Benz & Cie. and motorsport

Apr 5, 2019

Carl Benz invents the car as a means of transportation in 1886: his engined vehicle is a technical masterpiece that will change people’s everyday lives. The man from Mannheim expressly does not think of sporting competitions in the first few years, instead offering criticism of such activities: “Instead of taking part in races that do not provide any gain in experience, but instead only cause damage, we will continue to value the manufacture of solid and reliable touring cars,” says Carl Benz in 1901. Benz apparently does not rate the innovative power of motorsport and its strong public appeal as an advertising measure very highly even 15 years after its invention.

And yet in 1895, there are already two Benz vehicles amongst the first eight vehicles to finish the Paris–Bordeaux–Paris race. And, as early as 1894, at the first car competition in history from Paris to Rouen, a Roger-Benz crosses the finish line. When the company founder gives his criticism, in reality, Benz & Cie. has already been building exceptional racing cars for two years. The driving force behind this involvement are Benz sons Eugen and Richard. The first car systematically designed for the sport by the brand is the Benz 8 PS racing car of 1899, with which Fritz Held attains the class victory and the great gold medal at the Frankfurt–Cologne long-distance race over a distance of 193.2 kilometres with an average speed of 22.5 km/h. Another Benz 8 PS with Emil Graf as the driver takes second place.

1908: Prince Henry as a patron of racing

In this decade, alongside the regular races, several competitions for touring cars are also setup that roughly correspond to present-day rallies. Therefore, wealthy patrons interested in motorsport arrange long-distance journeys and offer valuable prizes. The purpose of these tours is to maintain automotive tourism and perfect the touring car. However, various tests do seem to have something of a racing feel about them.

In Germany, painter and universal artist Hubert von Herkomer is a motorsport pioneer: the “Herkomer Challenges” take place from 1905 to 1907 as journeys over several days across distances of between 900 and 1,800 kilometres. In June 1907, Fritz Erle wins the third Herkomer Challenge over 1,818 kilometres (Dresden–Eisenach–Mannheim–Lindau–Munich–Augsburg–Frankfurt/Main) in the Benz 50 PS and thereby secures the Herkomer Challenge Trophy.

Prince Henry of Prussia, the automotive enthusiast brother of the German Kaiser, founds the Challenge Trophy for a major international tour in 1907, which is to be held in 1908. The rules allow only four-seater four or six-cylinder vehicles that are approved for public roads and must have a mileage of at least 2,000 kilometres on the day of the acceptance. This competition takes place from 1908 to 1910 until the advent of the Herkomer Challenges.

Benz & Cie. starts a total of eleven vehicles at the first Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt from 9 to 17 June 1908 over a distance of 2,201 kilometres, with rated outputs of 18 kW (25 hp), 37 kW (50 hp) and 55 kW (75 hp). Of the 129 participants, Fritz Erle came out the winner with his Benz 7.5-litre Spezial touring car with a rated output of 37 kW (50 hp).

The second Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt is carried out between 10 and 18 June 1909 over a distance of more than 1,858 kilometres on the Berlin–Breslau–Budapest–Vienna–S alzburg–Munich route. 108 participants begin, of which eight are Benz Spezial touring cars with a rated output of 15 kW (20 hp). The winner in the overall classification is Wilhelm Opel in an Opel. The Benz with the best finish was driven by Edward Forchheimer to 4th place.

The third competition of the series is carried out from 2 to 8 June 1910 across 1,945 kilometres on the Berlin–B raunschweig–Kassel–Nuremberg–Strasbourg–Metz–Homburg vor der Höhe route and comprises 17 special tests. Benz develops ten completely new Spezial touring cars for this journey. Four have 5.7 litres of displacement and six 7.3 litres. Unlike the Benz vehicles of the previous Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt journeys, the vehicles of 1910 have a shaft drive and aerodynamically optimised bodies with a characteristic pointed rear.

As in 1909, the Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt does not end with the victory hoped for by Benz in 1910 either: Ferdinand Porsche, then chief designer at Austro-Daimler in Vienna, wins in a vehicle by his company. The racing cars he himself developed even occupy the first three places. Fritz Erle is the best driver of the Benz brand, crossing the finish line in 5th place with a 5.7-litre vehicle with 59 kW (80 hp). Most of the Benz vehicles for the Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt journeys between 1908 and 1910 are also used after their actual purpose at races and tours and subsequently sold to private persons with sporting ambitions.

