The Steyr-Daimler-Puch Company, only surviving maker of passenger cars in Austria, will, within the next few months, start assembling F.I.A.T. cars in their works at Steyr, Upper Austria.”
This news item from one of our contemporaries makes of 1949 something of a landmark, to me rather a gloomy landmark, in the history of the motor car. Of course, F.I.A.T. has done this sort of thing before: even I can remember the Austro-F.I.A.T. in days gone by, and a correspondent, who chid me on my ignorance of such matters last year, informed me that there used to be a Polski-F.I.A.T. too, a fact of which I was lamentably unaware. In any case, I regard the re-appearance of an Austrian F.I.A.T. with a certain amount of nostalgic pleasure; what shakes me is the thought that there are no more genuine Austrian cars.
There has always been something rather delightfully exotic about Austrian cars, aided, as far as I am concerned, by my abysmal ignorance about them. I have heard of a Puch, for instance, since some of them took part in the 1914 Austrian Alpine Trials, but I should not like to be certain whether I have ever so much as seen one. Its name has always sounded to me like an onomatopoeic attempt to reproduce the noise of one large Teutonic cylinder exhausting without the deterrent of a silencer; but for all I know, it may be called after a Mr. Puch, really. The Steyr and Daimler parts of the combine have, of course, made themselves better known to the western world.
I am not quite sure when the first motor car was made in Austria, but even in the nineteenth century the prospects, apparently, seemed quite bright. “Motor vehicle races were held on the 23rd. ult. at Vienna,” recorded the Automotor Journal for November, 1899, “under the auspices of the Automobile Club of Austria, the proceeds being given to a charitable object. The meeting was very successful, there being about sixty-four entries for the various events. No fast times requiring record were made.” But in spite of this highly successful result, those competitors who duly arrived at their destination in the Paris-Vienna race of 1902 found that all was not quite so well in the world of Austrian automobilism. “Vienna is a long way behind in the autocar movement,” reported the Autocar’s representative on this occasion, “and . . . we learnt that the public were not altogether favourably disposed towards the petrol vehicle. . . One reason for this indifference is the attitude of the Emperor of Austria, who is somewhat opposed to the automobile movement . . .” “It was hoped that a good deal would be done towards popularising the cars as the result of the Paris-Vienna race”; but it seems that, in the main, such hopes were disappointed, as, although the stands at the finish “were filled with a brilliant and aristocratic crowd,” “it was noticed that the Emperor of Austria was not represented, on account, it was said, of the death of the King of Saxony.”
Such loyalty, when one comes to think of it, is really rather shaming. The Minister of Fuel and Power in England at the present time appears also to be somewhat opposed to the automobile movement; but I blush to confess that, in spite of this, I have retained my enthusiasm for it almost unabated.
However, it was noticed, in the Vienna of 1902, that “a public service of electric cabs . . . is said to be proving very successful. This probably explains why Vienna has become the home of the petrol-electric car.” Indeed, this type of hybrid had been brought to the attention of the French motoring public in the previous April, when M. Loraine Barrow and Herr Porsche appeared at Nice with a couple of them, and the evident intention of running them in the Nice-Abbazzia race. “A great deal of curiosity had been manifested,” recorded our contemporary, “in the new mixed type of vehicle which was being constructed for the Nice meeting by Messrs. Lohner and Porsche, of Vienna . . . Its proper designation is a Mercédès-Lohner, and it is, in fact, merely a 28-h.p. Mercédès car with electrical transmission. On the clutch-shaft is a dynamo, which only runs when the petrol motor is put in gear, and the electrical energy thus developed is conveyed directly to the motors on the front wheels. Resistances are interposed between the dynamo and the motors to get fifteen different speeds . . . the theory of this system is, of course, that electrical transmission is much more economical than mechanical transmission . . . at the same time, there remains the old objection, that the owner must not only be thoroughly well acquainted with his petrol motor, but must also be an electrician as well.” Must, in fact, be just like the owner of a present-day car, who wants to put the hood up, or open the bonnet or something.
It is a very curious reflection that the Government of the only European country which to-day can attempt anything like the Mille Miglia suffered in 1902 so acutely from autophobia that in the end the Nice-Abbazzia race, which was to have been run chiefly on Italian territory, was banned by the Italian authorities. As a result, the Mercédès-Lohners had no chance to show their paces on that occasion, and for the moment the Autocar could only record that “there is no doubt that the car is extremely quiet, and runs with every possible variation of speed without gearing of any kind.” Posterity, in consequence, is left in some doubt as to whether the Mercédès-Lohners really worked or not, and perhaps as far as racing cars were concerned, the invention had come just too late. The adoption by Mercédès of mechanically-operated inlet valves and magneto ignition had resulted in a revolutionary improvement in engine flexibility, while the multiple-selector (alias, multiple-baladeur) had greatly increased the handiness of the ordinary gearbox. “Owing to the great elasticity of the engine,” it was recorded of the contemporary Mercédès, ” it is rarely necessary to use the change-speed gear, and the vehicle can be slowed down to a crawl with the highest gear in mesh, while speeds can be changed with perfect ease and silence without throwing out the motor.” What call was there, really, in such circumstances, for “resistances . . . to get fifteen different speeds”? Especially since the Emperor of Austria was somewhat opposed to the automobile movement?
