Daimler-Benz 1926-1939 -- Men and Machines in the Classic Age

Karl Ludvigsen
Despite inevitable clashes in executive suites after their merger in 1926, the men of Daimler and Benz advanced the arts of both road and racing cars in their combined company in the years before the Second World War.

Daimler-Benz 1926-1939
Men and Machines in the Classic Age
by Karl Ludvigsen

Photography from Ludvigsen Library and Daimler AG Archives

Despite inevitable clashes in executive suites after their merger in 1926, the men of Daimler and Benz advanced the arts of both road and racing cars in their combined company in the years before the Second World War.

From the engagement of 1924 came the marriage of 1926. Benz had been weaker than Daimler, but neither was in a particularly strong position when their interlinked boards of directors weighed the benefits of a marital commitment. On June 12, 1925, a little over a year after the initial pooling of interests, they submitted an application to initiate a full merger.

On June 28-29, 1926, Daimler-Benz AG was created by the conjoining of Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. During those two days, the general assemblies of the two companies approved their marriage.

Consolidating the Merger

In formal terms, the merger was accomplished by a stock swap at a ratio of 1:1, with Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft acting as the absorbing company and changing its name to Daimler-Benz AG (DBAG). In terms of commercial law, the new company was domiciled in Berlin, as Daimler had been before, while the operating headquarters was located in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim – not at Benz’s Mannheim home.

Both the 1924 federation and the 1926 merger of the two companies were midwifed by the Deutsche Bank’s Emil Georg von Stauss. Described as “something of an eccentric visionary,” the banker foresaw the combine as eventually including BMW and Opel as well, in part as a means of securing Germany’s future ability to produce aero engines. However, Opel soon fell into the hands of General Motors, while BMW decided to go it alone. Von Stauss’s ally on the Benz side was Carl Jahr, head of the Rheinische Creditbank and supporter of the Mannheim company.

For evenhandedness, DBAG’s management board had equal membership from the two predecessor companies and, initially, no designated chairman. Soon, however, Benz veteran Wilhelm Kissel assumed that role. He faced no small challenge. The newly born Daimler-Benz “possessed a large, mainly idle, production apparatus,” wrote historian Bernard Bellon. “Heavily indebted, with only a small fraction of its capacity in use, Daimler-Benz faced a long, tough battle to make its operations profitable in a nation in which mass motorization had, up to that point, hardly taken root.”

Symbolizing the new company was the emblem adorning its products, which framed Daimler’s three-pointed star with the laurel wreath of Benz, adding “Mercedes” and “Benz.” As to the firm’s raison d’être, a 1926 poster set out this objective: “The two oldest and largest motor manufacturers in Germany have joined forces with the aim of offering customers all over the world passenger cars and commercial vehicles in unsurpassed quality and at attractive prices, based on more than 40 years of experience in automotive engineering, joint purchasing of raw and production materials, and a generously laid-out field organization.”

The Porsche Period

Implementation of product policy in the merged company was in the hands of a man who was a stranger to both its component corporations. Since 1924, Ferdinand Porsche had served on the management boards of both Daimler and Benz. In their deliberations, he encountered senior Benz engineer Hans Nibel, five years younger than himself. Nibel was described as “fussy, finicky, and persnickety” – attitudes not at all conducive to the kind of rapid and decisive progress that Porsche liked to make.

Ferdinand Porsche and Max Sailer took an active interest in racing.

Hans Nibel, an engineer on the Benz & Company board before the merger, would eventually replace Porsche as DBAG’s chief engineer.

Uneasy and conflicting technical relationships dated from the initial 1924 alliance. Porsche continued in charge of Untertürkheim’s products, while Nibel retained that authority at Mannheim. In Untertürkheim, Porsche headed a new Central Design Office in which advanced design work on all the group’s new products was conducted, together with research and testing. Although Porsche was the company’s principal spokesman and authority on design matters, both he and Nibel were members of DBAG’s supervisory board.
Porsche’s preferred option when he joined Daimler in 1923 was to create a new 2.5-liter supercharged model to build on the success of Paul Daimler’s smaller blown engines. In the board’s view, however, the more urgent task was replacement of a now-antiquated 6-cylinder car, the 28/95, that dated from 1913. With the speed typical of Porsche, the first prototypes of the new Model K were ready early in 1924; later that year the motoring world was shown the first large supercharged production Mercedes-Benz cars.

