120 years of Mercedes-Benz motor sport history
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By: Mercedes-Benz

120 years of Mercedes-Benz motor sport history  •1899: the first Benz racing cars

•The 'Blitzen-Benz' (Lightning Benz) is the first automobile powered by a combustion engine to exceed 200 km/h

•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 rather expressed criticism of such activities: 'Instead of taking part in races which teach us nothing useful and indeed actually cause harm, we will continue to focus on building robust and reliable touring cars,' Carl Benz said as late as 1901. Even 15 years after his invention, Benz apparently had little regard for motor sports as a driver of innovation and for the advertising potential its high public profile presented.

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 car race in history from Paris to Rouen. At the very time when the company founder was still voicing these criticisms, Benz & Cie. had in fact already been designing full-out racing cars for two years. The driving forces behind this involvement were the sons of Benz, Eugen and Richard. The first car of the brand uncompromisingly designed for sport was the Benz 8 hp 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. Another Benz 8 hp driven by Emil Graf finished in second place.

120 years of Mercedes-Benz motor sport history  

1908: Prince Heinrich as promoter of motor sport

In this decade, along with conventional races there were also numerous competitions held for touring cars, roughly equivalent to today's rally races. Well-heeled patrons with an interest in motor sports often organised long-distance races and donate valuable prizes. The purpose of these touring races was to cultivate motor tourism and perfect the touring car. Several of these trials had a distinct racing character, however. 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 1,800 kilometres, were held from 1905 to 1907. In June 1907, Fritz Erle won the 3rd Herkomer Challenge (Dresden–Eisenach–Mannheim–Lindau–Munich–Augsburg–Frankfurt) in a Benz 50 hp to clinch the Herkomer Challenge Trophy.

In July 1907, Heinrich Prince of Prussia, brother of the German Emperor and an automobile enthusiast, donated the Challenge Trophy for a major international touring race, to be held from 1908 onwards. The regulations limited entries to four-cylinder or six-cylinder four-seaters that were licensed for use on public roads and had driven at least 2,000 kilometres by the day of inspection and approval. In the years from 1908 to 1910, this competition served as the successor to the Herkomer Challenges.

Benz & Cie. took part in the first Prince Heinrich Rally from 9 to 17 June 1908 over a distance of 2,201 kilometres with eleven vehicles in all, with rated power outputs of 18 kW (25 hp), 37 kW (50 hp), and 55 kW (75 hp). In a field of 129 participants, Fritz Erle in his 7.5-litre Benz special touring car with a nominal power output of 37 kW (50 hp) again emerged as the winner.


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    The second Prince Heinrich Rally, from 10 to 18 June 1909, covered a distance of 1,858 kilometres on the route Berlin–Wroclaw–Budapest–Vienna–Salzburg–Munich. The 108-vehicle field included eight Benz special touring cars with rated power outputs of 15 kW (20 hp). The overall winner was Wilhelm Opel in an Opel, with the best 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–Brunswick–Kassel–Nuremberg–Strasbourg–Metz–Homburg vor der Höhe, and included 17 special stages. Benz developed ten completely new special touring cars for this rally, four with a displacement of 5.7 litres and six with 7.3 litres. Unlike the Benz cars entered in the previous Prince Heinrich Rallies, the 1910 cars had propeller shafts and aerodynamically optimised coachwork with a characteristic pointed rear.

    As in 1909, the 1910 Prince Heinrich Rally again failed to bring the victory Benz had hoped for: the winner was Ferdinand Porsche, then chief design engineer at Austro-Daimler in Vienna, driving a car from his company. The racing cars developed by him actually took the first three places. The best Benz driver was Fritz Erle in a 5.7-litre car producing 59 kW (80 hp) of power who finished 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. intended to return to top-level international racing by entering the 1908 French Grand Prix. Hans Nibel and Louis de Groulart assumed 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 Benz 120 hp Grand Prix racing car followed tried and proven principles: distinguishing features of the vehicle included a frame made of pressed steel profiles with side members offset above the rear axle, as well as leaf springs on the front and rear wheels. The four-cylinder engine designed by de Groulart had overhead valves actuated 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 result in 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. Benz drivers Victor Hémery and René Hanriot finished second and third behind the winner, Christian Lautenschlager in a Mercedes. Team leader 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 three of its cars.

