Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Misspent Youth of Gottlieb Daimler

You never would have known from the widely-reproduced photos of the balding, elderly man that Gottlieb Daimler was ever young. I have imagined a rare portrait of the youthful engineering student and apprentice, with his carefully groomed, wavy hair.

Engineers will tell you that the fluted radiator on Daimler cars is designed to provide a greater surface area for the dissipation of the coolant water's heat. Looking at this portrait of young Gottlieb though, with his ordered waves of hair in a fluted style, the true origin of this famous feature becomes obvious.

We can imagine Gottlieb Daimler around the middle of the nineteenth century. He has been lately apprenticed to a gunsmith and studied hard at the Swabian Polytechnic. Once lessons were over, with cane in hand and bowler hat set at a jaunty angle, he would go out with his mates to shoot some pool, drink lots of beer and chat up girls.

Then there was Daimler's friend Wilhelm 'Sharp Willi' Maybach. Even as a student, he was renowned for his amazing feats of engineering. For example, Maybach could construct a house of cards with one hand while drinking beer with the other. He could also erode his opponents' money in card games. They were only suffering 'frictional losses' according to 'Sharp Willi'.

Many were the times when the saloons in Gottlieb's town would reverberate to the raucous laughter of engineering students, as Daimler would tell jokes not repeatable in polite company, such as the one about the actress and the bishop, and how they applied the four-stroke cycle.

A practical joker, Daimler was almost sacked from his employ at the English Armstrong-Whitworth factory for his demonstration of 'quick detachable petticoats' on the unsuspecting tea lady. Later, of course, someone remembered the stunt, and developed the detachable wheel rims that revolutionised tyre changing.

Once, while working at the Deutz Gasmotoren-Fabrik stationary engine plant, Daimler and Maybach hooked up an engine to a little wagon, and the stationary engine was stationary no more. The contraption chugged randomly about the yard but the prank had a loftier purpose.

Gottlieb had dreamed of a mobile, personal horseless carriage, with which he could travel to various nearby towns and romance a girl in each of them. Sort of like a sailor's girl in every port. What happens in another county doesn't count, so he might have thought.

Wilhelm 'Sharp Willi' Maybach merely wanted a fast getaway car to escape the wrath of offended gamblers who realised they'd been cheated at cards by his 'skilled engineering'.

The Deutz-built Otto engines had used a crude form of ignition. A slide valve opened a port into the cylinder at the correct time to expose the fuel-air mixture to a flame. Gottlieb joked about this system having the surprise but ultimate ineffectiveness of a flasher.

Setting up on their own at Cannstatt in 1882, Daimler and Maybach developed a more efficient form of ignition for their engines. A hollow platinum tube was kept incandescent by a burner outside the cylinder head and inserted into the cylinder. With this hot tube ignition, they were able to construct engines which could turn at the then unheard of rate of 700-900 rpm.

The Benny Hill of nineteenth century engineers, Gottlieb Daimler still delighted in blue double entendres even in later life. For example, when other early car manufacturers moved towards electric sparking plugs for ignition in the 1890s, he persisted with the simpler hot tube system. It is suspected that this is more because the now elderly Daimler could continue sniggering about causing 'ignition' by 'inserting his hot tube.'

History records that Emil Jellinek (who held the Daimler concession for the wealthy Cote d'Azur area), claimed that, provided Maybach could re-design the 1900 Phonix model into a sleeker car with a more powerful engine, he could sell thirty of them without any trouble. He also stipulated that they were to be sold under the 'Mercedes' brand. This was not, as was reported, because he feared sales resistance from the Germanic sounding name of Daimler.

Apparently, a little before his death, the Jellinek family had met with Daimler at his home in Cannstatt. After luncheon, the elderly engineer had invited Jellinek's teenage daughter Mercedes to 'sit beside Uncle Gottlieb' and to 'pull his finger.'

The resulting flatulent sound effect amused no one and Jellinek swore that he could not sell any more Daimler cars, unless they were re-named.

In hindsight, it's just as well that Gottlieb Daimler was long gone before 1931, or he would have made some truly awful, off-colour jokes about Daimler's new gearbox with 'fluid coupling'...

These anecdotes about the antics of the young (and old) Gottlieb Daimler might or might not be history. Only the facts are true.

Igor Spajic writes on antique, vintage and classic cars and other subjects. He contributes to a website ( ) which is dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of antique and vintage cars. Additional photos for this article can be found there.

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