The car is only eight years old when, in 1894, a first public competition comes along. The showdown is advertised by French newspaper “Le Petit Journal” and leads from Paris all the way to Rouen 126 kilometres away. A total of 21 vehicles are permitted, 17 of which reach the destination. The first-placed finishers have a Daimler engine built with a licence. This construction according to the original plans of Gottlieb Daimler generates 2.6 kW (3.5 hp) and allows an average speed of 20.5 km/h. First place is shared by a vehicle belonging to the Peugeot brothers with a car belonging to Panhard-Levassor. Third and fourth places are filled by two further Peugeots, and the fifth vehicle is a Roger-Benz with 3.7 kW (5 hp).
In the years that follow, different vehicles – each powered by Daimler engines – also attain various victories. This underlines the good reputation of the cutting-edge technology from Stuttgart. The manufacturers recognise the publicity effect of racing successes and begin to make use of them for the sale of their vehicles. “Win on Sunday – sell on Monday” – a catchphrase that prevails as a communicative recipe for success for many brands.
There is not a great deal of difference between everyday vehicles and racing cars at this point. Their inventors may have thought of the car as a pragmatic means of transport, but soon it is also used in public race events. There is also a direct connection in reverse as findings for the improvement of the competition cars flow back into production. This stays that way right into the first third of the 20th century. The first competition in 1894 is therefore not only the beginning of motorsport in a modern sense, but also the beginning of rapid advances in automotive engineering.
The first competition for cars with a combustion engine is simultaneously a farewell to the older steam technology: the first vehicle in the field to cross the finish line in 1894 is a steam-powered car by De-Dion-Bouton. Due to its slow speed, however, the vehicle does not meet regulations and is therefore only awarded an honorary second place.
Amongst the thousands following the race in 1894 is also Gottlieb Daimler with his son, Paul. He later describes his impressions of the day as follows: “Early in the morning of each racing day, my father and I were close to Porte Maillot near Paris. A huge crowd streamed past us in order to see what was then a unique spectacle: the drive of the cars to the race. [...] We ourselves – Paul Daimler and Gottlieb Daimler – accompanied the race in a car. The various vehicle types gave a peculiar impression; one could see stokers on the heavy steam-powered cars, dripping with sweat, covered in soot, working hard on the depositing of combustible material; one could see the drivers of the small steam-powered three-wheelers, constantly observing the pressure and water level in the small, skilfully joined tubular boiler and regulating the oil combustion. In contrast to this, one could see the drivers of the petrol and kerosene cars calmly sat down on the steering seat, pulling a lever here and there as if driving purely for the pleasure of it. A really unique picture and one I have never forgotten.”
There is a similar sight in the following year at the Paris–B ordeaux–Paris race over 1,192 kilometres, which is considered the first pure car race: of the first eight cars to finish, there are once again six cars equipped with engines according to a Daimler licence as well as two Benz vehicles. In 1896, cars with Daimler engines attain a triple victory in the Paris–Marseille–P aris route over 1,728 kilometres with an average speed of 25.2 km/h. Daimler engines dominate the early races in France again and again: such as in 1897 at Paris–Dieppe (triple victory) and Paris–Trouville (victory), or in 1898 at Marseille–Nice (triple victory) and Paris–Bordeaux (victory by René de Knyff).
The Mercedes era
Businessman and Austrian consul general Emil Jellinek orders his first Daimler vehicle in 1897. In 1898, he orders two of the Daimler Phoenix 8 PS, the first Daimler cars with a four-cylinder engine. Jellinek sells on the DMG cars, above all to the upper echelons of society on the French Riviera. Business flourishes. In 1899, DMG delivers ten vehicles to him; in 1900, it is already 29. Meanwhile, the Austrian demands ever more powerful and faster cars. He also registers these for race events himself. His participation in the Nice Week becomes famous, where he appears as “Monsieur Mercédès” – a pseudonym inspired by his daughter born in 1889. In April 1900, “Mercedes” becomes a product name as Jellinek and DMG come to an agreement regarding the sale of vehicles and engines and Daimler agrees to the development of a new engine called “Daimler-Mercedes”.
The first car equipped with the new engine – a Mercedes 35 PS – is delivered on 22 December 1900. The vehicle is an early highlight in the development of the modern car: it has a 5.9 litre four-cylinder engine with a considerable output of 26 kW (35 hp), allowing a top speed of 100 km/h. Plus, there are features such as a low centre of gravity, pressed steel frame, the light design of the engine and the revolutionary honeycomb radiator in the front – an element that characterises the appearance of the brand from Stuttgart in a modernised form to this day.
Mercedes cars dominate the Nice Week in March 1901: amongst other things, Wilhelm Werner wins the Nice–Salon–Nice race over 392 kilometres with an average speed of 58.1 km/h. The Nice–La Turbie hillclimb race is also dominated by Werner in the two-door vehicle class, followed by Albert “Georges” Lemaître with a second Mercedes 35 PS. Furthermore, Claude Lorraine-Barrow, during a record attempt over a mile (1,609.34 metres) from a standing start, sets a new world record with an average speed of 79.7 km/h.