Perhaps it was on account of this same opposition that, as far as I can make out, there were no Austrian cars even in the Paris-Vienna race, which was, one would have thought, just the occasion for them to show their paces. Not but what some of them were at least expected. “In view of the Paris-Vienna race,” said the Autocar, “The Austrian makers are very busy turning out new vehicles concerning which there is a good deal of curiosity, and one of them, being built by the Nesseldorf Company, is said to be calculated for a speed of seventy-five miles an hour. The old Nesseldorfs were designed something upon the Benz lines, though they had several ingenious features, but apparently the company are now at work upon an entirely new system of vehicle, judging from the secrecy with which they are surrounding its construction.” As a matter of fact one of “the old Nesseldorfs,” presumably” designed something upon the Benz lines,” had run in the light-car class of Paris-Berlin the previous year, and had actually got to its destination; but it had only averaged 22.4 m.p.h., in spite of its “several ingenious features”; and there was no sign in Paris-Vienna, or as far as I know, since, of an “entirely new system of vehicle, calculated for a speed of seventy-five miles an hour.” “Jacob Lohner and Co., of Vienna,” continued our contemporary, “will have three petrol-electric vehicles with the front wheels drivers, and the Austrian Daimler Co., at Neustadt are also busy on their new racing cars.” But actually no Mercédès-Lohners appeared at the start, and if any of the Mercédès which took part in the race emanated from the Austrian Daimler factory at Neustadt, their sponsors, perhaps out of respect for the Emperor, kept very quiet about it. Indeed, very little more might have been heard of Austrian racing cars, had it not been for Mr. James Gordon Bennett and his Trophy. And very little more might have been heard of Mr. James Gordon Bennett’s Trophy, if S. F. Edge had not been so tactless as to win it for England in 1902; or Camille Jenatzy so excessively tactless as to win it for Germany in 1903. Perhaps it was not altogether “the Red Devil’s” fault: I have always felt that he might well not have won it, but for the providential fire which destroyed the Cannstatt factory and with it the 90-h.p. Mercédès that were being prepared for the race. As a result of that fire, Jenatzy had to do his best with a standard 60-h.p. Mercédès, and there is very little doubt that the “Sixty” was a much better car than the “Ninety.” In any case, he did win the Trophy, and the French really were determined to retrieve it in 1904. They even went so far as to hold an eliminating race to decide who was most likely to do so, and the Germans were really stimulated into seeing to it that they did not.
Now the rules for the Gordon Bennett contest stipulated that each country, or rather each national automobile club, could only be represented by three cars; and as Mercédès had had to give up one place in the German team to Opel, who wanted to run one of his German-built Darracqs, somebody had the happy idea, that, by using the products of Mercédès’ Austrian factory it would be possible to run not two Mercédès in the race, or even three, but five. But this time there was no fire to destroy the “Nineties” at the new Untertürkheim factory, or at the Viennese offshoot either, and Thery, having led from start to finish on his Richard-Brasier, successfully retrieved the famous trophy for France. The “Ninety” was fast all right, but it had none of the balance and stability which had characterised the “Sixty.” “One thing that assisted considerably in Thery’s victory,” says Gerald Rose, “was the fact that his car was fitted with shock-absorbers . . . the rebounding of the wheels of a racing car (first noticed by the Mors firm in 1902) was a point to which the Mercédès designers seem to have paid but little attention until 1907, although their cars had suffered considerably in that respect. One of the things most noticed at the time of the race was the difference in the running of the Mercédès and Thery’s Brasier, the latter appearing to move so smoothly and to hold the road so well.”
For all that, Braun, on one of the 90-h.p. Austrian Mercédès, managed, at the end of the season, to make fastest time in the Semmering hill-climb; and even if the second man was Duray on a Darracq, presumably of the Gordon Bennett type which was notoriously over-engined, Poege, who was third, on another Austrian Mercédès, managed to beat not only M. Mathis on a De Dietrich, but also Lancia’s F.I.A.T. From then onwards, the products of Wiener-Neustadt were to make a speciality of going fast uphill.
