cars in the starting line-up. It took some time for enthusiasm for motor racing to spread in Germany – like the automobile itself.
1903: Benz commits to motor racing
The differences of opinion between Carl Benz and his partner Julius Ganss regarding the strategic alignment of their product range resulted in the creation in 1902 of a second design department at Benz & Cie. in Mannheim, headed by the Frenchman Marius Barbarou. One of the team's tasks was to build a state-of-the-art racing car to compete with the Mercedes. Barbarou designed the 60 hp Benz Parsifal racing car, with a consistently applied focus on lightweight design principles: the vehicle weighed in at 782 kilograms, and the engine in particular was much lighter than the Mercedes engines.
The only occasion when this car, featuring a four-cylinder engine displacing 11.2 litres, competed in a long-distance race was in 1903. Barbarou himself drove the Parsifal in May of that year in the Paris–Madrid race as far as Bordeaux, where the competition was called off on account of the many accidents. On 19 June 1903, Barbarou then won the Kilometre Race at Huy in Belgium in a lightweight version of the Parsifal racing car, averaging a speed of 119.8 km/h.
Friction among the company management at Benz & Cie. was appreciably reduced on Carl Benz’s departure from the company in 1903 and return as a technical advisor in 1904. 1905 was a year devoted to consolidation of the model range and the development of new vehicles. 1906 saw the arrival of the new 38/60 hp Benz high-performance racing car with 8.9-litre engine and output of 44 kW. At the second Targa Florio event, held in April 1907, the three Benz drivers Fritz Erle, Paul Spamann and the Duke of Bojano won the team regularity prize in these vehicles. Erle also finished 15th in the overall ranking, in a time of 9 hours 11 minutes and 15 seconds. 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 60 hp Benz Targa Florio racer also provided the basis for three cars entered by Benz & Cie. in the Kaiserpreis Race, an event organised by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, and held in June 1907 in the Taunus mountains. The rules of this race called for a minimum weight of 1175 kilograms and restricted engine displacement to a maximum of 8 litres. Fritz Erle used two different engines, an oversquare unit with a bore of 145 millimetres and a stroke of 120 millimetres, and a rather longer-stroke 130 x 140 millimetre engine. But neither variant was successful in a race in which both Benz and Mercedes failed to notch up competition points. The winner of the Kaiserpreis was the Italian Felice Nazzaro in a Fiat, the top German driver being Carl Jörns in an Opel, who finished third.
1908: Prince Heinrich as promoter of motor racing
In this decade, along with conventional races there were also numerous competitions organised for touring cars, roughly equivalent to today’s rallies. Well-heeled patrons with an interest in motor sport would often set up long-distance races with generous prize money. These touring races were designed both to nurture automobile tourism and to further perfect the development of touring cars, but some of these trials also had a distinct racing component. One such patron in Germany was the painter and highly versatile artist Hubert von Herkomer. The Herkomer Challenge races, events lasting several days over distances ranging from 900 to 1800 kilometres, were held from 1905 to 1907. In June 1907, Fritz Erle won the 3rd Herkomer event (Dresden–Eisenach–Mannheim–Lindau–Munich–Augsburg–Frankfurt/Main) in a Benz 50 hp to secure the Herkomer Challenge Trophy.
In July 1907, Heinrich Prince of Prussia, brother of the German Kaiser and an enthusiastic automobile fan, donated the Challenge Trophy for a major international touring event, to be held from 1908 onwards. The regulations limited entries to four or six-cylinder four-seaters that were licensed for use on public roads and had completed a mileage of at least 2000 kilometres on the day of the acceptance of entries. In the years from 1908 to 1910, this competition served as the successor to the Herkomer races.
Benz & Cie. took part in the first Prince Heinrich Rally from 9 to 17 June 1908 over a distance of 2201 kilometres, with eleven vehicles in all, with rated outputs of 18, 37 and 55 kW. In a field of 129 participants, Fritz Erle in his 7.5-litre Benz special touring car with nominal 37 kW again emerged as the winner.
The second Prince Heinrich Rally, from 10 to 18 June 1909, covered a distance of 1858 kilometres from Berlin–Wroclaw–Budapest–Vienna–Salzburg–Munich. The 108-vehicle field included eight Benz special touring cars with rated outputs of 15 kW. The overall winner was Wilhelm Opel in an Opel, with the best-performing Benz, driven by Edward Forchheimer, finishing in fourth place.
