Family history: the pedigree behind the record-breaking Benz 200 hp

  • A total of six record-breaking Benz 200 hp cars were made
  • In 2004 Mercedes-Benz Classic supported the construction of a high-quality replica
  • Some of the cars even competed against each other at certain races
In addition to the car which set the internationally recognised records at Brooklands and Daytona Beach, at the start of the 20th century no fewer than five additional Benz 200 hp cars were built.
The second Benz 200 hp came into existence in Mannheim shortly after the first record-breaking car had been shipped to America: in January 1910, the 21.5-litre engine no. 6257 was fitted into a chassis with a Grand Prix body. 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 made to the car: the body was brought higher up around the cockpit to offer the driver greater protection, spoked wheels with central locks were added, the frame endings were covered and the two seats were arranged parallel to one another.
Meanwhile, a second, more aerodynamically efficient body was constructed for this car in the style of the original “Blitzen-Benz” which could be fitted to the chassis as an alternative to the Grand Prix body. Erle entered the car in a series of races in 1911 and 1912, alternating the body variants 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 the “Blitzen-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 record-breaking cars - vehicle number 2 was now also afforded the name “Blitzen-Benz” - lined up alongside each other for further record attempts on San Diego beach shortly before Christmas 1912. During the attempt one of the cars, presumably the original “ Blitzen-Benz”, burst into flames, 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” then stretched its legs over the salt lake in Bonneville, where Teddy Tetzlaff recorded 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 turns 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 on his record in the event, notching up an average speed of 163.6 km/h. Driver and car journeyed back to France for the hill climb at Limonest near Lyon on 25 May 1913, with 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 that 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 Héméry’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 records, including the highest two-way average speed – 199.3 km/h – for the half mile (804.65 metres) 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 war was over, the mechanics set about putting together serviceable models from the available materials. 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 car 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, with the resultant impact ripping the car to pieces. The mangled wreckage was transported back to Mannheim.
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 Héméry 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, and the car enjoyed a consistent record of success throughout the 1920's. 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 vehicle to maximise its promotional impact, with 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.
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 giving himself a very special Christmas present. This was the only Benz 200 hp (engine number 13280) with an extended chassis (3200 mm instead of 2800 mm) and a four-seat touring body. This 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.
In 1935, as part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of starting to build motor cars, another Benz 200 hp was created from the parts still available. This car, which is currently still in the possession of the Mercedes-Benz Museum, received some parts from the “grandmother”. Other parts, for example the hub locks, and probably the radiator and the central section of the body, came from the wreckage of Hornsted’s car. In order to make the car look slightly more aerodynamic, the wood-spoke wheels were fitted with aluminium covers. In addition, the engine cover, rear section and the cover of the truncated exhaust were all newly manufactured.
Furthermore, a replica of Héméry's car, as used at Brooklands, was also built in England.
In 2004, the latest “Blitzen-Benz” started to take shape, with an American collector refusing to be intimidated by the costs involved and commissioning the construction of yet another car. 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, the Museum’s “Blitzen-Benz” was faithfully restored and prepared it for action once again. The history of the “Blitzen-Benz” roared gloriously back to life when the engine struck its first notes, with the wheels turning again to the reverberating sound from under the hood. Even when driving this vehicle at slow speeds there is still broadly-held respect for those early drivers: they showed tremendous bravery when striving for records at the huge steering wheel of this imposing machine - with only a pair of glasses to protect themselves at a speed of 228.1 km/h. And you literally shudder to think how the suspension must have felt at such high speeds.
  • 5204
    The record version of the 200 hp Lightning Benz. The car entered in racing and record attempts in the USA featured an exhaust system with downward-pointing manifolds and a muffler.
  • R253
    Record runs on the Brooklands racetrack in England on December 22, 1913. L. G. "Cupid" Hornsted in a 200 hp Benz, a modified version of the Lightning Benz.
  • R3804
    Blitzen-Benz in action: L.G. „Cupid“ Hornsted during a record run at Brooklands.