Historians are not in agreement, but the bulk of opinion is that the products of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, working separately in Germany during 1886, were the first automobiles. Automotive history did not begin with the 1901 Mercedes 35 HP, of course, because self-propelled vehicles had been known at least as far back as 1775. But until the mid-1880s all of them had been large, heavy, and inefficient, relying on steam power in one form or another.
The technological breakthrough that allowed the "horseless carriage" to enter the modern age was the use of petroleum fuel in lightweight, high-revving engines -- and this is exactly what Messrs. Benz and Daimler achieved -- separately. Though they lived within 60 miles of each other, they were not acquainted, and the great company bearing both their names wasn't established until 1924. Gottlieb Daimler didn't even live to see the famous "Mercedes" name on one of his cars. He died in 1900, unhappily, protesting that he still had years of work to do.
The first "Mercedes," the great 35 HP of 1901, was conceived by Daimler's distributor in Nice, the formidable Emil Jellinek: Austria-Hungary's vice-consul in the city, a seller and sometime racer of Daimler machines, a scion of the Hapsburg establishment. Writer David Scott-Moncrieff described Jellinek as "a small, excitable man -- in the matter of cars, like Toad of Toad Hall -- whatever he had, he wanted something bigger and better."
Jellinek especially wanted light cars, which was an uncommon idea in those days. He yearned for a "mechanical greyhound." Wilhelm Maybach and Daimler's talented son Paul set to work on a Daimler to meet his specifications. Jellinek encouraged them, promising to buy the first three dozen. He also selected the name Mercedes, after his 10-year-old daughter.
As often, things didn't quite go as planned. Daimler was able to complete only six cars by January 1901, and there was no time for a shakedown run before the Grand Prix of Pau in February, which was to be its racing debut. The race proved a fiasco. Both engine and gearbox were troublesome and the Mercedes retired after running only a few yards.
But things were different at Nice, where the Mercedes of factory driver Wilhelm Werner dominated events. The 35-bhp Mercedes was fastest in both the sprints and hillclimbs, and also won the 393-km (244-mile) Nice-Aix-Senas-Nice road race that climaxed the proceedings.
Today, 35 horsepower from a six-liter engine in a car weighing 2,200 pounds seems very pedestrian, to put it mildly. But it was truly sensational by the standards of 1901. The four-cylinder engine, with its camshaft-operated intake valves, was quite advanced, and gave the car a higher power/weight ratio than most others of the time.
Also, the Mercedes handled better than any other car yet seen. The secret was in its squat stance. The earlier Daimlers Jellinek had been racing were bulky, over twice as heavy as the Mercedes, and relatively high on a short wheelbase. The resulting instability was thought to have caused the death of a driver in the La Turbie hillclimb of 1899.
But the Mercedes was altogether lower and sleeker. Its hoodline was little higher than the tops of its front tires, the chassis side members rode at least six inches nearer to the ground, and its driver sat closer to the midpoint of a longer wheelbase and behind a considerably more raked steering column.
On the next page, learn about the features of the 1901 Mercedes 35 HP.