The public and the experts are delighted. The Mercedes becomes an example for the new era of automotive engineering. Everyone who can afford one wants to own such a vehicle. Customers from all parts of Europe send their orders to DMG and accept long delivery times. Paul Meyan, general secretary of the French automotive club, recognises the supremacy of the German brand. The assessment “Nous sommes entrés dans l’ère Mercédès” (“we have entered the era of Mercedes”) on the consequences of the 1901 Nice Week comes from him. And Meyan is proven right. For in 1902 and 1903, the Stuttgart brand also dominates the racing events on the French Riviera around Nice with the further development of the Mercedes 35 PS – the Mercedes-Simplex 40 PS.
1903: Gordon Bennett victory in Ireland
The Mercedes-Simplex 40 PS constructed by Wilhelm Maybach generates 29.4 kW (40 hp). It is systematically designed for more power, simpler controls and greater reliability. In this new racing car, amongst others, Count William Eliot Zborowski attains second place in the heavy-vehicle class at the Paris–Vienna long-distance race in June 1902. The Paris–Innsbruck section is also considered as the third competition in the series of Gordon Bennett races. This is at that time the most important competition series in international automotive racing, initiated by American publisher James Gordon Bennett. The Gordon Bennett races at the start of the 20th century is where the tradition of national colours for racing cars comes from: DMG starts for Germany with vehicles painted white. Further colour schemes that established themselves in this period are green for England, red (initially black) for Italy, blue for France, black and yellow for Austria-Hungary and red and yellow for Switzerland.
The Gordon Bennett race in Ireland in 1903 marks the beginning of the circuit race era. DMG wants to start here with the new generation of the Mercedes-Simplex; namely, the more powerful version with an engine that generates 66 kW (90 hp). The vehicle is built exclusively for use in this competition. However, the new Mercedes 90 PS racing cars fall victim to a major fire in the plant in Cannstatt in June 1903. Therefore, three Mercedes-Simplex 60 PS start the race in Ireland, which DMG borrows from private customers with sporting ambitions – and Belgian Camille Jenatzy wins with an average speed of 79.2 km/h.
As a consequence of the Daimler triumph, the next Gordon Bennett race in 1904 is held in Germany. On the circuit near Homburg in Taunus, French driver Léon Théry wins in a Richard-Brasier. In his Mercedes 90 PS racing car – almost identical to the vehicle destroyed in the fire of 1903 – Camille Jenatzy wins second place. Baron de Caters finishes fourth in a second Mercedes.
After victory was secured by the Stuttgarters in 1903, the race in France comes under increasing criticism because the rules only allow the participation of three racing cars from each nation. France sees itself as disadvantaged by this as there are already six or seven manufacturers considered as favourites to win. After long-lasting quarrels in 1904 and 1905, the Automobile Club de France announces in 1905 that it will hold the Gordon Bennett race for the last time this year and in future will initiate a new event: the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France. The French Grand Prix therefore replaces the Gordon Bennett race as the most important international motorsport event.
1908: victory at the French Grand Prix
For the team from Stuttgart spoiled by success, the poor performance at this Grand Prix in 1906 and 1907 was motivation enough to leave nothing more to chance in 1908. The good preparation pays off: On 7 July 1908, Christian Lautenschlager wins the most prestigious event of this period in the new Mercedes 140 PS Grand Prix racing car. At the French Grand Prix, he wins ahead of two Benz vehicles. On the 77 kilometre circuit near Dieppe leading over public roads, ten rounds have to be covered with a total of 769.88 kilometres. Forty-eight cars take part, of which nine come from Germany – three each from Benz, Mercedes and Opel. Of course, before a spectacular backdrop of around 300,000 spectators, France wants to underline its role as the “Grande Nation” of motorsport with this race. Instead, there is a triple victory for the German racing cars.
The tyres on the Mercedes vehicles are put through their paces; only later winner Christian Lautenschlager undergoes 22 tyre changes during the race in the Mercedes 140 PS Grand Prix racing car. Despite the adverse conditions, he is first to cross the finish line after 6 hours, 55 minutes and 43 seconds, just 9 minutes before Victor Hémery and René Hanriot, both driving a Benz. Lautenschlager’s average speed over the entire distance is an impressive 111.1 km/h. The fastest round is set by his team colleague Otto Salzer in 36 minutes 31 seconds, which corresponds to an average speed of 126.5 km/h. The “Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung” writes in its edition no. 29/1908: “It was wonderful to see how the Mercedes ran on the course.”
The engine of the Grand Prix racing car has two camshafts below, overhead intake valves and lateral exhaust valves. The concept developed by Wilhelm Maybach follows according to which the Daimler racing engines in 1903 to 1906 are constructed. From 12.8 litres of displacement, the engine generates 99 kW (135 hp) at 1,400 rpm. The winning vehicle of Dieppe is, in 1908, also the basis of the Mercedes 150 PS Semmering racing car, in which Otto Salzer won the tenth Semmering race on 20 September 1908 at the first attempt in the racing cars without restrictions class.
