100 years ago, just 25 years after the automobile was invented, a car reached the speed of 141.73 mph while the earth shook. The car could have done it a few years earlier. The pavement had to catch up first. The car was the Blitzen-Benz with a massive displacement. And this is its story.
In 1909, a car drove at the unimaginable speed of more than 200 kilometers an hour (124 mp/h). Even a hundred years later, such a speed would elicit protests of hooning. On 8 November 1909, on the Brooklands race track in England, Frenchman Victor Héméry piloted a 200 horsepower Benz.
A speed of 202.648 km/h was recorded for the kilometer, and 205.666 km/h over the half-mile, from flying starts in both cases. Héméry became the fastest man in Europe, but not in the world. That title belonged to Fred Marriott and a steam engine. In a Stanley Steamer, Marriott had exceeded a speed of 205 km/h at Daytona Beach in 1906. Soon, that record would be shattered by a new-fangled gasoline car.
Carl Benz had been experimenting with large capacity four-cylinder engines soon after the gasoline power car was invented. Development was rapid. In 1908, he had the Benz 120 hp Grand Prix car. The Benz 150 hp racing car was derived from that model.
The 150 hp racer became the basis of the car that would break all records. The cylinder bore was increased to 185 mm, yielding an engine with a massive 21.5 liter displacement. That’s 1,312 cubic inches. The engine unit produced 200 hp at a sedate 1,600 rpm.
The four-cylinder in-line engine consisted of cylinders cast together in pairs. It had overhead inlet and outlet valves as well as two spark plugs per cylinder. The engine’s power was transferred to the rear axle by a four-speed manual transmission via an idler shaft and chain.
The sound produced by the engine was described as “infernal”. The explosions in the cylinders with a capacity of more than 5 liters each literally shook the earth while the exhaust pipe ejected flames from time to time.
The Brooklands circuit was just two years old in 1909, and had been designed as a high-speed road for modern racing cars. It was the only track in Europe where 200 km/h were possible.
The car could have gone faster, but it would have gone airborne in the turns. The infernal 200hp Benz was too fast for Europe. It was put on a ship and sailed to America in January 1910.
After arrival, it turned into a record trade-in. Race event manager Ernie Moross cut a deal with the New York-based Benz importer: Moross’s 150-hp Grand Prix Benz plus 6000 dollars in exchange for the new 200 hp model.
Moross called the car the “Lightning Benz” first. Then he had a better idea: The car was called “Blitzen-Benz” and became the father of long generations of Blinkenlights and Fahrvergnügen. The car was trucked to Daytona Beach.
Moross’ driver Barney Oldfield lined up the greased lightning on the track and without any kind of specific preparation, he reached 211.4 km/h (131 mph) on 16 and 17 March 1910.
Marriott’s steam-powered record was broken, but only unofficially. The sanctioning body A.I.A.C.R. (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus), precursor of today’s FIA, refused to recognize the record. The car had gone only one way. The rules specified the distance to be driven in the opposite direction as well, with the average from the two runs being used to determine the valid speed. Just in case someone wanted to cheat with favorable tailwinds.
Oldfield was an unconventional racer, and in late 1910, the American Automobile Association (AAA) banned him from all racing activities.
His seat for the following season was taken by the former Buick works driver Bob Burman.
On 23 April 1911, the Blitzen-Benz was back in Daytona Beach with Burmann behind the wheel. He averaged 228.1 km/h (141.73 mph) for the mile with flying start and 226.7 km/h (140.86 mph) over the kilometer with flying start.
This time, the record was certified and remained the absolute land speed record until1919 when Ralph de Palmareached 241.2 km/h (149.875 mph) over the flying mile at Daytona Beach in a Packard.
In 1911, the Blitzen-Benz was the fastest vehicle on earth. The rail vehicle record of 1903 stood at 210 km/h, an aircraft made only half that speed. In 1913, the racing career of the Blitzen-Benz was ended with the stroke of a pen. New regulations limited displacement to 7.4 liters.
In 1916, Burman was killed in action behind the wheel of a Peugeot. The “Blitzen-Benz” came back to England. Count Louis Vorow Zborowski bought it, but was unsuccessful. In 1923 he tore the car apart and used some of the powertrain components for a new project of his own, the Higham Special.
A total of six Benz 200 hp cars were built.
Two “Blitzen-Benz” went head to head on 30 September 1912 in St. Louis.The two record-breaking cars – vehicle number 2 was now also afforded the name “Blitzen-Benz” – lined up alongside each other for further record attempts on San Diego beach shortly before Christmas 1912. During the attempt one of the cars, presumably the original “Blitzen-Benz”, burst into flames, prompting the quick-thinking Burman to steer it quickly into the Pacific waters to put out the flames. Moross spent 4000 dollars on restoring the car to its former glory.
The final Blitzen-Benz was built in 2004. An American collector commissioned the construction of Blitzen-Benz #6. The Mercedes-Benz Museum loaned him its own “Blitzen-Benz” for a period of a year to serve as a template for this most extraordinary of projects. Mercedes-Benz Classic also supplied original parts still held in its stocks, including engine no. 9141 and several other essential components. Sections of an original body, still preserved in the USA, were used for the last Blitzen-Benz on earth.
226 km/h, this is when the heart starts pounding even on today’s Autobahn. At 250 km/h, even the fastest cars usually don’t go faster, courtesy of the engine computer. 300 km/h if you have a friend at the factory. It gives us new respect for what they did in the first 25 years of the automobile.
TTAC thanks the History Department of Daimler for the pictures and the authentic documentation.