At the beginning of the 1900s, from the curiosity that stemmed from a rapidly-changing world, the automobile began to turn into an interesting business for those entering the new market of mobility. Manufacturers were still unsure as to which engine solution was more suitable for this task: the electric motor was simple, economical and avoided those tedious start-up issues but it was also heavy and its very limited range counted against it; steam engines were efficient but complex to manage while the internal combustion engines had yet to make the most of the energy potential of gasoline and, moreover, you had to crank start them.
For all these reasons, manufacturers who relied on internal combustion engines felt the need to send out a strong message by setting speed records. The 100 mile per hour record was very hard for them to achieve since in America, in 1902, the electric-powered Baker Torpedo had shown that it could easily exceed 100 miles per hour before a tragic accident that stopped its attempt.
The Baker, it’s worth remembering, was built with a very low centre of gravity, narrow wheels to reduce drag and a very streamlined and enclosed body. It was the route chosen for the record attempt, which crossed a set of trolley tracks (talk about safety!) that caused the crash that was not fatal for the driver and passenger who were wearing seatbelts, something incredible for those years, but alas it was for several spectators.
Mercedes then came onto the scene, determined to break the 100 miles per hour average over one kilometre. Daimler’s new luxury brand, which, after a first attempt at Daytona on 25th May 1904, reached 156.522 km/h in Ostend over the kilometre run. It was a production car: the Simplex model that mounted a four-cylinder engine with a capacity of something like 12,704 cc that produced 95 horsepower at 950 rpm. Among the numerous technical solutions, the engine featured an overhead intake valve at the centre of the cylinders and the highly efficient honeycomb radiator that reduced the amount of water needed for cooling by 50%.
The road was the right one but to in order to go beyond 100 miles per hour, you needed something specific. This is how the Mercedes Flying Dutchman came to be, which took the Simplex chassis and stretched it in order to mount two in-line engines driven by a single, very long crankshaft. With 120 horsepower and the driver sitting at the end of the huge bonnet, in Daytona, on 25th January 1905 it set a record of 176.635 Km/h. The 100 mile per hour barrier had been broken. Brilliantly.
The automobile was now the fastest vehicle: the courageous Henri Cissac, riding his 1,489cc twin-cylinder Peugeot motorcycle had gone beyond 140 km/h the same year while aircraft, incredibly, continued to fly with little power and at really low speeds when you consider that the Brazilian aviator Santos Dumont – today remembered by a beautiful Cartier watch – set the official speed record one year later at just 41.292 km per hour!
It took exactly one year for the Mercedes Flying Dutchman record to be broken. The track was the same: the sand hardened by the Florida tides. The car was actually a simple chassis that mounted a 25,422cc engine producing 200 horsepower. It was the first 90° V8 made by combining four twin-cylinder engines whose connecting rods were operated by a single crankshaft. The hint of aerodynamics was limited to the adoption of two inclined radiators and a bullet-like water tank. The speed reached – 189.334 km/h – was tantalisingly close to the 200 km/h mark. But it wasn’t long before that was broken. Just one day, but what engine took the automobile beyond this threshold? We’ll reveal that next Monday.