The first modern automobile: the 35 hp Mercedes

The first modern automobile: the 35 hp Mercedes
December 2000
  • "Monsieur Mercedes" Emil Jellinek’s hunger for performance
  • 1900: a fateful year for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG)
  •  Pressure of time: the ingenious success of Wilhelm Maybach
  • Engine cooling: no longer a problem thanks to honeycomb radiator
  • 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.
Stuttgart. The Austrian businessman Emil Jellinek, who lived in Nice at the turn of the twentieth century, and at the time was already known as "Monsieur Mercedes", was virtually addicted to technical progress – above all to the newly invented car, its speed and its performance. He was filled with excitement not only by the sport instrument, but also by the sales prospects. So, in March 1900, under the pseudonym "Mercedes", the name of his daughter, who was ten at the time, he entered two Daimler "Phoenix" racing cars with 28 hp engines in the Nice race week. To support him, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) sent Wilhelm Bauer, an experienced master mechanic who knew the vehicles inside out.
1900: a fateful year for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG)
DMG had expected a more positive course of business at the start of the new century. Two black days in March 1900 changed the state of affairs. On March 6, Gottlieb Daimler, inventor of the high-speed gas engine and co-founder of DMG, died aged 65. On the 30th of the same month, Wilhelm Bauer had a fatal accident in the very first curve of the hill climb race from Nice to La Turbie. This marked the end of the Daimler "Phoenix" cars: afterwards, DMG adopted a highly reserved attitude to motor sport.
Not so sportsman and salesman Emil Jellinek, however. As early as April 2, 1900, he demanded a more competitive car from DMG, with higher perfor­mance but at the same time a lighter engine, a longer wheelbase and also a lower center of gravity. Also, the engine to be newly developed was to bear the name "Daimler-Mercedes". For the first time, the name "Mercedes" appeared as a brand name and no longer merely as a team or driver name.
In Jellinek’s opinion, the only one capable of realizing his ideas was Wilhelm Maybach, the ingenious technical brain of DMG. To give emphasis to his de­tailed wishes, Jellinek also ordered 36 vehicles from DMG, with a total worth of 550,000 Marks – in today’s terms about DM 5.5 million: a sensa­tionally large order for DMG, and more were to follow later.
Pressure of time: the ingenious success of Wilhelm Maybach
As matters stood, only an extensively new design came into consideration for the car demanded by Jellinek. But how could this be done in the remaining, unusually short time before October 15, the desired delivery date?
Aluminum crankcase, two camshafts, controlled intake valves
First of all, Maybach developed the new engine for the "Mercedes" car, the outline for which was already in his mind. The horizontally divided crankcase was for the first time made from aluminum. The cylinders, made in pairs from gray cast iron, featured cylinder heads which formed part of the castings, unlike the removable ones in the "Phoenix" car. With a bore/stroke ratio of 116 x 140 mm, the engine had a total displacement of 5918 cc, a good 400 cc more than in the "Phoenix" car.
For the main bearings, Maybach used magnalium, an aluminum alloy containing five percent magnesium. Like the exhaust valves, the intake valves, which until then had been designed as 'snifting' valves – opened by the vacuum pressure inside the engine – were now controlled by a camshaft. The non-encapsulated camshafts to the left and right of the crankcase were driven by an open toothed-gear power take-off on the flywheel side.
Via a gear set arranged in its center, the exhaust camshaft drove the low-voltage ignition magnets and a water pump for improved cooling efficiency, while a further gear set at the front end drove a small fan behind the radiator. Another new feature: each cylinder pair had its own separate carburetor. In the range between 300 and 1000 revolutions, engine speed was controlled via a lever on the steering wheel.
Smoother operation, less weight
All these improvements ultimately resulted in much smoother operation, more stable idling and good acceleration – a new quality in engine charac­teristics, which at that time was hardly believed possible. In addition to this the engine weight was reduced by 90 kg to around 230 kg.
Engine directly bolted to the chassis, pressed frame side members
Maybach no longer installed the engine into a chassis sub frame, as was usually the case at that time. Instead, he narrowed the front frame section ahead of the pedal level, permitting the engine to be directly bolted to the side members. The latter were no longer laboriously beaded but for the first time made of pressed sheet steel by DMG. Both these measures not only reduced the weight but also provided for the lower center of gravity that Maybach was aiming at.
