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While Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz are credited with inventing the automobile in 1886, it should be noted, they did not do it alone—they had help. One individual instrumental to their efforts was Wilhelm Maybach, main assistant to Gottlieb Daimler.
Born in February of 1846, Maybach lost his mother when he was 10. His father then died when he was 13. Orphaned, Maybach was taken in as a boarding student by a philanthropic institution, where his predilection for things mechanical was discovered. Encouraged to study physics and mathematics, by the time Maybach turned 19 in 1865, he was a qualified designer and engineer.
Gottlieb Daimler, who managed the workshop where Maybach studied, was impressed and took Maybach under his wing. The two of them worked together until Daimler died in 1900. A succession of posts at some of Germany’s most significant engineering and manufacturing firms followed. The two developed designs for engines, pumps, lumber machinery, and metalworking.
In 1872, they went to work at Deutz-AG-Gasmotorenfabrik. Nikolaus Otto, the individual credited with inventing the Otto cycle engine, (the four-stroke gas internal combustion engine with intake, compression, power, and exhaust strokes) was a partner there. Daimler and Maybach were assigned to perfect the engine and ready it for production. The two patented a number of engineering firsts in the process. However, eight years later Otto and Daimler had a falling out—with the result being Daimler leaving to found his own company—Daimler Motors.
Maybach joined him.
Their first engine design was called the Standuhr (German for “grandfather clock”) engine, because, well, it kind of looked like one. This design is held out as being the template for all contemporary gasoline engines. Air-cooled, it featured a flywheel, a camshaft, and a carburetor. The first application of it was to a bicycle—in effect creating the first known motorcycle—in 1885. In 1886, they applied the Standuhr to a stagecoach, using a belt to drive the wheels.
Next, they proceeded to put it in boats, attached it to a hot-air balloon (creating the first motorized airship), and streetcars. The largest market for the engine ultimately proved to be boats, which would become their mainstay. Daimler and Maybach also did good business licensing their designs. Their first car built from the ground up was done in 1889.
And though the company was seeing its engine do well, the money wasn’t coming in fast enough to sustain the business. Daimler had to take the company public to get more investment capital. With this came a new name; Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, (the Daimler Motor Corporation) abbreviated as DMG. Going public meant giving up autonomy and answering to a board of directors—who believed automobile production wouldn’t be profitable. To grow the company, the board announced a plan to merge DMG and Otto’s Deutz-AG.
Maybach made no secret of his interest in developing automobiles and so was refused a post on the board of management of the company—even though he was second only to Daimler in engineering prowess within the organization. Maybach left, and pursued automobile development on his own, with financial support from Daimler. Then in 1893, Daimler was forced out of the company as well. By 1894, Maybach had designed a viable four-cylinder engine, which was received with considerable acclaim.
Called the Phoenix engine, a British entrepreneur bought the rights to it. Daimler and Maybach used this as an opportunity to buy their way back into control at DMG. Along the way, Maybach invented the honeycomb radiator as well as a tubular radiator with a fan—both of which permitted the extraction of more power from his engine designs.
When Daimler died in 1900, Maybach soldiered on, designing a car capable of doing 40 miles per hour. An Austrian auto dealer by the name of Emil Jellinek (who would later be instrumental in the founding of Mercedes-Benz) ordered 36 copies of the car—if Maybach would also design a racing car for him.
Maybach left DMG in 1907 to start his own company, Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH (German for Aircraft Engine Building Company). Together with his son Karl, Maybach produced engines for zeppelins and later rail cars. They changed the name of the company to Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH (Maybach Engine Construction Company) in 1912.
Maybach’s first car surfaced in 1919 and went into production in 1921. From the beginning, Maybach concentrated on the luxury market—as did most German manufacturers of his time. It wasn’t until after World War II German car builders produced anything for the mainstream market—specifically the Volkswagen Type I, which was also known as the VW Beetle. The original generation of Maybach automobiles was produced from 1921 to 1940—when World War II intervened.
Wilhelm Maybach died in 1929.
During the war, Maybach-Motorenbau switched over to producing tank engines, which marked the end of automobile production at Maybach under Wilhelm—permanently. After the war, Maybach did repairs and servicing of cars, but the company’s main post-war revenue stream was engine design and building. Daimler-Benz bought the company in 1960. Around 1965 it was renamed MTU Friedrichshafen. Daimler-Benz used the company primarily to produce hand-built versions of its most prestigious models.
Then, in 1997, a new luxury car concept appeared at the Tokyo Motor Show. In 2003, the production models of it appeared in the form of the Maybach 57 and 62.Extremely powerful, palatially in their opulence, and positioned to rival Rolls Royce and Bentley in every way imaginable, the cars were met with lukewarm acceptance.
Critics said the cars looked too much like the S-Class Mercedes-Benz to be considered special. Further, since most people outside of Germany were unaware of the history of Maybach, educating customers about the cars was a considerable struggle. What’s more, since Maybach automobiles were built alongside the Mercedes S-Class, on a Mercedes S-Class platform, their exclusivity was questioned. Many potential customers were reluctant to pay $350,000 for what was perceived to be the ultimate luxed-out Mercedes.
Original sales projections called for some 2000 cars annually. To date, only 3,000 have been sold since the car became available in 2002. Currently, the Maybach name is slated to be laid to rest once again—at the end of the 2013 model year.