Three key managers in the early years of Mercedes-Benz: Porsche, Sailer, and Fritz Nallinger in 1925

At the top of the range, the fast and flamboyant K, S, SS, and SSK models established Mercedes-Benz as a leading sports-luxury marque. “This motor car is one of the finest examples of a true sports-racing type ever built,” famed auto designer Virgil Exner said about the SSK. “Large-diameter racing wire wheels, together with lifted cycle fenders, give the illusion of a much lower silhouette than actual measurements show. The tremendous length of hood bears out the traditional European love for the race machine.” While the big supercharged sixes continued to boast vee’d radiators, this feature was denied to the new ranges of Mannheim, Stuttgart, and Nürburg models. Flat radiators marked them as a lesser class of Mercedes-Benz automobile.

Stuttgart 8/38 hp Roadster and the Corbusier House; symbols of Germany’s focus on a high-tech future after coming out of World War I

At the more popular end of the range, Porsche led the design of the new 8/38, a 2.0-liter model. Shown at Berlin in 1926, the 8/38 was rushed into production with remarkable speed; 1,425 were made before the end of that year, and in 1927 4,788 were produced – a new record by far for a Mercedes, Benz, or Mercedes-Benz. A pat on the back for Porsche came from Jahr in December 1926. “In design no fewer than nine different types have been created for the various factories,” said the banker, including trucks as well. “For the most part they’ve already been validated and found to be good. No particular explanation is needed for the work that’s been involved in that.”

As he had at Austro Daimler, Porsche at Daimler-Benz oversaw the design of many other types of vehicles and prime movers. Light and shadow attended his work on commercial vehicles. A new range of trucks with capacities of 1.5, 3.0, and 5.0 tons “unfortunately did not satisfy,” in the words of Alfred Neubauer, though they were the work of the punctilious Nibel at Mannheim and engineers at Gaggenau. Porsche complained of poor liaison between Gaggenau and his team at Untertürkheim.

The 6-cylinder OM5 diesel engine, designed under Fritz Nallinger in 1925, would be the basis for an entire range of diesel engines  for cars, trucks, and off-road-vehicles by 1935.

A better result came from Porsche’s work on diesel engines for trucks. Early in the 1920s, both Benz and Daimler had developed such engines, which meant that at the time they forged an alliance in 1924, a choice had to be made between their differing technologies. This choice was Porsche’s responsibility.

In 1925, he resolved the conflict between Untertürkheim and Mannheim in favor of the latter’s pre-chamber technology, based on the work of diesel pioneer Prosper L’Orange, deputy member of the Benz management board from 1911 to 1921. It promised simpler and lighter construction that would be less costly to produce.
Porsche set up a special team at Untertürkheim to create a production engine based on the Benz concept. To head the effort, he handpicked a talented 26-year-old Benz engineer, Fritz Nallinger, the son of a Daimler management-board member. They chose a six over a four to gain greater smoothness and set ambitious targets for power and speed with the help of Bosch and its injectors. The result was the OM5, developing 85 brake horsepower at 1,300 rpm from its 8,572cc. Its commitment to series production resulted in a range of diesels of up to 150 brake horsepower and the sales of 10,000 units by 1935, including buses and off-road vehicles.
Although barred by the Treaty of Versailles from producing large aero engines, Daimler produced small power plants for light planes in the early 1920s. Offered into the Porsche era was the F7502, displacing 884cc in two air-cooled cylinders. This was supplemented under Porsche’s aegis by the radial 3-cylinder F1, which with 1,491cc was rated at 20 brake horsepower at 2,800 rpm.

These air-cooled engines were used in aircraft designed by Hanns Klemm for an arm of Daimler that produced light airplanes from 1919. In 1926, Klemm took over the business and conducted it with considerable success. With the revival of aero engine manufacture in the 1930s, diesel developer Nallinger would play an important role that would mark him for great things during and after the war.

Upheaval in Management

On the passenger-car front, Porsche initiated work in 1926 on a new small car with an engine of 5 taxable horsepower. The first new design of the merged company, it was given the W01 designation. Provisional plans were laid down for production of the promising new 1.6-liter W01 six at a rate of 1,000 cars per month, an order of magnitude more than the company had ever assayed and a sign of its confidence in Porsche’s design.

However, Jahr questioned whether it would be sensible to chase the products and prices of volume producers like Opel, which had more scope to lower its costs. At the eleventh hour, when the company’s banking consortium had to be approached for the credit of 10 million marks that would be needed for production of the W01, DBAG balked. Blame was focused on “outsider” Porsche, whose 8/38 hadn’t given unalloyed satisfaction.