The French Grand Prix of 1908 is the hour of birth of modern Formula racing. After a disappointing outcome of the race for France – only two French vehicles are amongst the top ten places – and the dominance of the German racing cars, there is, however, a boycott of the Grand Prix over the following years. After the cancellation of the 1909 Grand Prix, France only organises another Grand Prix in 1912. DMG does not enter any works teams into races at this time, but does continue to build top-class racing cars for private parties – for example, the 37/90 PS Mercedes racing car with a 9.5-litre, four-cylinder engine presented in 1911. From 1911 to 1913, two of these vehicles attain many racing successes in the USA with Spencer Wishart and Ralph DePalma at the wheel. Both vehicles have wooden spoke wheels and are equipped with pointed radiator grille.
1914: triple triumph at the French Grand Prix
The success of 1908 is exceeded by Mercedes with a triple victory of Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer at the 1914 French Grand Prix, which is held on a 37.6 kilometre circuit south of Lyon. For the first time, a rule stipulates a maximum displacement with a limit of 4.5 litres. DMG enters with the new Mercedes Grand Prix racing car. It has a completely reconstructed four-cylinder engine with overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder – a premiere in a Mercedes engine. The racing engine with a shaft drive generates up to 78 kW (106 hp) at a revolutionary high engine speed of 3,100 rpm.
On 4 July 1914, after intensive preparation, the Mercedes team starts with five of these vehicles against a supposedly superior competition. Twenty rounds over approximately 750 kilometres must be covered on this tricky course. After more than seven hours, Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer attain a triumphant victory, which significantly exceeds the success of 1908: it is a triple victory for Mercedes. With this outstanding result, Mercedes puts itself at the peak of international racing.
Whilst the First World War puts an end to further racing activities in Europe, at least one Grand Prix vehicle from 1914 continues to run in America: Ralph DePalma buys one of the winning vehicles and uses it to attain several successes in the USA from 1914 to 1916. The most spectacular result is the victory at the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on 31 May 1915. After the war, a modified 4.5-litre vehicle once again takes part in several races in Europe. Count Giulio Masetti is particularly successful with it, winning several races in Italy in 1921 and 1922, including the 1922 Targa Florio.
1921: reboot after the First World War
After the end of the war in 1918, Mercedes once again continues racing activities under difficult economic and political conditions. The limitations for German and Austrian drivers at important races such as the French Grand Prix represent a rupture. The first competitive vehicle by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft after 1918 is the Mercedes 28/95 PS racing touring car of 1921. It is not a completely new development, but instead builds on the Mercedes 28/95 PS sports touring car of 1914. Its new engine has, amongst other things, cylinders moulded in pairs.
Mercedes attains the first successes with this vehicle in 1921: Otto Salzer manages the best time on a two-seater sports car with a shortened wheelbase at the 5.6-kilometre Königsaal–Jilowischt hillclimb race near Prague and sets a new course record. At the Targa Florio in Sicily in May, works driver Max Sailer finishes in second place in the overall classification and wins the Coppa Florio, the prize for the fastest production vehicle. As was common at that time, Sailer drives the racing car to Sicily himself. In 1922, he returns to the Targa Florio with the Mercedes 28/95 PS. The engine output is increased by a compressor to 103 kW (140 hp) for the first time: experiences that DMG made during the war with mechanical forced induction now benefit the racing cars from Stuttgart. Sailer wins in the production cars over 4.5-litres class and finishes in sixth place in the overall classification. The overall victory of the strenuous race goes to Italian private driver Count Guilio Masetti – also in a Mercedes.
Targa Florio 1924: a brand wins in red
In 1923, Ferdinand Porsche, previously working at Austro-Daimler in Vienna, becomes the new Mercedes chief designer. Based on existing vehicles, he develops the racing car for the Targa Florio in April 1924 – a promising candidate for victory. In January 1924, the Stuttgart brand sends two vehicles to Sicily. The later-winning vehicle is painted red, not white. This is not a friendly gesture on the part of the hosts, but a shrewd tactic: because the spectators can recognise the racing cars of other countries from a distance, some of them throw stones at unpopular competitors.
Christian Werner wins in the strenuous, 540-kilometre race. Christian Lautenschlager finishes in tenth place and a new driver in the DMG team finishes in 15th: 33-year-old Alfred Neubauer, who followed Ferdinand Porsche from Vienna to Untertürkheim. Neubauer is later to make motorsport history in the role of racing manager. “ This victory also means a success of the supercharged engine,” explains the Mercedes press office shortly after the race. Indeed, the Targa Florio marks the beginning of a new motorsport era. The compressor becomes standard technology of the Mercedes racing cars and remains a guarantee for many amazing victories until 1939. After the Targa Florio, the vehicle is also used at another race. For sprint and hillclimb races, Otto Salzer even has a 4.5-litre engine built into the chassis of the Grand Prix car of 1914, which is additionally equipped with a compressor. With “Grandmother”, as Salzer calls the beast, he wins at the 13th Semmering race in September 1924, amongst others.