By on August 15, 2011

Steinway & Sons may be the last great American brand: from 1853 to the present day, the company has built world-class musical instruments by hand in New York. Unlike their contemporaries in the guitar-making business, Steinway never went through “bad times”, even after the family sold out in 1972. (Interestingly, although CBS bought both Fender and Steinway, the paths taken by the two companies under CBS ownership were very different.) Nor have they become mere cloacae for the diarrheal discharge of Foxconn’s suicide factories the way Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Apple have. Steinway’s business model is simple and hasn’t changed for over a century. They build the pianos in the United States to exacting standards, charge premium prices for them, and everybody is happy.

The power of the Steinway brand is such that everybody from random auto reviewers to big-time ad agencies feels compelled to mention their products in an automotive context. Googling the Steinway name together with that of any major auto-media outlet will yield results ranging from dismal to pathetic. Engines, body panels, dashboards, radio switches, and brake feel are all likened to the company’s eight-hundred-pound musical gorillas. There’s something about Steinway that gets car guys excited.

Wait till they find out that Steinway was in the business of building automotibles before Soichiro Honda was born, and remains so, in minor fashion, to this day.

There are at least three versions of the story, depending on whom you choose to believe. One version: Wilhelm Maybach’s brother was a Steinway employee and spoke highly of the company to him. Another: Gottlieb Damiler was a member of a traveling mannerchor and saw a Steinway piano in the United States. Steinway’s official story is that, while traveling through his home country in 1888, co-founder William Steinway heard that Daimler was developing horseless carriages, visited the firm, and subsequently took a Daimler motorcycle on a very satisfactory tour of Germany.

The rest of the history is far more clear cut. In October of 1888, Steinway became a Daimler licensee, empowered to produce Daimler internal combustion engines for marine and other uses. (A brief digression: Steinway chose the name “Daimler Motor Company”. The English Daimler licensee of the same name eventually became a full-line manufacturer of automobiles designed in-house, and was acquired by Jaguar before British Leyland swallowed them both. The “Daimler Double Six” of the Eighties was a Series III XJ6 V12, and the Queen’s limousine was a Daimler DS420.) A factory in Hartford, CT built them, while the piano factory at Long Island had space to fit them to boats if required. It should be noted that this was not the only diversified entry on Steinway’s books; the company operated a motor launch and purchased considerable real estate holdings in the New York area, which increased in value considerably during the twentieth century.

When William Steinway died, the family sold control of the Daimler Motor Company to General Electric, although the facilities stayed the same. GE built small delivery trucks there as well, powered by Daimler engines. Meanwhile, the Daimler “Mercedes” 35-horsepower automobile was becoming famous throughout the world. To capitalize on that success, the Daimler Motor Company announced availability of an American-built “Mercedes” in 1905. The price was an astonishing $7500. Let’s put that in perspective; it was six times the cost of Steinway’s Model D concert grand, which today starts at $120K and goes up from there. In 1905, gold was $21 an ounce, so if you use that as a standard, the American Mercedes was worth a cool half-million or more in today’s quantitatively-eased currency.

Nobody seems to know how many of the cars were built, but the number cannot have been high by any standard. The Long Island facility burned down in 1907, and production was never restarted. This more or less ended Steinway’s excursion into the automobile, although like any other patriotic American firm they did their part in World War II by building gliders in addition to “combat pianos” meant to be air-lifted to remote bases.

I say “more or less” because the firm is still associated with German automakers in a few small ways. Some Internet sources claim that the wood trim for Maybachs is cut and finished by Steinway’s Hamburg facility. If that’s true, it represents perhaps the only justifiable reason to drive one. Less justifiable, however, is the China-market Steinway and Sons 7 Series. It’s difficult to imagine what the pitch for that car might be — “Own a car which will be obsolete junk in the same time it takes to play Chopsticks” — but presumably it’s finding buyers on that label-conscious continent. One wonders what William Steinway would have thought of the BMW Siebener, but a few moments spent seated at the keyboard of his piano will banish that concern, along with most others.

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21 Comments on “Steinway and Daimler: The Grand Partnership And The Half-Million Dollar Mercedes...”

  • avatar

    “… cloacae for the diarrheal discharge of Foxconn’s suicide factories …”

    A very colorful turn of phrase, to be sure … but also complete and utter misinformation. Google “Foxconn suicide rates compared” and you will find that not only are the suicide rates at their factories much lower than the Chinese national average, they are also lower than US rates.

    If your intention was to misinform, shame on you …. If it was merely to be humorous, well I guess I don’t find much humor in suicide. C’mon Jack, you’re a much better writer than this.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Isn’t it true, however, that the Foxconn employees tend to kill themselves AT WORK?

      • 0 avatar

        When your home is AT WORK, you tend to be there when you suicide, yes. (FOXCONN supplies homes for the employees, kinda like the old coal companies….)

      • 0 avatar

        That’s because they live on campus much like college kids, and most of the workers are also the same age as college kids-fresh out of high school (the work doesn’t exactly require higher education). In fact, the suicide stats look even better if you compare against college kids in the US since they tend to kill themselves more than the average person would.