1908: the Benz Grand Prix vehicles

Benz & Cie. wants to return to the international racing elite with participation in the French Grand Prix of 1908. Hans Nibel and Louis de Groulart take on the task of developing a high-performance racing car for this purpose under the project management of Benz chief designer Georg Diehl. The Belgian de Groulart comes to Benz in Mannheim together with Marius Barbarou in 1903 and soon makes himself a name as an engine designer.

The chassis design of the Benz 120 PS Grand Prix racing car follows established principles: amongst other things, a frame made from pressed steel profiles with cranked longitudinal beams over the rear axle characterises the vehicle, plus there are coil absorbers on the front and rear wheels. The four-cylinder engine constructed by de Groulart has hanging valves, which are controlled by bumpers and rocker arms via a camshaft positioned below. At 154.9 millimetres, the bore is at the permitted limit, and with a piston stroke of 165 millimetres, there is a displacement of 12.4 litres.

The first vehicle is produced in March 1908 and subjected to extensive tests. It experiences its first race on 1 June at the St. Petersburg–Moscow race across 686 kilometres, which Victor Hémery won in the record time of 8:30:48 hours with 80.6 km/h average speed – an impressive performance given the road conditions.

The very next race is the great challenge – the French Grand Prix on 7 July 1908 in Dieppe. Benz drivers Victor Hémery and René Hanriot finish in second and third behind winner Christian Lautenschlager in a Mercedes. Team boss Fritz Erle takes seventh place. Therefore, Mercedes and Benz share the triumph over the French racing teams who had expected a home victory. Benz is the only brand for which all three started cars cross the finish line.

1909: the “Blitzen Benz”

This vehicle is the antithesis in-car-nate of the demand from Carl Benz for a sensible vehicle capable of a maximum of 50 km/h: the Benz 200 PS record car, famous and known mainly by the nickname “Blitzen Benz” coined in America, finally catapults the Mannheim brand into the consciousness of a public interested in motorsport. Its showpiece discipline is, above all, the speed records that underline the evolution of automotive performance in the early years of the 20th century.

In this hunt by the various manufacturers for ever higher speeds, the “Blitzen Benz” is one of the most successful cars in the entire era: Bob Burman reaches 228.1 km/h in the world-record vehicle from Mannheim on 23 April 1911 on Daytona Beach, Florida over a kilometre with a flying start. A land vehicle had never driven faster before this. Over the mile with a flying start, the vehicle also reached an equally spectacular mark: 225.6 km/h. These records remain unbroken until 1919. This makes the Benz twice as fast as an aeroplane of the time and even exceeds the rail vehicle record (1903: 210 km/h).

In terms of construction, the vehicle goes back to the successful Benz Grand Prix vehicle of 1908. Engineers Victor Hémery, Hans Nibel and their colleagues create an imposing car which, with its mighty 21.5-litre four-cylinder engine, will remain the fastest car in the world for a long time. Nor will any future racing or record car used by Benz & Cie., Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft or Mercedes-Benz have a higher displacement. In the first version, this enormous engine generates 135 kW (184 hp) at 1,500 rpm, but careful fine tuning by the engineers ultimately allows 147 kW (200 hp) at 1,600 rpm. The body is built around this engine and the chassis is based on the Grand Prix vehicle.

The vehicle gave a little taste of its performance on its first outing in a kilometre race from Frankfurt am Main. Fritz Erle won at an average speed of 159.3 km/h with a flying start. The Benz 200 PS visits the record courses all over the world, such as the Brooklands motor circuit in England. Victor Hémery is the first person ever to exceed the speed barrier of 200 km/h in a car with a combustion engine on this course on 8 November 1909: 202.648 km/h for the kilometre is what the measurement shows; he even completes half the mile (804.67 metres) at 205.666 km/h. The Benz 200 PS shifts all known limits at the time – and soon shows that the courses in Europe are too short and too narrow for the desired speeds.

