My Mystery Machine – Adventures in a unique 1913 Benz W5 8/20 with Australian origins

Michael Hoegl, Karl Ludvigsen
Gary Anderson, Thomas Bonatz, Michael Hoegl, Daimler Archive
This 1913 Benz is something of a mystery because the records of the production of its chassis and engine and export to Australia as well as the design of the original body that was installed there are lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it has been restored as faithfully as possible to what it might have looked like at the time, so it can provide a tactile connection to the early history of the automobile as it is driven on the street, and even on the track.

My Mystery Machine  – Adventures in a unique 1913 Benz W5 8/20 with Australian origins

Article Michael Hoegl, Karl Ludvigsen

Images – Gary Anderson, Thomas Bonatz, Michael Hoegl, Daimler Archives

 

Most people don’t know very much about the history of automobiles, so when they see one as old as my 1913 Benz, they react as if it had just driven out of an old movie. The looks of surprise on their faces when they see that this obviously old model actually started and runs are interesting: But they were nothing compared with the expressions I saw when I drove around the banked high-speed oval of Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama at StarFest® in May.

Sure, I was only going about 45 miles per hour – these cars were designed with a 40-mph top speed in mind, about the fastest anyone would drive on the highways of their day – but onlookers reacted like I had just flown by at the controls of an Edwardian rocketship.

I’ve had the car since 2011, a W5 Benz 8/20 produced in 1913 at Benz & Cie. Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik (Benz and Co. Gas Engine Manufacturing company) in Mannheim, Germany. After seven years of ownership – and knowing the details of starting, driving and maintaining this eye-popping sensation of a car – I still enjoy the reactions of people seeing it for the first time when I drive it in everyday circumstances. 

 

The early story

Many people don’t realize that the Daimler and Benz firms, established in the early 1880s by Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, respectively, were separate entities when this car was produced. Historian Karl Ludvigsen tells this part of the story.

After Benz and his wife Bertha introduced their first gasoline-engine-propelled three-wheel vehicle, patented in 1886, he reluctantly expanded the styles of automobiles he was building, selling primarily to wealthy customers who could afford the quality that he insisted on building into his cars. However, as more companies entered the marketplace, his company lost ground and his investors eventually pushed him aside.

Reaching a low point in 1903-04, the company was only able to survive because of its truck production. In 1910, the company acquired the Süddeutschen Automobilfabrik (SAF) at Gaggenau, an important truck producer, and soon moved all its truck activity there.

Although still a producer of fine large cars, the Benz company soon resolved to concentrate on smaller models for the middle class as its best way forward. An internal competition for the best design of a small, light car was won by former Gaggenau engineer Karl Ketterer, whose engine proposal benefited from an advanced engine he had designed at SAF. The 8/18 was introduced at the end of 1911. With its 112.2-inch wheelbase and 52.1-inch track, the new model was smaller than previous Benzes and designed for volume production to sell for a much more affordable price than earlier Benz cars.

The salient feature in Ketterer’s new Benz was a 4-cylinder engine with the block cast in-unit with the head, and its inlet passages cast internally. With a bore of 72mm and stroke of 120mm, the engine displaced 1,954cc. On an aluminum crankcase, the cylinder block was slightly offset toward the cam/valve side, a design called “désaxé” (French for unbalanced) to reduce internal cylinder walls friction.

An updraft Zenith carburetor was simply piped into its right-hand side. Another new feature was a chain instead of gears to drive the camshaft for the side valves along the engine’s left flank. Cooling was by thermosyphon natural convection (with no water pump) with both the fan and the Eisemann magneto driven by a riveted-leather fan belt by a left-hand extension of the camshaft drive.

Benz had developed an automatic timing system for spark advance on this model, a popular feature not offered by other manufacturers. Because the car had to be cranked to start, the automatic spark advance greatly reduced the chance of kick-back, which could easily break an arm.

In 1912 the 8/18 was upgraded to the 8/20, which produced 20 horsepower at 1,800 rpm. Through a leather-faced cone clutch, the side-valve four drove a 4-speed box shifted from a lever outside the cockpit. Shaft drive powered the rear axle. Wheelbase was 112.2 inches, track 52.1 inches.

The 8/20 chassis weighed 1,675 pounds, and cars were bodied as the customer required from an open runabout to chauffeur-driven town car. Top speed was in the range of 40-45 mph, and price for the chassis was 6,500 marks.

 

The Australian connection

By 1912, Benz had established dealerships throughout Europe, as well as in the United States and as far away as Australia. Beyond that, we don’t know very much about Mannheim production; the factory was destroyed in World War II before records could be moved to safety. Daimler archivists believe that Benz and Co. produced 2,673 passenger car chassis in 1913, but no breakdown of types or models exists. Aside from one picture of the Melbourne dealership that the previous owner of this car was able to find, there aren’t any records of Australian sales, either.

We can be fairly certain that, like other automobiles sold in Australia, this car arrived there as a running chassis to avoid a 40-percent import tax on assembled automobiles. This car was bought in pieces by the previous owner, without body panels or interior. He restored the car and re-created this body in the 1990s working from archive photos of other Benzes from the period.

I’ve long been interested in the aesthetic, as well as the mechanical features of early automobiles, and have owned 10 built before World War I. Through friends in the hobby, I had known about this car for a long time; at least 10 years ago, I told the owner I would like to purchase it if he ever decided to sell. To my surprise, he eventually called; the car was delivered to me in Canada in April 2011, pretty much in the condition shown in these pages.

