From landau to low-frame bus: passenger transportation from 1885 to 1926

  • Benz builds his first bus in 1895
  • The bus takes a long time to emancipate itself from the truck
  • First buses with special frames arrive in 1925
Carl Benz in Mannheim had been approaching the commercial vehicle on a completely different route when Gottlieb Daimler passed away in 1900. Benz concentrated on buses and what we would call vans today. “Combination delivery vehicle” was the name given to the first fast Benz van of 1896 in the marketing jargon of the day.
Carl Benz had even built his first bus two years earlier. Since 1884 he had been offering his motorcars in an optional landau version: a landau is a coach which carries a maximum of eight passengers and has either a folding top or a glazed upper section with a solid roof. Mainly hotels used these landaus to collect their guests from the train station or bring them to their trains. The original idea for the first motorized scheduled service came from the city fathers of Netphen and Siegen in the Siegerland region, who proposed linking their two provincial towns by a bus line. They gave Benz an order to build two engine-powered buses.
Based on the landau, Carl Benz designed a carriage-like vehicle with an enclosed passenger compartment (eight seats), but an unprotected bench for the (two) drivers. The five hp one-cylinder engine displacing 2.65 liters was mounted at the rear, drove the rear wheels by chain and accelerated the vehicle to a top speed of 20 km/h.
Benz delivered the first of these two “ intercity buses” on March 12, 1895, the second on March 29 of the same year, for a price of 6000 gold marks each. The buses needed an hour and 20 minutes to negotiate the 15 kilometer route Siegen – Netphen – Deutz, with its five stops and 80 meters difference in altitude. But as it quickly turned out, particularly in the wet the graceful solid rubber tires of these vehicles had to fight an uphill battle against the deep ruts produced by heavy horse and cart combinations. Though conversion to wide iron wheels did improve wheel control, it greatly impaired road grip. To top it all, shortcomings in maintenance, the difficulty of procuring spare parts, and inadequate driver training made the new bus line anything but a joy.
The result was that these buyers quickly ceased operation in the following winter and returned the two buses to Carl Benz. But undoubtedly they deserve recognition for having put the first bus line on wheels in Germany. Such scheduled transportation services already had been in existence in England and France for quite some time, but they employed steam-driven vehicles.
Daimler begins manufacturing buses
It can be assumed that Benz and Daimler – although they never came to know each other personally – kept a watchful eye on each other’s activities. Little wonder then that in 1898 Gottlieb Daimler also quickly took up bus manufacture. He presented four models for a start. Power ranged from four to ten hp; seating capacity, from six to 16.
The first regular bus service was organized between Künzelsau and Mergentheim. But the steep uphill stretches in the Hohenlohe district and the poor condition of the roads went very hard on the ten hp ten-seater. The poor supply of gasoline and spare parts did one more thing to put a quick end to this undertaking. In July 1899 it was curtains for the first scheduled service with a Daimler bus.
Gottlieb Daimler quickly drew conclusions from this experience. For instance, he replaced the belt drive with a four-speed gear-only transmission. “The Daimler motorbus is built in various sizes, and depending on the local conditions it is equipped with engines of different outputs. For level roads the weaker engines suffice, whereas for routes with hills the vehicles must be fitted with the more powerful engines.” These were the words used by Daimler-Motorengesellschaft to describe its new type of vehicle in 1898, with particular praise for the engine: “The motive power is furnished by the new Daimler ‘Phoenix’ engine, whose practical design is specifically calculated for powering vehicles and is unrivalled in every respect.”
The establishment of a great many bus lines in Germany and abroad followed. The big breakthrough for the bus in Germany came when the Württemberg and Bavarian postal services began ordering motor vehicles in grand style, both to carry parcel post and, a little later, to transport passengers. Up until the outbreak of the First World War, Daimler-Motoren­gesellschaft delivered around 350 buses to customers. The biggest buyer was the Royal Bavarian Postal Administration, which took a total of 250 units. Daimler was market leader with a 43 percent market share. Benz was Number 2 with 18 percent market share; Büssing ranked third with twelve percent.