Porsche defended his policy and team. On November 15, 1928, he pointed out that in the recent past his engineering colleagues had developed 14 new types, not including experimental engines. They were overloaded, he said, by too many tasks. Two years earlier he’d gone to bat for them in search of higher pay for some of his key people, only to be turned down by his board. Effort was still being wasted, Porsche believed, by maintaining separate body-design and materials-testing operations at Mannheim and Untertürkheim.

His protestations brushed aside, Porsche was shown the door. His former colleagues had already identified his successor as none other than his Benz rival, Hans Nibel. In the immediate future, Benz engineers such as chassis man Max Wagner would take control. The board made the announcement at once, without extending Porsche the usual courtesy of waiting until he announced his future plans.

The Role of Motorsports

Neubauer, who had joined Daimler soon after his mentor Porsche, remained with DBAG. An enthusiast without equal, he managed to keep interest in racing alive, especially in the heart of managing director Kissel, who assured the board that he was cutting all racing support and then quietly assisted the “private” efforts of Rudi Caracciola and Hans Stuck in 1931 and 1932.

In March 1933, Kissel and Daimler-Benz decided to go back into racing, primarily for its publicity benefits. They did so on the first wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. After they realized that the more radical National Socialists weren’t actually going to take over their companies, industrialists were pleased by Hitler’s banning of labor unions, his acceleration of armament production, and the credit-expanding schemes of his economists.

In 1934, the first of the cars that would become known as the Silver Arrows, the W25, was rolled out by the staff for inspection of senior managers. Visible in this picture are Fritz Nallinger, in the cockpit; the burly Alfred Neubauer, responsible for motorsports activities, behind him; and Hans Nibel, behind and to the left of the steering wheel.

Contact with the Third Reich was maintained by Jakob Werlin, manager of the important Daimler-Benz branch in Munich, the home of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Werlin’s personal acquaintance with Hitler was pivotal in gaining approval for the Transport Ministry to pay RM 450,000 annually to the maker of a Grand Prix racing car, with bonus payments of RM 20,000, 10,000, and 5,000 for finishes in first, second, and third place, respectively. This was, of course, to go to Daimler-Benz.

The winning team at the August 1938 Grand Prix of Switzerland, from left, Rudolf Uhlenhaut; drivers Manfred von Brauchitsch, Rudolf Caracciola, and John Richard Beattie Seaman; company director Max Sailer;s and team manager Alfred Neubauer.

But a young upstart company with good social connections also staked a claim, backed by a strong sales pitch by Porsche. Auto Union wanted its place in the sun, too. “Each wanted it all for himself,” Neubauer recalled. Finally, ministry director Brandenburg decided, as had King Solomon of yore: each firm would receive half. It was about one-tenth of what Daimler-Benz spent yearly on racing. But it was encouragement, and that was what they needed.

The last of the prewar high-performance automobiles, the 12-cylinder W125, was intended to challenge world land speed records. Here it’s on the new Frankfurt Autobahn with, from left, Uhlenhaut, Sailer, an unidentified manager, and Neubauer

Broadening the Product Line

DBAG’s impressive participation in Grand Prix racing, from 1934 through 1939, was to make history during years that are still seen as a golden age. They were mirrored by advances in Mercedes-Benz production cars that brought added luster to the merged company’s new badge. In the vanguard was the new 170V, launched at the Berlin show in February 1936.

Built on an X-shaped frame comprising two oval-section tubes joined by a series of tubular crossmembers, the 170V had all-independent suspension. Its power plant was as ruggedly simple as a water-cooled four could be made, and two-point mounted to give it the smoothness of a six. So robust was its three-bearing crankshaft that the same engine was found to be a satisfactory basis for the postwar 170D diesel. Nearly 60,000 170Vs were sold before the fall of 1939, a success that redounded to the credit of young engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who had led its development.

Speaking of diesels, by September 1933, a diesel automobile engine was humming on its test stand at Untertürkheim. It was a 3.8-liter 6-cylinder that was developing an impressive 82 horsepower at 2,800 rpm – very high revs for a compression-ignition engine at that time. When installed in a Mannheim chassis, though, its vibrations proved too severe for the frame structure. Plans to exhibit a diesel car at the Berlin show of 1934 had to be abandoned.