 

Birmingham and StarFest

I made the decision to bring the Benz to StarFest 2018 as soon as the Birmingham event was announced. I briefly toyed with driving the car from Toronto, but with its limited top speed, I calculated it would take me at least five full days of driving to cover the 1,150 miles; the only sensible solution was to bring it by trailer. The journey still took three days each way to accomplish.

I had been concerned that the hilly terrain around Birmingham might be challenging. Any hill seems steeper when you only have 20 horsepower. Normally it means gearing down, a challenge using a manual transmission with no synchronization. To downshift a 100-year-old car is tricky, requiring double-clutching between gears to increase rotation of the lower gear to match engine speed. If the engine stalls, I must pull over and stop the car, signal the cars behind me to go around, and start all over again. It is not uncommon to be passed by a bicycle.

Nevertheless, at the invitation of local MBCA member Thomas Bonatz, we decided to take a photographic tour to Barber Motorsports Park, 15 miles away – or almost an hour of travel along winding back roads. And because the Benz isn’t fast enough to drive safely on the Interstate, back roads it was. As we parked in front of the Barber Museum for pictures, people working there came rushing out. I guess they had never had a visit from an early Benz before.

After the Barber Museum, we continued our drive to the Mercedes-Benz of Birmingham dealership. I had barely brought the car to a stop in front of the showroom before people were coming out of the building to take pictures of the car with their cell phones, one after another. No one there, either, apparently had ever seen a car that old out on the road. Graciously, they offered us anything from their bistro while they looked the car over.

With Bonatz’s girlfriend driving the chase car (she was unnecessarily worried that we might not make the climb), we drove from the dealership up to the highest point on Red Mountain, a dignified neighborhood at an altitude of more than 1,000 feet. The homes, many of which are over 100 years old, have a spectacular view overlooking downtown Birmingham: One of those residents invited us in to see his home, built in 1917 – an appropriate background hailing from the same historical period as the old Benz.

I’m always gratified by people’s reactions when they see this machine for the first time; even though I am inevitably slowing down traffic, drivers wave and give the thumbs-up when they go around me, some passengers take pictures and most people smile. I do have to be aware of other vehicles around the 1913 Benz and, particularly, be cognizant that people may be looking at my ancient automobile and not paying attention to where they’re supposed to be driving.

What else can a 1913 Benz W5 8/20 accomplish for its proud owner? Well, a few months ago while organizing a tour back home in Canada for 20 pre-1915 cars, I needed to secure a restaurant reservation for 45 people. On the phone with my chosen venue, I was crisply informed that the restaurant did not take reservations – no exceptions. Having my heart set on our group sharing a meal at that particular spot, and not wanting to take no for an answer, I drove the 1913 Benz over to the restaurant and pulled the old automobile up in front so everyone inside could see it. Guess what? … I got my reservation with the guarantee that the parking lot would be kept empty for our tour group. It’s amazing what doors can be flung wide open by a 105-year-old car.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

1913 Benz W5 8/20 RoadsterTYPE: Open two-passenger roadsterENGINE: Side-valve 1954cc, offset 4-cylinder with integrally cast engine block and headFUEL SYSTEM: Pressurized fuel tank feeding single updraft Zenith carburetorTRANSMISSION: 4-speed & reverse, aluminum caseHORSEPOWER: 20 horsepower at 1,800 rpm   WHEELBASE: 112.2 in   TRACK: 52.1 in   CURB WEIGHT: 1,675 lb  TOP SPEED: 40-45 mph

 

In 1911, as part of an effort to provide long-term stability for the firm, Benz Introduced the 8/18, designed for volume production at an affordable price.

 

In 1912 the 8/18 was upgraded to the 8/20, which made 20 horsepower.

 

ABOVE: When exactly my open roadster was assembled is unclear; to my eye, it is a very successful exercise in parts-bin aesthetics.

 

When the Mercedes-Benz Mannheim factory was destroyed by sustained aerial bombardment in the Second World War, all the company’s production documents and sales records were obliterated before they could be moved to safety; as a result, no record of early Australian sales remains other than this single photograph of a Melbourne dealership.

 

The 8/20 engine, with riveted-leather fan belt.

 

Bronze radiator damper mounted on chassis (arrow) holds rubber disc to isolate vibrations that might loosen radiator and engine connections.

 

Primer cups above cylinder exhaust valves can release compression, allowing engine to turn without firing if it has not run for a while. A little gasoline can also be poured through them into each cylinder before cold starts – there’s no carburetor choke.

 

The Eisemann high-voltage magneto.

 

Tool storage compartment in cockpit floor.

 

 

Weighing only 1,675 pounds, the roadster perches lightly on its toes, offering lively performance, direct steering and responsive handling.

 

Original enamel Benz radiator badge.

 

No sooner had we pulled up and taken this photograph at Mercedes-Benz of Birmingham than customers and dealership employees surrounded the car.

 

The 8/20’s agility came to the fore on the StarFest autocross course at Talladega Superspeedway.

 

At one with the elements:

 

Two views of cockpit highlight simple gauges and sporty bucket seats.

 

 

Time machine: Venturing out on secondary roads and along country lanes helps re-create a sense of what it might have been like behind the wheel of the 8/20 a century ago.

 

While at StarFest 2018, the Benz gamely tackled the climb up to the top of 1,000-foot Red Mountain, with stunning views of downtown Birmingham.

 

A home built in 1917 made a fine backdrop for the 105-year-old vehicle.

 

Images

Driving a 1913 Benz 8/20 for the past seven years has sharpened my piloting skills, heightened my patience, increased my awareness of the vagaries of traffic and the foibles of other motorists, and propelled me into unforgettable encounters I could not have experienced in any other vehicle. I always relish the reactions of people encountering the car for the first time.

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