England again played a crucial role. As early as in April 1898 a British customer, the Motor Car Company, got its first bus from Cannstatt, which traveled the long distance to London under its own power and made a strong impression on the big-city dwellers on its inaugural run from the port town of Gravesend to London: “Every man, every woman and every child in Long Acre and along Picadilly stopped in their tracks and stared at the vehicle as it thundered past and resolutely and steadily went its way,” an eye-witness reported.
The next year this first Daimler bus was followed by two more. The buyer this time was the London-based company Motor Traction Co., which likewise used the two buses for scheduled service in London. The success of this early double-decker probably prompted Daimler to offer a complete bus range already in May.
On the other hand, the premiere of a first bus in Stockholm was less of a success. Hardly had the iron-tired vehicle begun plying Stockholm’s Drottninggatan in 1899 – this thoroughfare was not surfaced with asphalt, but with cobblestones – the ground began to shake and the violent rumbling provoked furious protest from house owners and tenants. The bus was taken out of service and converted to operate as a truck. “Around a quarter of a century” it provided faithful service at Liljeholmen’s sugar mill, as chronicler John Néren notes, adding: “Towards the end, however, it mostly served as a backup.”
The smallest bus model in Daimler’s first bus range was designed for six passengers and 200 kilograms of luggage; the biggest bus accommodated 14 to 16 passengers and 450 kilograms of luggage. Cruising speed was between four and 16 km/h; if the engine was powerful enough the bus could take gradients of as much as twelve percent. The curb weight of the lightest variant was 1.1 tons; the heaviest bus tipped the scales at 2.5 tons. The net price for the six-seater was 6800 marks; the bigger models cost 8000, 9200 and 10,500 marks, respectively.
Not included in the price was the heating for the driver’s seat and the passenger compartment, which was as simple as it was effective: the system let the engine coolant circulate under the floor and carried a price tag of 180 to 260 marks depending on model. Also available, for an additional charge of 500 to 600 marks, were rubber tires, “but they only can be recommended for smaller vehicles.” For heavier models with curb weights over two tons the manager recommended ordinary wood wheels fitted with iron hoops.
“These motor vehicles can be put into operation within three minutes,” the sales brochure announced further. Other figures that were worth mentioning in those days included the specific weight of the gasoline and a consumption of 0.36 to 0.45 kilograms of fuel per hour and horsepower at wide-open throttle. At the stated top speed of 16 km/h, in purely mathematical terms this equates to fuel consumption of about 20 to 30 liters per 100 kilometers (8-12 mpg). But since only a very few people will have been familiar then with such comparative values, for the customer the information that fuel cost ten pfennigs per horsepower and kilometer surely was more important.
In every respect, DMG was at pains to emphasize operating safety and reliability. The tank, dimensioned for ten hours’ driving time, was “in a protected position underneath the vehicle,” DMG said, and the water cooling worked efficiently also in winter, “absolutely safely and reliably.” The manufacturer stressed that shifting “is done in a very secure way” and that the foot-operated brake would bring the vehicle “quickly and safely to a full stop.” Nevertheless, the company was not content merely with claims, but granted a three-month guarantee on all parts.
Buses from Baden: SAG in Gaggenau picks up speed
Benz und Daimler were not the only ones who developed a liking for building buses. Another pioneer, domiciled in the city of Gaggenau in Baden, soon also was battling strongly for the lead: it was SAG, which Benz would acquire a few years later to concentrate commercial vehicle production there.
But until that happened, within a short time SAG made a name for itself as a manufacturer of commercial vehicles. It was not until February 1905 that Georg Wiss, partner in Bergmanns Industriewerke and son-in-law of a Mannheim industrialist, backed by his wife’s fortune, took over the motor vehicle division of Bergmanns Industriewerke and made it an independent company called Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik. The articles of incorporation dated February 22, 1905, state the company’s object as “the fabrication and sales of automobiles.” The Swiss design engineer Franz Knecht engaged by him was supposed to see to that: he designed a new production program in which trucks and buses played first fiddle.