New coil spring clutch, single-lever gate shift, improved steering
Another completely new design was the highly compact and automatically adjusting clutch, a coil spring made of spring steel, which with the help of a small drum was attached to the transmission shaft and fastened inside the flywheel. Further development of the car at a later stage benefited from this design. A conical cam regulated the spring tension during declutching.
The four forward gears and the reverse gear were engaged by means of a single lever in a shift gate. This feature was as new as the improved, light steering with its worm gear – a unit installed further to the rear and at a relatively steep angle. The steering axles were moved further toward the outside, closer to the wheel hubs, thereby significantly reducing the impact of road shocks on the steering.
Longer wheelbase, wider track, more effective brakes
Compared to the "Phoenix" car, the wheelbase was markedly longer (2245 millimeters) and the track wider (1400 mm) – giving the new car significantly greater stability. Apart from that, wheels of virtually the same size were now, at last, used on the two axles, albeit in the traditional wooden twelve-spoke design.
The brakes were adapted to the higher engine output, thus the "Mercedes" was fitted with 30 centimeter drum brakes on the rear wheels, operated via a manual lever and a linkage, and with an additional foot-operated brake.
Engine cooling: no longer a problem thanks to honeycomb radiator
One of the most sensational inventions on this first "Mercedes" – and one that has essentially remained unchanged to this day – was the honeycomb radiator.
Until then, coiled pipe radiators had customarily been used, their efficiency leaving much to be desired. They had caused an enormous water consump­tion or required very large and therefore heavy coolant circuits. Maybach had taken a major step toward the solution of the cooling problem as early as 1897 when he introduced a radiator consisting of a large number of small tubes which were flushed by coolant and additionally cooled by airflow. The latter permitted a marked reduction in the required coolant reservoir which, however, was still a sizeable 18 liters.
Maybach achieved a major breakthrough with the honeycomb radiator first incorporated in the "Mercedes". He had as many as 8,070 small square tubes, each six by six millimeters in size, soldered together into a complete­ly novel, rectangular radiator. Cooling efficiency was considerably increased and water consumption reduced by half to a mere nine liters by the square tubes' larger passage cross-section and the smaller gaps between the tubes. A small fan behind the radiator improved cooling efficiency at slow speeds. The honeycomb radiator had been born –t he automotive cooling problem had become a thing of the past.
Sensational appearance of the 35 hp "Mercedes"
The new car was for the first time tested on November 22, 1900, and the first "Mercedes" was delivered to Jellinek on December 22. Before long, the styling design of the first "real" car in history set the trend for the rest of the automotive industry, causing a 'landslide' in design. The car's elongated silhouette, high performance, honeycomb radiator, low-slung engine hood, long wheelbase, shift gate, obliquely installed steering, equal-sized wheels on the two axles and low weight were from then on regarded standard components of the modern automobile.
The sensational successes in racing in 1901 of the Mercedes cars gave credit to Maybach's new design. People also highly appreciated the fact that the two-seater, once it was no longer used for racing, was easily converted into an elegant four-seater by means of a rear bodywork element that could be installed in just a few minutes – the ideal car for cruising on fashionable avenues and promenades.
The successor: 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex
Naturally, Maybach and DMG were more than happy about the success of the 35 hp car and its lasting appreciation by buyers, automotive experts and the public at large. As early as March 1901, the product range was ex­tended by the addition of the smaller 12/16 hp Mercedes and in August by a third model, the 8/11 hp Mercedes. Maybach began further developing the first Mercedes series in the fall of 1901 already. To start with, the 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex was designed as a new top model and direct successor to the 35 hp Mercedes. Its wheelbase was extended to 2450 millimeters, its operation made easier by the "automatic" declutching and deceleration of the drive shaft upon actuation of the shift lever. The improvement of operational comfort at this early stage is reflected by the model's epithet, "Simplex".
Better performance, flywheel fan, fourth brake, reduced weight
While the engine's external dimensions remained unchanged, bore and stroke were modified, raising displacement to 6786 cc and output to 40 hp. The camshafts were encapsulated and a single carburetor was installed with a new pre-heating unit which improved the atomizing effect of Maybach's air nozzle.