In 1905, the 90-h.p. Mercédès engine, 165 by 140 mm., was replaced by the 120-h.p., 175 by 146 mm., which, with the stroke increased to 150 mm., lasted on until 1907. Presumably with this extra power the wheels of the racing car rebounded worse than ever, but there were still no shock-absorbers and the 120-h.p. was no more successful than the 90. For all that, there were Austrian Mercédès as well as German ones again for the Gordon Bennett race in 1905, and as there was no nonsense this time with Opel-Darracqs, there were altogether six Mercédès instead of five. There was a special colour scheme, too, for the Austrian ones, which were painted yellow with a black chassis, in marked contrast to the white of their German prototypes, but even that did not stop the wheels bouncing, and “Burton and Hieronymus dropped out during the second lap, chiefly from persistent tyre troubles,” while Braun on the third car finished very low down the list.
In 1906 the Gordon Bennett race was replaced by the Grand Prix, and as the limit of three cars was now placed on the manufacturer rather than on the country, the scope for augmenting the Mercedes team from the Vienna factory presumably vanished. In any case during that year the Austrian Daimler Co. apparently split off from the parent concern, and there is a gap of several years in my acquaintanceship with the Austrian Mercédès or its heirs. I suspect that at Wiener Neustadt they began to concentrate on building lorries, under the name of Austrian Daimlers, leaving the Mercédès touring and racing cars to Untertürkheim. In any case, Mr. C. L. Freeston, in, I think, 1908 or 1909, took a photograph of “A Motor Diligence and an English Daimler at the Summit of the Rolle Pass (6,424 feet),” and from the fact that he describes his own car as an English Daimler, and that the “motor diligence” appears to have a double-headed eagle on its Mercédès-like radiator, I take it that the latter was an Austrian Daimler. In any case it was a very nice-looking motor diligence. I wish I could go to the summit of the Rolle Pass with any hopes of seeing one like it now. In the meantime Professor Herkomer of the Bavarian Automobile Club had started his Herkomer Tours, which were later taken over by Prince Henry of Prussia, who thus succeeded in imprinting his name on a Vauxhall model, among others, which was only eclipsed in fame by the “30/98.” It was these tours that were really responsible for producing the first sports cars, which was what the Tourist Trophy ought to have done but didn’t, and the appearance of the Continental “torpedoes” with their somewhat exiguous, though nominally touring, bodies, elicited shrieks of protest from the Press, particularly in this country. Their constructors, however, continued unabashed, and in 1910 the first three places in the contest for the Prince Henry Cup were won by three “Austro-Daimlers.” They were no longer called Austrian Mercédès, be it noted, and, indeed, La Vie Automobile remarked that they were no longer copies of Mercédès, but had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the chief engineer of the Wiener Neustadt factory, who himself drove the winning car. His design was, indeed, one of the most delectable of the Edwardian age, which is saying a good deal. The long-stroke engine had four separate cylinders, with a bore and stroke of 105 by 165 mm. (5,709 c.c.), steel pistons and inclined overhead valves operated by a single overhead camshaft, driven by a vertical shaft at the front of the engine, which also drove twin magnetos. In its original 1910 form, final drive was by side chains, but these were replaced in 1911 by a propellor shaft enclosed in a torque tube. A pointed radiator was, of course almost a sign manual of a “Prince henry” model, and, according to the Autocar, “the taper radiator and bonnet undoubtedly add style to the design, and enable a comfortable body to be carried without the appearance or general raciness of design being destroyed . . . Without actually being a racing car, it gives that high efficiency which those who appreciate life, and life in abundance, are only too willing to pay for.”
It was so near at least to having the makings of a racing car, that its sponsors toyed with the idea of entering a team for the 1912 French Grand Prix. But the Grand Prix was run that year in conjunction with the Coupe de l’Auto race for 3-litre cars, and, after some consideration, the aristocratic Austrians excused themselves, on the grounds that it would be hardly dignified to be seen racing around with such small fry. Which was a pity, as in 1913, although the offending small cars were removed, there was a petrol consumption limit to deter them, and in 1914 a capacity limit of 4 1.2-litres, so that no Austro-Daimlers were ever seen in the great days of the Grand Prix, or at all.
But I sometimes wonder whether there really was so complete a divorce at this time between Wiener Neustadt and Untertürkheim as is usually supposed. At least to the superficial observer, there is a strong family likeness between the “Prince Henry” Austro-Daimler engine of 1910 and the victorious Grand Prix Mercédès engine of 1914. But it is clear that I have already wondered enough for the present occasion. The Editor, I understand, wants to use some of the pages of his paper himself. Even if I have not mentioned a Steyr, yet.