In 1910, the newly bodied vehicle is shipped to America. There, event manager Ernie Moross buys it and gives it the promotionally effective name “Lightning Benz” because the car is as quick as lightning. Soon Barney Oldfield breaks the existing world record on Daytona Beach with his record speed of 211.9 km/h. Such high-speed drives take place exclusively on sand at that time; the performances of the drivers deserve the greatest of respect with poor road conditions and without a windshield.

Moross changes the name of the vehicle to the German-sounding “ Blitzen Benz” and continues to draw public attention to this exceptional car. The record vehicle becomes an attraction, which – similarly to a travelling circus – tours around the USA. As part of this tour, the “Blitzen Benz” ultimately breaks the still-fresh world record with Bob Burman at the wheel in April 1911 and sets the record of 228.1 km/h that will stand for years to come. Alongside the record vehicle, a further five “Blitzen Benz” are created.

Benz & Cie., as well as Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, officially does not take part in any motorsport events during the First World War and in the two years following it. Individual private drivers, however, continue to make history with the help of their German vehicles. At the start of the 1920s, various new racing cars based on production vehicles are once again created at Benz & Cie. The chassis is then given an aerodynamically-optimised body after corresponding modifications, which, in its basic shape with the pointed rear, is still reminiscent of the “Blitzen Benz”. 

1923: Benz Tropfenwagen

Four years after the end of the war, a spectacular car is created in Mannheim: the teardrop car (“Tropfenwagen”). In 1922, the construction of four vehicles as racing cars begins – however, due to the economically difficult period, it takes until 1923 to complete their construction. The Tropfenwagen is originally a design by Edmund Rumpler, who presents the vehicle at the 1921 Berlin Motor Show. Benz immediately acquires the reproduction rights as the design with a consistent streamlined shape and mid-mounted engine is truly revolutionary. The first race takes place at the European Grand Prix in Monza on 9 September 1923. Of the three participating vehicles, Fernando Minoia immediately claims fourth and Franz Hörner fifth place.

From 1923 onwards, the Benz Tropfenwagen is also built as a sports car with a modified body in smaller quantities and, in this version, gets to the finish line alongside the racing car at various races and hillclimbs. Adolf Rosenberger wins in 1925 at the “Solitude” race in the class of vehicles with 8 tax hp. Willy Walb wins amongst the sports cars with up to 5 litres of displacement in the 1925 Schauinsland race.

The fact that the Benz Tropfenwagen cars do not take part in more races is, on the one hand, due to the economic crisis in Germany. Yet the cooperation of Benz & Cie. with Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft begins in May 1924, which ultimately leads to the merger of the two companies to become Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft on 28/29 June 1926. The racing activities up to the merger are overwhelmingly down to DMG.

Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 9 September 1923. The innovative Benz teardrop car (“Tropfenwagen”) with its 2-litre engine is extremely reliable over the 800-kilometre race distance. Fernando Minoia (starting number 1) and Franz Hörner take places four and five with these vehicles.
Daytona Beach, 23 April 1911. Bob Burman improves on the previous year’s record set by Barney Oldfield and does the one-mile dash in Daytona Beach, Florida, USA with a flying start and achieves 228.1 km/h. His world record remains unbeaten until 1919.
Benz & Cie. participated in the third Prince Heinrich tour, which took place in June 1910 on the route from Berlin–Brunswick–Kassel–Nuremberg–Strasbourg–Metz–Homburg vor der Höhe, with special touring sports cars whose four-cylinder engines were designed as four-valve engines for the first time at Benz.
First Prince Heinrich tour, 9 to 17 June 1908, Berlin-Stettin-Kiel-Hamburg-Hanover-Cologne-Trier-Frankfurt am Main, 2,201 kilometres. Fritz Erle (starting number 68) wins in a 50 PS Benz special touring car. Benz & Cie. fielded a total of eleven vehicles in the first Prince Heinrich Tour.
American Grand Prix in Savannah,12 November 1910. Davis Bruce-Brown and Victor Hémery achieve a double victory in Benz 150 PS racing cars. The photo shows the second-place car.
French Grand Prix near Dieppe, July 7, 1908: Victor Hémery (start number 6) finishes in second place in a Benz 120 hp Grand Prix racing car.
Long-distance Mannheim-Pforzheim-Mannheim, 13 May 1900. Fritz Held and co-driver Mathias Bender win in a Benz 16 PS racing car. They are awarded the trophy for the day’s best time.