Mercedes-Benz in Britain

The Editor Takes a Random Look at the Great German Manufacturer’s Presence in This Country, at the Time of its 100th Anniversary

Whereas the rest of the World celebrated the birth of the motorcar last year, in Germany the 100th anniversary of the automobile is being commemorated this year, the first Benz horseless-carnage having been a marketable proposition in the year 1886.

How this came about, and how the link between Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, and Daimler’s collaborator, Wilhelm Maybach, came about and the way in which the cars made by these two pioneers arrived in Great Britain, has been ably told in the new book “The Dawn of Motoring” by Erik Johnson (Mercedes-Benz Ltd. 1985) and so there is no need to elaborate on it here. The Science Museum in London possesses a Roger-Benz dated 1888, that it acquired for £5 in 1913, and which is thought to have been the first of its kind to be imported (by Emile Roger, the French agent) into England, although the details are vague. Incidentally, it is ironical that whereas the specification of the early Benz cars was crude, with belt-drive and solid tyres adhered to for many years, by 1901 the Mercedes (as Gottlieb Daimler cars were called) was the most advanced of all cars, with its channel-section steel chassis frame, honeycomb radiator, gate gear-change, and a four-cylinder engine that could be controlled on the throttle and made to idle like a modern power unit.

Alfred Harmsworth (later the Press baron, Lord Northcliffe) was an early British customer for a 40 hp Mercedes and soon wealthy Britons, like the rest of Europe’s discerning motorists, were running Mercedes cars. The Gordon Bennett victory of 1903, when a Sixty Mercedes won this race in Ireland driven by Jenatzy, clinched the superiority of the German make and in 1908 HM King Edward VII took delivery of a 45 hp Mercedes, thus following the preference of the Emperor of Germany, whose motor-stable contained, at around that time, five Mercedes, including two of the latest 55 hp landaulettes, upholstered in Mercedes red-glazed leather, with dull-gilt mountings and tortoiseshell doorhandles. Otherwise the Daimler had long been the British Royal car but even here there was a link with Mercedes, because Frederick Simms formed the Daimler Motor Syndicate Ltd in 109510 lake over Simms & Co, which had acquired the selling rights in Britain of all the patents of the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft of Bad Cannstatt, from which arose the quite independent Daimler Motor Co Ltd of Coventry.

In the pre-1914 period Benz and Mercedes cars become well-established in this country. Du Cros-Mercedes, the British concessionaires, had premises in the then-fashionable motor centre at 132 Long Acre, in London, Tankerville Chamberlain being their Sales Manager. Milnes-Daimler-Mercedes Ltd whose Chairman was E Kraftmeir, handled Mercedes-Simplex cars, and were also concerned with Milnes-Daimler commercial vehicles and buses, and Mr J E Hutton, who had premises in Regent Street, was a prominent Mercedes agent from the very early days. Whereas Benz remained conservative, making at first primitive and rather staid cars (the Blitzen was an exception!), which, however, had their staunch British clientele, Mercedes offered a wide variety of models, from dignified closed motor carriages to the very fast 60 hp Mercedes of 1903, while by 1913 the great Ninety Mercedes was being described as a sporting car, at a period when the term “sports car” was hardly known.

Although this discourse is about Mercedes and Benz in Britain, much of the prestige surrounding the Mercedes was established by the performances of these cars in the hands of owners from England and America, as well as from Europe, during the 1903 Nice motor-week. There, Count Eliot Zborowski, who had so nearly won the 1902 Paris-Vienna race on his 40 hp Mercedes, was killed while driving his new 60 hp Mercedes in the the La Turbie hill-climb. This great huntsrnan and steeplechase rider, who resided near Melton Mowbray changed his love of horses to that for cars at the turn of the century and was a keen Mercedes owner. His son, Count Louis Zborowski, continued the theme, having a 75 hp open-bodied Gordon Watney Mercedes before he came of age. Alfred Harmsworth had a 60 hp Mercedes after his 1901/02 40 hp model, which can be seen today in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, and Lord Lonsdale drove about in a fine example of the make, in which he attended the first race-meeting at Brooklands. Another enthusiastic Mercedes owner was Lionel Rothschild, who had 40 hp and 60 hp cars of this make in 1903.