The 1935-1937 W144 engine and the front-drive automobile which was designed around it were the creations of Hans Gustav Röhr, but died with him.

The next step was the construction of a 4-cylinder engine based on the dimensions of the 3.8-liter six. After it was dieted down, its running smoothed and its range of effective revs enhanced, it was bedded in a 230 chassis that was normally propelled by a 2.3-liter gasoline engine of 55 horsepower. Turning out 45 brake horsepower at 3,000 revs, the diesel replacement gave performance well-suited to the commercial uses for which it was designed. The resulting 260D was the sensation of the Berlin show in February 1936, where it was exhibited with a taxi-type landaulet body. Though others would follow quickly, DBAG was first to market with a series-built diesel automobile.

Styling of these and other Mercedes-Benz models of the 1930s featured richly rounded forms that suggested robustness, paired with meticulous detailing. They were the work of Walter Häcker, whom Hermann Ahrens brought from his alma mater Horch at the request of Kissel to oversee the series-production models. In 1932, Ahrens had been poached to establish a department for special bodies. Also active before the war as a body designer was Friedrich Geiger.

From its early days, Daimler had been one of the few European motor companies with its own body-building facilities. Moving quickly to enhance this valuable in-house capability, DMG began conversion of its Sindelfingen works – originally built in 1915 to produce aero engines – to car-body manufacture before the Great War’s armistice.

A visitor to Sindelfingen in 1930 was impressed by the plant’s variety and flexibility. “Here the plain, refined auto that makes its impact through line alone,” he reported, “there the racy cabriolet whose color and shape draw all eyes to it on the sports ground, the beach or the spas of the highlands. A whole range of forms is at the ready, enlivening the panorama that their manufacturing presented.”

In the 1930s, the results achieved by Ahrens and his colleagues were sensational. We have only to think of the amazing range of swanky and sexy bodies built on 290, 380, 500K, 540K, and 770 chassis in the 1930s to gain a sense of the creative capabilities of Ahrens and his Sonderbau. Their wondrous body designs, some of the most striking and voluptuous ever realized, were so spectacular that outside coachbuilders had few opportunities to compete.

New engineering teams created the chassis for these flamboyant luxury cars. Only able to enjoy the first successes of his W25 Grand Prix Silver Arrow, Nibel died suddenly in November 1934. By default, his post went to Untertürkheim veteran Max Sailer, but Emil Georg von Stauss judged that this wasn’t a good enough appointment. He applied pressure to the management to engage Hans Gustav Röhr.

Balding and toothbrush-moustached, Röhr had created advanced designs, including his own straight-eight Röhr automobile, but that company had folded. Most recently he headed engineering at Adler, which produced advanced front-drive cars under his aegis. But Röhr was another “outsider” like Porsche. He lacked impressive academic credentials. At only 40, he was young for a Daimler board member.

Röhr was expensive, not only for his own salary and patent rights, but also for the engineering team he insisted on bringing with him from Adler. Paramount among them was Joseph Dauben, a skilled engineer who had long been helping Röhr realize his radical concepts. Agreement was finally reached, with the Röhr team arriving in Untertürkheim on September 17, 1935. Compartmentalization of their work was accepted, with house engineers Wagner and Nallinger retaining authority for certain sectors in cooperation with Röhr and Dauben.

It was soon obvious that Röhr did not feel obliged to respect the shibboleths of Daimler-Benz tradition. Shrugging aside the rear-engined cars that the ex-Benz team had favored, with Dauben he embarked on a new range of front-drive small Mercedes vehicles. He even dared to suggest that for many models, ordinary live rear axles could be cheaper and better than the sacred swing axles. Indeed, Röhr proved it by inviting his colleagues to compare a 500K with an Auburn Speedster at the Nürburgring. The American car surprised with its superior handling.

The ambitious plans of Röhr, which included V-8 and V-12 models, suffered a blow when this creative engineer, felled by a virus, died prematurely on August 10, 1937. His front-drive models died with him. Dauben carried on, completing the hemi-head V-12s that powered searchlight generators during the war.

The last important prewar auto launch from DBAG was the W150, an update of its veteran Grosser Mercedes. Still using a supercharged 7.7-liter straight-eight, the W150 was introduced in 1938 with a tubular chassis and de Dion rear suspension. On the heels of the 117 W07s, the W150 saw 88 delivered into 1943. For better or worse, they were prized transport for the panjandrums of the Third Reich. They would keep DBAG busy for a few years.