The cooling was also improved in that the flywheel – a fairly large unit with a diameter of 60 centimeters – was fitted with guide vanes for increasing the air flow through the radiator and engine compartment. The radiator fan was omitted, the engine compartment fitted with covers and baffle plates, the underside of the car closed by means of sheet metal panels – an idea that had an inspiring effect on subsequent engine designs throughout the world. The coolant capacity required dropped by another two to seven liters.
To match the further increased engine output, the car was fitted with a second foot-operated brake – a band brake acting on the intermediate shaft of the chain drive. All four brakes - the rear wheel drum brakes and the existing foot-operated brake - were cooled by means of splash water that dripped onto the friction surfaces from a reservoir when the brakes were applied.
Additional design modifications brought the Mercedes-Simplex' weight down to 942 kilograms, giving the car excellent prospects of winning races against its clearly heavier competitors. The first of these epoch-making models was shipped to Emil Jellinek in Nice on March 1, 1902. The new model scored success in the Nice race week right from the start – like the 35 hp Mercedes a year earlier, the 40 hp car won the hill climb race from Nice to La Turbie in record time. It scored success right from the start and became the ancestor of all subsequent generations of Mercedes racing and sports cars. The Mercedes-Simplex became the talk of the town and inspired no lesser person than Emperor Wilhelm II to come up with a bon mot. At the Berlin motor show in March 1903, he told Wilhelm Maybach: "A truly beautiful engine you have here! But it's not as simplex as that, you know."
The 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.
On March 14, 1902, the fifth 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex was handed over by DMG in Cannstatt to William K. Vanderbilt Jr., an American billionaire and car enthusiast who already owned a 35 hp Mercedes. He started out straightaway on a 600 kilometer trip to Paris where he arrived on the eve­ning of the next day. On May 3, he successfully established a speed record over one kilometer with a flying start on the road between Ablis and Chartres: his Mercedes-Simplex reached a top speed of 111.8 kilometers per hour.
Participation in long-distance races – popular events at the time – and re­peated record runs in Europe and America were a sporting pastime for Vanderbilt Jr. Besides, these events consolidated the legendary reputation of the Mercedes – and its driver – and provided DMG with a growing number of prominent customers.
The 40 hp Mercedes-Simplex of William K. Vanderbilt Jr., model year 1902, is by all accounts the oldest existing Mercedes and one of the few surviving cars from this model series. Its history can be traced back completely.
It was bought in 1923 by a German race car mechanic who had emigrated to America and ran a Mercedes workshop. "Mercedes Joe" first and fore­most serviced the cars of movie stars, using his Simplex as a replacement part carrier. In 1930, the car was sold to the Scripps family, rich newspaper publishers from San Diego. Well worn but indestructible, the Simplex ser­ved as a learners' car for the Scripps family's children until the early forties. It was then transferred to the family farm where it was eventually parked for good in a barn.
In 1960, the Scripps family sold the car to Bill Evans Sr. who displayed it in his Bahia Hotel, built in 1953, in San Diego. His research revealed that he had indeed acquired a1902 model. Reliable proof is provided by the front axle made of a single tube and the leaf springs which were flexibly suspended on the front end of the frame only on this 1902 model.
Today Vanderbilt's 40 hp Mercedes still boasts impressive performance and turns no fewer heads than it did in March 1902.


High-performance four-cylinder engine of the Mercedes 35 HP, intake side. The lightweight crankcase, the two carburettors, the exposed intake camshaft and the control shaft for actuating the magneto make-and-break ignition are clearly visible.
Important precondition for further increases in the performance of vehicle engines: Wilhelm Maybach’s honeycomb radiator, patented in December 1900.
The first Mercedes: The engine of this 35 hp Daimler Mercedes of 1901 was equipped as standard with efficient low-voltage magneto ignition.
Systematic lightweight design: The engine of the 35 hp Mercedes, designed by Wilhelm Maybach, with controlled intake and exhaust valves (1900).
Benchmark in automotive engineering: Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft launched the 35 hp Mercedes in 1901. The car was powered by a four-cylinder engine developed by Maybach.
40 hp Mercedes-Simplex, 1902: Hand pump for generating pressure in the tank and lubricating oil reservoir before starting the engine, pressure gauge for control. Above is the fuel regulator.