Maybach: Son of the Mercedes Designer

Germany perhaps more than any other country on either side of the Atlantic has been buffeted by the raw winds of economics. The market in the early 1920s was unpredictable due to runaway inflation, when the necessary cash to buy a meal one day could have bought a car a couple of months earlier, and to the later world depression that forced a radical change in automobile design, quality and size. It was not difficult for the most brilliant of designers, even in a country of the world’s finest engineers, to get the wrong car on to the market at the wrong time.

One such was Karl Maybach, son of Wilhelm. Maybach senior had been Daimler’s collaborator from the earliest days of the automobile. Some even say that Willi Maybach should share the title of father of the car, and that it was his engineering genius that supported the great Daimler’s inventive intellect. It was Maybach who designed the famous 35 hp Mercedes, the first great twentieth-century step forward in automotive development, and it was he who designed the modern spray carburettor, another automotive landmark.

Maybach senior left Daimler in 1907. Gottlieb his benefactor was dead and old friends had also left. Airship builder Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin needed a new engine — his last had caused him to crash-land his huge hydrogen-filled dirigible. Wilhelm Maybach, an old hand at adapting power to bizarre uses, was called in, but it was son Karl who finally designed the large engines.

How successful Karl was, Londoners discovered a few years later as vast Maybach 62-engined Zeppelins airships hovered over the British capital showering it with bombs.

In 1919 Karl turned to automobile engines, producing units for various motor-makers, finally deciding to build his own cars. He improved further on his father’s ideas bringing a fresh approach to automobile design. He favored a solid box frame, developed a one-movement starter throttle, a planetary gearbox, and his first car, the Maybach W3 of 1921, was also Germany’s first car to have four-wheel brakes and a cooling fan that cut out in cold temperatures. The W3 was brilliant, sophisticated, ahead of its time A little too far ahead at a time when Germany’s finances were in deep trouble. However, clothed in coachwork by Spöhn & Glaser, Maybach’s specialist bodybuilders, it sold well for a time.

Young Maybach went doggedly on, producing a 7 liter and in 1929 unveiled his big V12 which was followed quickly (in 1932) by the famous Zeppelin automobile, also housing a V12 of 8 liters and a tigerish 200 hp under the long hood. The DS8 Maybach Zeppelin — all 31/2 tons of it — was stylish, fast, had eight forward speeds — and an enormous price tag. The car was a strong contender for the title of the finest automobile ever produced in Germany, although some critics vowed that it should be put in a class of its own and prospective owners should apply for a motor bus license.

During the mid-thirties Maybach produced smaller cars, the DHS and SW series — not that one could place them in any but the first rank. Top-class engineering, speed and comfort were there in plenty and the 6 cylinder units were large enough (the smallest was 3.5 liters, larger than 90 per cent of production cars in Europe at the time) to propel the vehicles in effortless regal silence. The company ceased production in 1941.

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