The demand definitely was there. For example the establishment of the Gernsbach – Baden-Baden bus line dates from the year 1905, and, of course, buses from Gaggenau operated on it. But the SAG buses quickly gained popularity not only in Baden. In 1905 the company from Baden managed to land a sizable order from Berlin: the Berlin municipal utilities had the first large-capacity bus for 52 passengers built in Gaggenau. In 1906 the Imperial Post Office even became one of the regular buyers of SAG buses.
Trucks and buses go separate ways
For exactly 30 years (counting from the first bus built by Benz), buses and trucks marched in step. It was 1925 when they began to part ways. Until then it was normal for bus bodies to rest on conventional truck chassis whose chief characteristic is a continuous frame. It means the passengers have to do some climbing to get in. The “low bus” manufactured in Gaggenau beginning in 1925 ushered in a new era with a far more convenient entrance for passengers.
But that was not possible without a special chassis. Its frame cranked downwards behind the front axle and then continued on straight to the rear. At the rear it made an upward bend again to create the necessary space for the rear axle. The reward for this effort was that the floor was now just 670 millimeters above the roadway.
A board divided the entrance into two steps of a little more than 300 millimeters: that would be entirely acceptable for a regular service bus even today.
But the low frame afforded a number of other advantages. For example, the lower center of gravity which this means improved vehicle behavior. Which in turn distinctly enhanced both comfort and safety mainly on interurban coaches with heavily laden roof luggage racks. A brochure of the period put this advantage in a nutshell: “As a result of the low position of the body, the vehicle runs more smoothly and rocks less than a bus of conventional high design.” On top of that, buses with the low frame and a correspondingly lower slung body do not appear so stilted and look far more elegant than their counterparts. This optical break with the truck was a most welcome distinguishing feature for the new industry of passenger transportation.
The bus emancipates itself from the truck
Emancipation included a characteristic long wheelbase, which in turn made it possible for almost all passenger seats to lie between the axles, where seating is most comfortable. This had the further effect that the body generally had to endure less strain. And this provided the opportunity to go over to a generally more lightweight design “which has a favorable influence on tire wear and fuel consumption,” as a 1925 brochure told the customers.
From the beginning Benz produced the “low bus” in several variants. Wheelbases of 5000 millimeters (model 2CNa) and 6000 millimeters (model 2CNb) for bodies with 22 and 39 passenger seats made up the foundation. In addition, these new buses were available in urban and interurban versions, and there were also a number of door variants to choose from. And finally, Benz built these buses for operation with a conductor or as so-called one-man cars.
The familiar four-cylinder gasoline engines with 40/45 hp and 50/55 hp developed from a displacement of 6.3 and 8.1 liters, respectively, served as drive units for the 7.3 and 8.4 meter long vehicles. This power sufficed for a top speed of about 40 km/h. The fuel consumption was stated by the factory as 18 kilograms of gasoline per 100 kilometers for the smaller unit and 26 for the large engine. There was still no mention of liters at this point.
But the new development far from made buses completely independent of truck design. Even the new offset frame was based on a development for trucks: Benz had introduced it a little earlier for refuse trucks so that the men doing the collecting didn’t have to heave the heavy trash cans as high as they used to.
 
  • S 14
    In 1914, this Benz S 14 interurban bus was plying the highways and byways, already equipped with a trailer.
  • BadenBaden-Gernsbach_jpg
    Buses from Gaggenau went into service in 1905 on the new Gernsbach–Baden-Baden route.
  • Daimler_D4
    Built in 1908, 35 hp sightseeing buses like these went into service with the Royal Post in Bavaria.
  • A39776
    Daimler double-decker bus for up to 16 passengers, 1898.
  • A51310
    Benz "Break" for 12 passengers, 1899.
  • A39777
    A 12 hp Daimler bus built in Berlin-Marienfelde, 1903.
  • C 40665
    Daimler buses at the turn of the century in London, 1898-1902.
  • 50964
    A 6 hp Daimler bus for twelve persons built in Berlin-Marienfelde, 1900.
  • d8313_7
    Large car or bus: The eight-seater Benz Break of 1899.
  • 1997M21
    Motorized Daimler bus, Break model, 1899
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