The Maybach name identifies one of the world's most elegant and exclusive car brands. Then, as now, Mercedes was the model, and the first Maybach was actually a Mercedes, at least in part. Indeed, in 1919 Karl Maybach constructed his first test car on the basis of a Mercedes chassis. In 1901, a car with front-mounted aluminium engine, twin camshafts and pioneering honeycomb radiator – designed by Karl's father, Wilhelm Maybach, who was chief engineer at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) – caused quite a stir. It was to be the first Mercedes and the forefather of all modern passenger cars.
Maybach and Mercedes – as inseparable now as they were then
In the 1930s, Maybach grew into one of the world's most distinguished and refined car brands. Maybach, the name of the company's founder, became a synonym for perfection and precision. The car that finally set the seal on his legendary status was the largest German passenger car of the time – the Maybach DS 8 "Zeppelin," a luxury-class model 5.5 meters in length and powered by a twelve-cylinder engine.
"The sign of unbeatable quality"
The Maybach trademark was to acquire a legendary status similar to the Mercedes three-pointed star, though Maybach only made a total of around 1800 cars. The double "M" badge of this exclusive brand is still associated with superior luxury cars and the revival of the Maybach name within the DaimlerChrysler Group has given it renewed luster.
In its original incarnation, Maybach tended to present a rather modest and understated image. The company's stand at the Berlin Motor Show over a period of years was really quite Spartan. The vehicles were lined up in a tight row with a simple company sign hanging above them, and that was it. The slogan of the luxury brand was suitably subtle as well: "The sign of unbeatable quality."
Even the advertising for Maybach vehicles came across as remarkably understated. Ads usually showed just a single model – a drawing, as was normal at the time – joined by a Zeppelin in the background, in reference to the brand's roots. The text pointed out that "Men for whom time means a lot of money will particularly appreciate the value of a totally reliable car – a Maybach." Other advertizements praised "the outstanding top-class car for town and touring, formal occasions and sport," and pointed to the "the ultimate in reliable touring cars."
Maybach and Daimler have followed the same path since 1865
Despite their status as competitors, the names "Mercedes" and "Maybach" were inseparable. It all began with the lives of two men. By the time the first car rattled its way over rutted streets in 1886, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach's working relationship already dated back over 20 years. After periods spent in Reutlingen, where Gottlieb Daimler had taken the young Wilhelm Maybach under his wing in 1865, both men found work at "Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz AG" in Cologne in 1872. There they prepared the four-stroke engine invented by Nikolaus Otto for production. In 1882, Gottlieb Daimler established his own company in Cannstatt, near Stuttgart, and Maybach was to follow him to what later became Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. There, the engineer was able to develop the lightweight and fast-running internal combustion engine that he had dreamed of for so long.
Although both Daimler and Maybach had a perfectionist streak, many at the time felt that the two men complemented each other perfectly and with impressive results. Daimler supplied the ideas and the vision, while Maybach was the design genius who made Daimler's visions possible and gave them physical form.
The inventor of the first Mercedes and the "king of design"
A fresh engineering challenge – the construction of a reliable and high-speed race car with a low center of gravity to improve safety – inspired Maybach to build the first Mercedes in 1901. His design has since gone down in history as the first ever "genuine" car. Wilhelm Maybach was thus crowned "le roi des constructeurs" ("king of design") by his French contemporaries.
Maybach was well aware of his central role in the success of the first Mercedes, proudly proclaiming to Emil Jellinek, the open-minded businessman who commissioned the car one month after Daimler's death and named it after his daughter, "You and I are the inventors of the Mercedes car."
Wilhelm Maybach went on to develop other Mercedes vehicles that were technically peerless, cementing the recently founded brand's position as the dominant force in international motorsport for years to come.
The joint venture with Zeppelin airship construction
In April 1907, Maybach left Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and teamed up with his son Karl to continue working on his own designs. He struck up contact with Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin and convinced him that the engines he had developed together with Karl would also be perfect for powering airships.
This led to the two men establishing "Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH" in Bissingen, near Stuttgart in 1909, as a subsidiary of the Zeppelin foundation and with Karl Maybach appointed technical director. The maiden flight of the first Zeppelin powered by a Maybach engine took place in May 1910. The company relocated to Friedrichshafen on the banks of Lake Constance in 1912, and moved in next-door to Zeppelin's airship construction plant. This was one of the early joint ventures.
In the years after the First World War, during the ban on the production of engines for airplanes or airships in Germany, Maybach turned his attentions to car engines, both as an alternative venture in economic terms and as a challenge to himself from a design perspective.
The first test cars with Mercedes chassis
In 1919 Karl Maybach, who was a gifted engineer in his father's mould, began to build his own cars in Friedrichshafen. The first of these was the W 1, a test car based on a four-seater Mercedes chassis.