The third competition in 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, and included 17 special tests. Benz developed ten completely new special touring cars for this rally, four with a 5.7-litre displacement and six with 7.3 litres. Unlike the Benz cars entered in previous Prince Heinrich Rallies, the 1910 cars had propeller shafts and aerodynamically optimised coachwork with a characteristic pointed shape at the rear.
The 1910 Prince Heinrich Rally again failed to bring the hoped-for victory for Benz. Instead the winner was Ferdinand Porsche, then chief designer at Austro-Daimler in Vienna. Cars designed by him actually took the first three places. The best-performing Benz driver was Fritz Erle in a 5.7-litre car delivering 59 kW, finishing in fifth place. Most of the Benz cars for the Prince Heinrich Rallies of 1908 to 1910 were used for other races and rallies once they had served their initial intended purpose, before being sold to private customers with racing ambitions.
1908: The Benz Grand Prix cars
After a lengthy absence, Benz & Cie. decided to return to top-level international racing by entering the 1908 French Grand Prix. Hans Nibel and Louis de Groulart were given the task of designing a powerful racing car for this purpose. The project was directed by Benz chief design engineer Georg Diehl. De Groulart was a Belgian who had arrived at 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 Grand Prix racing car followed tried and proven principles. Distinguishing features of the vehicle included a frame made of pressed steel with offset side members above the rear axle, with leaf springs 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, combining with the stroke of 165 millimetres to give the engine a displacement of 12.4 litres.
The first car was completed in March 1908 and subjected to extensive testing. Its first competitive outing was on 1 June in the St. Petersburg–Moscow race over a distance of 686 kilometres, with Victor Hémery scoring a victory in the record time of 8 hours 30 minutes and 48 seconds at an average speed of 80.6 km/h – no mean feat, given the road conditions of the time.
The real challenge for the car came in the very next race: the French Grand Prix on 7 July 1908 in Dieppe. The Benz drivers Victor Hémery and René Hanriot finished second and third behind the winner, Christian Lautenschlager, in a Mercedes. Team manager Fritz Erle came in seventh. Mercedes and Benz thus shared a triumph over the French racing teams, which had expected a home win. Benz was the only marque to reach the finish with all its three cars.
A direct enhancement of the 120 hp Benz Grand Prix racing car model was the 150 hp Benz racer. Its engine featured a longer stroke of 200 mm, boosting the displacement to 15.1 litres for an output of 116 kW at 1500 rpm. Its first outing was on 20 September 1908 in the Semmering race, in which René Hanriot took third place in the category for racing cars with displacements in excess of 8 litres. In the same race Hémery came third in the Grand Prix racing car category in a 120 hp Benz Grand Prix vehicle.
At the American Grand Prix, held on 26 November 1908 in Savannah, Georgia, the company entered three 150 hp Benz cars. A minor accident forced Erle to retire, but Hémery and Hanriot came in second and fourth. A number of drivers notched up numerous further successes with the vehicle in the USA in sprints and record attempts during 1908 and 1909. Barney Oldfield (later to become famous with even more spectacular achievements) reached a top speed of 183.4 km/h on 19 August 1909 on the track at Indianapolis, which had been completed just a short time before; his average speed for the mile with a standing start was 134.4 km/h.
1910: The ‘Lightning Benz’
The story continues with a car representing the absolute antithesis to Carl Benz’s calls for a sensible car that would do no more than 50 km/h. The 200 hp Benz ‘record car’, best known under the name of ‘Lightning Benz’ coined for it in America, propelled the Mannheim brand once and for all into the awareness of the motor sport-minded public. Its main function was to the break speed records that highlighted the status of the automobile as the fastest means of transport in the early years of the 20th century.
In this pursuit of ever higher speeds by the various automobile manufacturers, the Lightning Benz stands out as 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 car driven by Bob Burman on 23 April 1911 over the flying kilometre at Daytona Beach, Florida in the USA. The vehicle managed an equally spectacular 225.6 km/h for the flying mile. These records stood until 1919. The Benz was twice as fast as any aircraft of the period, and also beat the record for rail vehicles (210 km/h, set in 1903).