        Most factories and companies in China house employees. Even small businesses do this in China, it’s just common practice for housing to be part of your compensation. I mean any random small business, even a car wash for example would have apartments above the actual car wash or nearby for the employees to live in. How do I know? Because my family briefly ran a car wash in China and yes, we had housing for the few people who worked there. It’s just how things are done there so of course if someone decides to kill themselves they’d end up doing it at work because they spend like 99% of their time there since they also live there.

        For lower end jobs like the kind Foxconn or a car wash is offering, it’s basically *expected* that you provide your workers with someplace to live and food to eat so that their basic needs are met. The salary that you pay on top of those things is usually pretty small but basically their income can largely go towards discretionary spending. So when someone in China is making say, $1 an hour in a factory they generally not like starving and living in a cardboard box in the streets because that $1 is almost all discretionary cash.

        Anyways, your Foxconn non-sequitor is just stereotypical and superficial media influenced nonsense. If suicide rates were an indication of how people get treated then someone ought to investigate Cornell college for human rights abuses since their suicide rate is like a bazillion times higher no matter how many times people have tried to make it harder to jump off the cliffs there. Maybe they ought to build nets like Foxconn.

      • 0 avatar

        To the know it alls being critical of Jack: have you ever witnessed, in person, working conditions in Chinese factories?

        Speaking from my experience in a die casting facility (and US based electronics manufacturing), you guys have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. That stereo type doesn’t apply to car washes or college campuses. It applies to heavy manufacturing or giant lines of intricate electronics assembly with soldering irons and minimalist protection from the lead boil off you’re breathing in.

        Kids killing themselves on college campuses make absolutely no sense when you spend your days in these conditions. If the suicide rates are the same, let’s just say that the US has a lot to worry about it’s future generation.

  • avatar

    Not really sure where your hate of the Maybach is coming from. As the owner of MULTIPLE VW Phaetons, Jack, you ought to understand the appeal of needlessly complex, over-luxurious German land barges.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      It comes from my hatred of the W220 Benz, which I’ve always considered to be the worst member of that distinguished S-class lineage. The Phaeton IS a Steinway next to the W220.

      The ‘bach is a stretcho W220 with Hyundai XG300L styling touches and the same crappy plastic buttons re-rendered in wood.

      • 0 avatar

        Oh well. At least Daimler has legitimate super-luxury heritage, and the Maybach reflects this. Unlike like those nouveau-riche, gauche Bavarians and Wolfsburgers.

      • 0 avatar

        Ach nee, the Maybach was developed on the W140 S Class, it even has recirculating ball power steering. It has very little in common with the W220, apart from the V12 biturbo drivetrain shared with the S600 L.

        None of this makes the Maybach a pretty car, or a good business proposition.

  • avatar

    As an aside, my wife wants a Steinway Model O, and I want a Mustang GT. We can’t afford both…

  • avatar

    Oh yeah.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    I have a Steinway M [medium sized grand] upstairs in my third bedroom. It is lovely.

    It has been said that a Steinway grand is the most complicated item hand-built in America.

  • avatar

    “Unlike their contemporaries in the guitar-making business, Steinway never went through “bad times”, even after the family sold out in 1972.”

    Jack, I just sold my grandmother’s 1924 Model L that she purchased new. (I even had the original receipt.) Per the appraiser as well as the man who regularly tuned it for half a century, the 1920’s were considered Steinway’s golden years and the 1980’s were not. Mercedes, like Steinway, is considered world-class, but they have made some models that failed to live up to their reputation. Steinway has suffered the same fate, but by most accounts is again highly regarded.

  • avatar

    It’s cool that Steinway built fine pianos and automobiles. It’s even cooler that Kamen built Ovation guitars and helicopters. Samsung builds pianos and – almost everything.

  • avatar

    The piano was the first mass-market consumer item that was extremely complex (thousands of parts). No other item came close to its complexity and ubiquity in the 1800s. The mass production of pianos was concurrent with improvements in metallurgy and engineering (look at the metal piece holding the strings in a piano to see what I mean: the strings pull tons of pressure).

    I have long had a pet theory that the manufacturing expertise gained by making pianos pioneered the production of other complex devices, including cars, later on.

    Let’s not forget Yahama as a company that builds pianos and engines (and superb motorcycles).

    Thanks for the fascinating post.

  • avatar

    “Combat piano” has to be the best oxymoron ever.

  • avatar

    Steinway has the luxury of selling $20,000+ grand pianos so that likely explains why it was managed so differently from Fender. For the kind of money Steinway asks for it’s a lot easier to keep manufacturing in the U.S. Actually, since most pianos are rather expensive, a lot of brands are still made here, though I think lately the electric models have gotten so good that people have been buying a lot more electrics when they can. Cheaper to upkeep and never goes out of tune, etc.

  • avatar
    markie b

    Keep in mind that Steinway also owns Conn-Selmer, which makes a TON of entry level musical instruments in China. Yamaha is a much, much better musical instrument brand.

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