Karl Maybach had maintained from the outset that he had no intention of building a "Volkswagen," a car which ordinary people could afford. It was an assertion he reiterated at the Berlin Motor Show: "Before the major Association of the German Motor Vehicle Industry show in 1921, certain members of the Board asked me mockingly if Maybach was going to present the cheapest car of the lot. They were rather upset when I replied: 'No, the most expensive!'"
A passion for engineering
Karl Maybach was literally a child of technology. As a youngster, he experienced the rapid development of the car at close quarters and committed himself to following in the footsteps of his famous father. He took on and further developed the pioneering ideas of Wilhelm Maybach with meticulous precision. In January 1930, the magazine "Motor" was moved to write: "Dr. Maybach was one of our most enterprising design engineers and was rarely content to accept what his contemporaries were producing. For every detail, he came up with new and technically fascinating solutions."
As an automotive engineer, Karl Maybach was driven by technology in its purest form. He held particular interest in the constant development process involved in perfecting a powerful, smooth and durable engine, the invention of new and easy-to-use transmission systems and the optimization of suspension units. His instinct for technical perfection in even the smallest details built the foundations for the Maybach legend. It was something the company's discerning customers appreciated when they ordered their ready-to-drive chassis with frame, suspension, engine, transmission, radiator, firewall and other assemblies from Maybach in Friedrichshafen.
When it came to the car's body, Karl Maybach and his staff only worked with the best specialists in the field, firms who could meet the requirements of the Maybach customers. The fittings and finish were always dictated by the buyers' personal wishes, giving the owners a car very much in their own image.
Over the years, Maybach struck up a close working relationship with the body manufacturer Herrmann Spohn, based in the neighboring town of Ravensburg. This partnership even spawned a kind of small-scale series production, although Spohn faced constant competition from other companies, such as Gläser in Dresden, Auer in Stuttgart, and Neuss and Erdmann & Rossi in Berlin to win the favor of the demanding clientele. The body manufacturing workshop at the Daimler-Benz plant in Sindelfingen also received orders from Maybach, producing the body for the six-cylinder W 5 SG of 1928.
Made-to-measure craftsmanship down to the finest detail
Technical quality, customized design and flawless craftsmanship were the outstanding attributes of the incomparable Maybach cars. The body manufacturers complemented the superb engineering of the chassis and engine with top-quality fittings worked into the body, itself lovingly handcrafted. This gave the exclusive clientele carte blanche to have their car tailored to their personal requirements and preferences. In principle, there were no limits to what was possible, except those imposed by the boundaries of the buyer's imagination and their bank balance.
The result was automotive works of art, one-off cars of stunning elegance. There were stately limousines, majestic Pullmans, racy two to seven-seat coupés, stylish cabriolets and sporty roadsters. Each boasted exclusive interior specifications, including exquisite leather and fine cloth appointments complemented by selected woods and paintwork, and a host of other refinements. People were hard pressed to find two "MM"-badged cars the same. The most expensive Maybach of the time was a royal order in 1928. Trimmed with gold and rubies, this limousine was sold to its owners for what was then an incredible 186,000 Reichsmarks.
Unrivalled driving pleasure in the "Zeppelin"
Captivating styling and precision, coupled with ground-breaking innovations, were attributes shared by the two most desirable German luxury cars of the 1930s: the large Mercedes 770 and the Maybach "Zeppelin." In January 1930, the magazine "Motor" described the "Zeppelin" in glowing terms: "It is an imposing, powerful and majestic car, which doesn't overstate its inherent luxury. This car has always embodied the greatest feeling of prosperity and beautifully crafted comfort." That was the aim of Dr. Karl Maybach. Indeed, he'd already shed light on his vision in the pages of "Motor" in December 1925: "When you're building a first-class large touring car, the top priority is to cultivate a certain quality and to ensure that all the parts of the vehicle sit together in beautiful and comfortable harmony. As well as top-quality workmanship, every part and major element of this car, such as its steering, engine smoothness, carburetor, brake system, noise insulation and operational reliability has to be explored and developed to the fullest degree."
The "Zeppelin" was available as a sedan, sports cabriolet and open-top touring car. All variants offered boundless interior space to relax in, while the comfortable leather seats were more like club armchairs with their soft upholstery. The driving characteristics of his top-of-the-line car were equally impressive. It had a long 3735-millimeter wheelbase and was very heavy, but rigid axles connected to long semi-elliptic springs allowed it to glide along nimbly. Hydraulic, double-acting shock absorbers further enhanced the ride comfort.
To move off, drivers still needed the clutch, but thereafter they only had to operate two small levers in the middle of the steering wheel in order to change through the four gears of the epicyclic transmission without using the clutch. Neutral, first or reverse could be engaged using the pre-selection hand lever in the center of the car.