The design of the Lightning Benz can be traced back to the highly successful Benz Grand Prix cars of 1908. Engineers Victor Hémery, Hans Nibel and their colleagues created an impressive automobile that long remained the world’s fastest vehicle on wheels, with its mighty 21.5-litre four-cylinder engine. No racing car or record vehicle of Benz & Cie., Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft or Daimler-Benz AG would ever boast a larger displacement. In its first version, this colossal engine developed 135 kW at 1500 rpm, but fine-tuning by the engineers ultimately yielded 147 kW at 1600 rpm. The body was built around this engine, using the chassis of the Grand Prix car as the basis.
The car gave a foretaste of what it could do its very first outing, a flying kilometre race in Frankfurt am Main, won by Fritz Erle with an average speed of 159.3 km/h. The 200 hp Benz record car made appearances at the record-breaking circuits of the Old World including the concrete oval at Brooklands, England. On 8 November 1909, Victor Hémery became the first man to break the 200 km/h barrier in an internal combustion engine-powered automobile, clocking a speed of 202.648 km/h for the kilometre, and an even higher reading of 205.666 km/h for the half mile. So it was that the Benz 200 hp pushed back all previous barriers, and it soon became evident that the tracks in Europe were too short and too narrow for the speeds of which it was capable.
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 catchy name of the ‘Lightning Benz’. Before long Barney Oldfield had broken the existing world record at Daytona Beach, clocking a speed of 211.9 km/h. All such high-speed runs of the time were carried out on sand tracks, which, given the poor adhesion and absence of a windscreen, makes the drivers’ achievements even more impressive.
Moross then changed the name into the German equivalent – ‘Blitzen-Benz‘ – and continued to attract public interest with the exploits of this amazing vehicle. The car became a popular attraction after the fashion of a travelling circus, touring from one town to another throughout the USA. 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 a speed of 228.1 km/h, a mark which then stood for many years. Five other Blitzen-Benz cars were made in addition to the record-breaking vehicle.
Neither Benz & Cie. nor Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft 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 a private capacity. In the early 1920s, Benz & Cie. again made a number of racing cars based on production vehicles. The approach was to fit a modified chassis with an aerodynamically optimised body, always with the distinctive pointed rear reminiscent of the ‘Blitzen-Benz’.
In Berlin a new stretch of road was built that would also be suitable for staging races – the Avus (a German acronym for Automobile, Traffic and Practice Road). The inaugural race on 24 and 25 September 1921 featured four Benz racing cars: two 6/18 hp Benz and two 10/30 hp Benz. The X B class event (for cars with up to 10 fiscal horsepower and overhead valves) was won by works driver Franz Hörner in a 10/30 hp Benz, at an average speed of 118.1 km/h over the distance of 157.4 kilometres.
While the 6/18 hp Benz did not have a large number of racing victories, it was regarded as a very advanced design, particularly the engine. The 1.6-litre unit developed 33 kW, a very impressive figure for the day. 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 6/18 hp Benz. And in September 1922, Franz Hörner won the Semmering Race in his 200 hp Benz, at an average speed of 79.1 km/h – so 12 years on, the record car was still able to win on the race track.
1923: Benz ‘Teardrop’ car
Four years after the end of the war, the Mannheim plant created a truly spectacular vehicle, the ‘Teardrop’ car. Construction of four of these cars as racing vehicles had started in 1922, but the difficult economic situation meant that they were not completed until 1923. The original design was by Edmund Rumpler, who presented the vehicle at the Berlin Motor Show in 1921. Benz immediately acquired the construction rights for the vehicle, on account of the truly revolutionary design featuring streamlined contours and a mid-positioned engine.
The car made its racetrack debut on 9 September 1923 at the European Grand Prix in Monza. Of the company’s three cars entered in the event, Fernando Minoia finished in fourth place and Franz Hörner in fifth. For the purposes of Grand Prix racing, the cars were fitted with an additional external radiator in front of the engine on the right-hand side. Another modification made 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 offset rigid stub axle instead of the straight front axle.
From 1923, the Benz ‘Teardrop’ car was also made as a sports car with a modified body in limited unit numbers, and in this form it successfully competed alongside the racing version in various races and hillclimb events. In 1925, for example, Adolf Rosenberger won the Solitude race for the under 8 fiscal hp class, and Willy Walb was the winner in the 1925 Schauinsland race for sports cars with up to 5 litres displacement.
The Benz ‘Teardrop’ car was prevented from winning more races in part by the economic crisis in Germany, and also by the collaboration between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft dating from May 1924, leading to the merger of the two companies on 28/29 June 1926 to form Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft. In the period leading up to the merger, most racing activities were transferred to DMG.