    1910: the 'Blitzen-Benz'

    This car represented the absolute antithesis to Carl Benz's call for a sensible car that would do no more than 50 km/h: the Benz 200 hp racing car, best known under the name of 'Blitzen-Benz' (Lightning Benz) which was coined for it in America, propelled the Mannheim brand once and for all into the awareness of a public that was interested in motor sports. Above all, its major strength was setting 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 'Blitzen-Benz' stood out as one of the most successful cars of an entire era: 228.1 km/h – never before had a land vehicle travelled as fast as the world record car from Mannheim that Bob Burman drove on 23 April 1911 over the flying kilometre on the beach in Daytona Beach, Florida. The vehicle managed an equally spectacular speed for the flying mile: 225.6 km/h. These records stood until 1919. The Benz was thus twice as fast as any aircraft of the period, and also beat the record for rail vehicles (1903: 210 km/h).

    The design of the car goes back to the successful 1908 Benz Grand Prix cars. Engineers Victor Hémery, Hans Nibel and their colleagues created an impressive automobile that long remained the world's fastest car 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 (184 hp) at 1,500 rpm, but fine-tuning by the engineers ultimately yielded 147 kW (200 hp) at 1,600 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 during its very first outing, a flying kilometre race in Frankfurt am Main. The race was won by Fritz Erle at an average speed of 159.3 km with a flying start. The Benz 200 hp made appearances at the record-breaking circuits of the Old World, including the concrete oval in Brooklands, England. On 8 November 1909, Victor Hémery became the first man to break the 200-km/h barrier in a car powered by an internal combustion engine, 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 (804.67 metres). In so doing, the Benz 200 hp transcended all the previously established limits, and it soon became apparent that the tracks in Europe were too short and too narrow for the envisaged speeds.

    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 'Lightning Benz' because the car was lightning fast. Before long Barney Oldfield had broken the existing world record at Daytona Beach, clocking a record speed of 211.9 km/h. At the time all such high-speed runs were carried out on sand tracks, which, given the poor handling and absence of a windscreen, makes the drivers' achievements even more impressive.

    Moross changed the name to the German-sounding 'Blitzen-Benz' and continued to attract public interest with this exceptional automobile. The car became a popular attraction, touring the US in the manner of a travelling circus. It was during this tour, in April of 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 built in addition to the record-breaking vehicle.

    Neither Benz & Cie. nor Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft took any official part in motor sport events during the First World War and the two years that followed. However, some individual drivers in a private capacity continued the triumphs with the help of their German cars. In the early 1920s, Benz & Cie. again made various new racing cars based on production vehicles. The approach was to fit a modified chassis with an aerodynamically optimised body, always still reminiscent of the 'Blitzen-Benz' with the distinctive pointed rear.

    1923: the Benz 'Teardrop' car

    Four years after the end of the war, a truly spectacular vehicle was created in Mannheim: the 'Teardrop' car. Construction of four of these vehicles as racing cars started in 1922, but the difficult economic situation delayed their completion until 1923. The 'Teardrop' car was an original design 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 its truly revolutionary design featuring streamlined contours and a mid-engine. The car made its racetrack début in the European Grand Prix in Monza on 9 September 1923. Of the company's three cars entered in the event, Fernando Minoia finished in fourth place and Franz Hörner in fifth at the first attempt.

    From 1923, the Benz 'Teardrop' car was also made in small numbers as a sports car with a modified body, and in this form it successfully competed alongside the racing car in various races and hill climb events. In 1925, for example, Adolf Rosenberger won the Solitude Race in the 'under 8 fiscal horsepower' class, and Willy Walb was the winner in the 1925 Schauinsland Race for sports cars with up to 5 litres' displacement.

    The Benz 'Teardrop' cars were prevented from winning even more races in part by the economic crisis in Germany. Also, the cooperation between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft started in May of 1924, which on 28/29 June 1926 finally led to the merger of both companies to form Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft. In the period leading up to the merger, most racing activities were undertaken by DMG.

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    Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz
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