The worm-and-nut steering (without power assist) was amazingly light given the three-ton weight of this rather grand car. The massive drum brakes were operated by cable, but offered even and effective deceleration thanks to a sophisticated lever system. Vacuum assist kept the effort required to operate the brakes reasonable.
The instrument panel in the "Zeppelin" was well equipped. There was a speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge for the 135-liter tank, eight-day clock, coolant temperature display, oil-pressure gauge, vacuum gauge for the power-assisted brakes, starter injection mechanism, starter button, manual throttle and choke valve activator, and instrument illumination. Other items of standard equipment included two spare wheels, horn, headlamps, backup and stop lights, taillights, four integrated jacks (one per wheel) and a small pump to inflate the tires.
Replacement parts came as standard
In those days, factories and workshops authorized by Maybach were few and far between in Germany, Europe or further afield, so chauffeurs and drivers were no strangers to maintaining their distinguished cars themselves. For that reason, the Maybach factory delivered each chassis with a comprehensive maintenance pack, containing 45 top-quality tools and 15 replacement parts – from valves to light bulbs – plus a selection of smaller parts. This allowed the driver to carry out regularly occurring maintenance and repair jobs without needing to visit a workshop. Furthermore, precise instructions even meant that faults could be cleared up and larger repairs to the engine, suspension, wheels, exhaust and electrics carried out with ease.
The heartbeat of the Maybach "Zeppelin" was provided by a twelve-cylinder engine available with displacement of 6922 or 7922cc. Both versions were extremely impressive, developing a majestic 150 or 200 hp, at 2800 or 3200 rpm. The engine was smoothness itself.
Wilhelm Maybach was still alive to see the legendary "Zeppelin" flagship model take shape, but did not survive to witness the car's launch. He passed away in December 1929.
Only 66 registrations a year
Their sophisticated construction and luxurious trimmings gave Maybach a timeless desirability. It was a combination that didn't come cheaply, and this secured the luxury car a particularly exclusive image. According to statistics from May 1, 1931, of the 56,039 new passenger cars registered in Germany the previous year, only 66 were Maybach models. A total of only 183 units were sold of the legendary "Zeppelin" in its DS 7 and DS 8 versions (DS stands for double-six, or two banks of six cylinders).
The production figures for the "Big Mercedes" were equally manageable: Daimler-Benz built 119 units of the W 07 between September 1930 and June 1938.
Another characteristic that the Maybach and Mercedes luxury cars had in common was their durability; some were on the road daily until the late 1960s. Indeed, of the approximately 1800 Maybach cars produced up to 1941, one in twelve (152 cars in all) still exists today.
For politicians and businessmen, princesses and emperors, stars and popular idols, Maybach cars were a means of transportation to befit their station. Among the Maybach enthusiasts were famous names like the tenor Enrico Caruso and world heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling. Then there were illustrious figureheads, decorated with titles of nobility, who also had themselves chauffeured around in a Maybach such as the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassi; King Paul of Greece; the heirs to the Dutch throne, Princess Juliana and Prince Bernard; Fürst Esterhazy; and the Indian Maharajas of Jaipur, Potila and Kolhapur. Of course, the Maybach customer list also included prominent figures in industry and high finance, including Werner von Siemens and Privy Councillor Robert Bosch.
The end of the Maybach era did not prove to be the end for the luxury car class in Germany. Initially, the Mercedes-Benz 300 filled the vacuum. Then, in 1964, the Mercedes-Benz 600 arrived to take over the mantle of the exclusive prestige limousine; a car on a similar plane to the Maybach, designed for royalty and statesmen. In production until 1981, it was a worthy successor to the "Big Mercedes" and also, in spirit, to the Maybach "Zeppelin."
From Maybach-Motorenbau to MTU
In Stuttgart, the Maybach was far from forgotten. In 1960, Daimler-Benz acquired a majority holding in the Friedrichshafen engine plant. Six years later, Maybach-Motorenbau merged with the large engine production wing of Daimler-Benz to form a new company – "Maybach Mercedes-Benz Motorenbau GmbH", trading since 1969 as "Motoren- und Turbinen-Union Friedrichshafen GmbH" – or MTU for short.
The name Wilhelm Maybach was still revered. In 1996, Mercedes-Benz and MTU set out to honor his life's work, successfully as it turned out. During the 150th anniversary of his birth, Wilhelm Maybach, the brilliant design engineer, was accepted into the "Automotive Hall of Fame."
Maybach – 1800 luxury cars in 20 years
Between 1921 and 1941, Maybach-Motorenbau produced a total of some 1800 cars. In addition to the vehicles recorded in the company's statistics, another five to ten exhibition cars were built a year. Today, 152 Maybach cars still exist across the world.