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The American Mercedes

 December 12, 2004

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Today the USA is a nation of cars. This was far from being the case 100 years ago: At that time, motorization was still very much in its infancy. Europe was ahead by quite some distance and led the way in terms of technology. Thus it’s no surprise that old-world automobiles were highly coveted in America but were expensive due to shipping costs and customs duties.

The answer provided by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft was a car produced in New York, the “American Mercedes”, which was basically a reproduction of the 45 hp Mercedes. It first appeared at the National Automobile Show in New York in January 1905. The first vehicle was delivered in 1906, at a price of 7,500 dollars. What reads so easily in retrospect has a long history behind it.

Gottlieb Daimler was a man of vision. Not only was he driven by his idea of motorization “on land, on sea and in the air” with his invention of the internal combustion engine. He also knew that it stood a chance in all countries of the world and was looking far beyond the borders of the German Reich from very early on.

The focus was on the USA. As early as 1876, the exceptionally gifted designer and Daimler confidant Wilhelm Maybach had got to know William Steinway whose New York-based company produced keyboard instruments in the tradition of his German ancestors.

During a stay in Germany in 1888, Steinway also made the acquaintance of Gottlieb Daimler. Their conversations would always revolve around one thing: licensed production of Daimler engines in America. After Steinway’s return to America, the plans quickly materialized. On September 29, 1888, Daimler Motor Co. headquartered in Long Island, New York, was founded and initially produced gas and petroleum engines for stationary and marine applications.

Cover of an "American Mercedes" leaflet.

These early years were not easy but from 1895, orders began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers. The two entrepreneurs started considering production of automobiles in America at an early stage. Daimler was, after all, keen on developing new markets for his vehicles, and Steinway believed a bright future lay ahead for the automobile.

In a newspaper interview in 1895, William Steinway outlined his ideas of motorizing America: “The cars which we intend to produce for the American market will be capable of carrying between two and four people and will be driven by engines with between 2.5 and 3.5 hp. Each car will have four different speed ranges: 3.5, 6, 9 and 14 miles per hour. The fuel – petroleum – costs about one cent per hp and hour, making the automobile considerably less expensive than horse power. … We already had a horseless vehicle here in 1893 but it was too lightly built for the rough cobblestone streets we have in this country. We will therefore create a model that will be adapted to conditions in America.”

This sounded like a very concrete plan being in existence. But Steinway died in November 1896. His heirs were not as convinced as he was that they could make money by selling motor vehicles. They sold off their shares in Daimler Motor Co. to General Electric Company; from 1898 and after a restructuring, the production facility was called Daimler Manufacturing Company.

Gottlieb Daimler died on March 6, 1900. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft stood proudly in his tradition – the company was very keen on manufacture in America. And finally, the Mercedes brand, created in 1900, was able to establish itself in the American market with its ultra-modern and reliable designs. However, high shipping costs and customs duties of 45 percent were an obstacle for imports on a substantial scale – it was clear that local production would give the vehicles a more competitive edge.

The “American Mercedes”, unveiled at the National Automobile Show in New York. This copy of a 45 hp is the first Mercedes produced in the United States by the Daimler Manufacturing Company.

And finally, in early January 1905, the “American Mercedes”, manufactured by Daimler Manufacturing Company, was presented at the National Automobile Show in New York. It had been derived from the 45 hp Mercedes and had a four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 6.8 liters, a four-speed transmission and a top speed of around 80 km/h. An early American advertising had this to say: “If you want the best, of course you want a foreign car. If you import, of course you import the Mercedes – the finest car in the world. The American Mercedes is an exact duplicate of the 1905 Mercedes of 40-45 H.P. No detail is omitted.”

In the same month of the car’s launch, on January 25, 1905 and thus exactly 100 years ago, American H. L. Bowden established a world record over one mile with a flying start. Driving a Mercedes with two 60 hp engines in Daytona Beach, Florida/USA, he reached an average speed of 176.5 km/h. This signaled the breakthrough for the brand. American customers’ attention had finally been drawn to cars from Germany, and the more favorably priced local reproductions were very much welcomed.

In 1906, at last, the first American Mercedes was handed over to its buyer. Strangely enough, the standard color was red. A newspaper advertisement aroused the buyers’ interest: “The American Mercedes is the car for speed, power and noiseless running. It is the acme of reliability.” These values are to this day embodied by every Mercedes-Benz the world over.

The total number of cars produced is unknown. In mid-February 1907, fire ravaged the plant, destroying eight completed cars and 40 in the process of construction. Production was never resumed.  

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