At the turn of the 20th century, there was absolutely no agreement among car manufacturers about how an automobile should operate. Each builder had their own ideas about how to make a vehicle go, turn, and stop. Steering might be by wheel, tiller, or even foot pedals. Throttles and brakes were similarly varied, with levers, pedals, valves, and all manner of odd configurations. Some of the ideas born during that era were pretty good, but most were not.
Above all, operating a car was complicated compared to driving a horse, which at least came with its own brain and built-in instinct for self-preservation.
In the midst of this industrial free-for -all, Daimler and other automakers tried to simplify the operation of their vehicles, sometimes using the name “Simplex” to signify that their car would be easier to operate than others. The push to make a straightforward motorcar led to changes that we take for granted today.
Set the Wayback to 1902
By taking a look back in time we can gain a greater understanding of how a consensus developed about how cars should function. At the turn of the last century, automakers were generally working from a shared understanding of horse-drawn wagons. The term “horseless carriage” was more than a quaint description. Because builders routinely started with an unpowered carriage, the best place to put a motor was in the back, with driver and passengers sitting in front or on top of the engine. This meant that the passengers ended up very high off the ground, as they were in a horse-drawn carriage. The traditionally large diameter wheels and high ground clearance that helped carriages make their way over rough roads and terrain made motorcars very tall.
Sitting up high meant that the occupants endured constant swaying and bouncing. Simple leverage meant that the passenger compartment moved around a lot on the springs. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes terrifying and truly dangerous way to travel. Further, locating the engine in the rear often led to overheating, as there was no good way to get cooling air into the system. The low speeds that most cars managed on rough roads meant that airflow was minimal at best.
Maybach to the rescue
Working in Stuttgart around 1900, Wilhelm Maybach designed the Mercedes-Simplex to address these problems and build an attractive and better handling car. Produced from 1902 to 1909, the Simplex was the first vehicle branded a Mercedes by the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG), a predecessor firm of Daimler-Benz.
Note that the Mercedes-Simplex is different from the American Simplex and Crane Simplex automobiles. There was also a Simplex vehicle built in France from 1919 to 1921. Only the name connects these various machines.
The distinguishing features of the Mercedes-Simplex were its powerful engines, ranging from 40 to 60 horsepower, and its low carriage and low center of gravity. The engine was moved to the front of the vehicle, to allow airflow to provide maximum cooling. Maybach stated that the goal of this automobile was “comfort by means of simplicity.”
The result was revolutionary. The radical Mercedes-Simplex was much easier to drive than its competition, and much more pleasant, reliable, and safe. When DMG began exporting the Simplex to America in 1904, it quickly became the best-selling foreign car in the country. Of course, there wasn’t much competition in those days. Total 1904 production for DMG was 800 cars, of which 200 were exported to the United States, mostly to New York. Among all American automakers, just 22,000 cars were made that year.
What makes a Simplex?
Contrary to its name, the Simplex is a fairly sophisticated design. The 6.8-liter engine produces about 44 horsepower at 1,300 RPM. Ignition comes courtesy of a magneto, and induction is managed with a single carburetor. The driveline consists of a four-speed manual transmission and a chain drive to the rear axle.
Braking was accomplished through two systems. A hand brake actuates drum brakes on the rear axle, and a foot brake acts on an intermediate gear shaft on the chain drive. The driver could trigger a water sprinkler to help cool the brakes while driving. The Simplex rode on dual solid axles suspended under semi-elliptic leaf springs.
The cooling system further set the Mercedes-Simplex apart from its competition, using Maybach's honeycomb structure of 8,070 small pipes; an idea replicated in automotive radiators to this day.
Racing the Simplex
Then as now, success on track spurs showroom sales. This point was not lost on Emil Jellinek, DMG's dynamic sales agent on the French Riviera, where he was also diplomatic consul for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As soon as the Simplex became available in 1902, Jellinek put one to work in his Mercedes racing team on the Nice-La Turbie hill climb. Hill climbs were then among the most popular forms of racing, with wealthy owners drafting their chauffeurs into running timed competitions. Hill climbs severely tested the weak cooling systems and indifferent suspension and handling of the cars of the time. The Simplex allowed the Mercedes team to defeat all competitors at the La Turbie Hill Climb, setting new records in the process. Owning a winning car was a must for Europe's elite, and it helped DMG sell the Simplex. (For more on the history of the Mercedes-Simplex, and Jellinek's role in its development, see The Star, November-December 2017).
The motorsports connection was not limited to Europe. Again in 1902, a Mercedes-Simplex won a five-mile race at Grosse Pointe, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. Mercedes was winning in the American auto industry’s own back yard. Then industrialist William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., a multimillionaire and racing enthusiast who later founded the Vanderbilt Cup, took up racing the Simplex. Vanderbilt had prior experience and success with Mercedes, competing in some of the biggest and most-celebrated races around the turn of the century.
Preferring to test himself and his vehicles in endurance races, Vanderbilt entered his Simplex in 600-mile events in France. He set new records, winning a race from Albis to Chartres at nearly 70 mph.
The Simplex in Maine
A rare surviving example of the Mercedes-Simplex can be found at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Owl’s Head, Maine. The museum has a mission to “collect, preserve, exhibit, and operate pre-1940 aircraft, ground vehicles, engines and related technologies significant to the evolution of transportation.” The museum houses more than 150 antique automobiles, aircraft, motorcycles, bicycles, engines, and more.
The museum was founded in 1974 by Thomas Watson, head of IBM, with an initial focus on airplanes, but old cars soon became part of the program. At some point, Watson had acquired this 1904 Simplex 40/45, and it was donated to the museum by his son, Thomas Watson, Jr.
“This particular car was ordered in Paris back in 1903,” states Warren Kincaid, ground vehicle conservator at the museum. “It was ordered, but then for whatever reason, the Paris buyer reneged and the car ended up coming to New York. That's how it got to the United States.”
With a car of this value and impeccable condition, just starting and running it creates the risk of damage to the original components. Therefore, museum staff doesn’t drive it very often, but they do start the engine to demonstrate to visitors that it still runs.
“We generally use it standing in place, as a running demonstration,” Kincaid says. “We don’t do much driving it around because the minute you take it out to drive, people want rides and we hate saying no.”
Keeping an old car as specialized as a Simplex running is a challenge.
“For many years we didn't run it at all,” Kincaid says. “It's such a rare and historic car. But then the last ground vehicle conservator we had here, he liked the car, so he got it running and they drove it around our end of the runway here at the airport. But then it sat again for a number of years. I've always liked the car, so I brought it back into the shop and we got it running again. We're trying to preserve it, so we run it maybe four days a year.”
The staff of the Owl’s Head Museum takes the Mercedes-Simplex to some of the leading car shows on the Eastern seaboard, so you might spot this antique gem at the Greenwich Concours in Connecticut or a similar show. But really, why not use this unique piece of Mercedes history as a reason to plan a trip up to the Maine coast for a visit to the museum and to the beautiful countryside and shoreline up that way? We think it’s worth the trip.
For more information about the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum and its collection, visit www.owlshead.org