All this enhanced the reputation of the Mercedes as one of the top cars, the equal of the Daimlers and Napiers of those times, and a challenger even of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost when that came on the upper-crust scene…

The opening of Brooklands Track in 1907 further enhanced the Mercedes reputation. During that first season of racing at the Weybndge Track Mercedes cars led all others on prize-money-earned-per-entry, ahead of Fiat, Daimler and Napier, taking a total of £2.800 at the first three meetings. In the first Montagu Cup Race at the Opening Meeting, Dario Resta on Fry’s 1906 GP Mercedes should have won easily but miscounted the laps and failed to turn into the finishing straight, allowing Hutton’s sister 14 1/2 -litre 1906 GP Mercedes to collect the 1,400-sov first prize. (Ironically, the Gottlieb Daimler Memorial Plate was won by a Coventry-built Daimler.) Mercedes won the 1908 French Grand Prix convincingly, with Benz in second and third places, which stopped this race for four years, while the French Motor Industry licked its wounds! Two of the 1908 GP team Mercedes came to Brooklands, one having been bought by C R Fry (which was later driven by Tate, who also used it at Shelsley Walsh as late as 1913) and the other by Gordon Watney, for Lord Vernon. They became a great attraction with the crowds that attended the BARC Bank Holiday races, winning many handicaps, and Lord Vernon s beat the Maharaja, of Tikan’s 60 hp Renault in a Match Race at the Track in 1911. it is remarkable how very fast these unstreamlined Mercedes road-racing cars were, at this comparatively early period. They invariably lapped at over 101 mph. the fastest being Charles Lane’s car in 1908, with 105.02 mph, before the crash in which his mechanic, William Burke. was flung out and fatally injured.

Much of the attraction of these Mercedes for the Brooklands crowds stemmed from Gordon Watney’s stable. He lived in Weybridge, close to the Track, and had built up a sound business, with C H. Crowe as his foreman, by taking heavy closed bodies off the older and larger Mercedes chassis and replacing them with eye-catching open touring shells, which, with outside exhaust pipes (a feature of several Mercedes models anyway), scarlet upholstery, disc wheels, an aluminium finish, and all the right equipment made a Gordon Watney Mercedes something special. I have mentioned previously the 75 hp version owned by young Lou Zborowski, the late John Bolster’s mother owned a big T-head 1913 model which she ran until 1925 and his uncle a 1909 chain-drive Gordon Watney-bodied Merc, to drive one of these was the epitome of exciting Edwardian motoring. Watney also tuned the engines and ran cars of his own at Brooklands, either driving them himself or appointing his own drivers. His cars included an elderly but quick 75 hp six-cylinder Mercedes and even a 1903 Sixty claimed to be the actual car with which Jenatzy had won the Gordon Bennett race. This old warrior was found by Watney in a West End garage in a dilapidated condition. He overhauled it, fitted a radiator cowl, pointed tail and disc wheels, raked the steering-column and put on a Zenith carburetter giving normal control of engine speed “instead of control by variable lift to the inlet valves”. This 1903 Mere was run at Brooklands from 1911, never failing to turn out, increasing its speed every time, and winning the 1912 100 mph Long Handicap at 89 mph — a pace that would, I imagine, have surprised Jenatzy . . It was going to be entered for the 1913 French GP, but nothing more was heard of this! At that time Watney’s own car was a chain-drive 65 hp six-cylinder Mercedes with 12 ft wheelbase and the usual open sporting body, and among his Brooklands fleet was the ex-Lord Vernon/ Alan Mender 1908 GP car. Watney’s conversions were built, from 1911 at about two at a time, at his house. “South Lodge” in Weybridge (it still exists) until residents complained, whereupon he bought land on the corner of Weybridge Road and Hamm Moore Lane, and built a workshop there in 1912, employing 25 men. In 1914 munitions work expanded this factory until some 500 workers were employed. In 1919 the Anglo-American Oil Company (now Esso) took it over for the repair of their vehicles.

In spite of the imminence of war, Mercedes cars continued to be well liked. Another who put special bodies on them was Charles Lane of Euston Road. He did a rakish four-seater on a 70 hp four-cylinder for Lt Hetherington of the RFC, which would touch 75 mph, and made a ridiculously elongated tandem-six-seater on a 65 hp chassis, which was used by the American polo team when it came to England. Altogether Mercedes cars were very well regarded in prewar Britain.

They were exhibited regularly at Olympia. For example, at the 1910 Motor Show, where J. Lyons served 3 – (15p) lunches and you could dine for 5 – (25p), Milnes-Daimler showed a 15 hp sports model priced at £400 and 20 hp, 30 hp and 40 hp closed cars the last-named having the Mercedes-Knight sleeve-valve engine and costing £1,050. In addition, Mercedes were shown on four coachbuilders stands Benz had their 15-20 hp and 20-30 hp cars at that Show, together with the famous 38-60 hp Prince Henry model and their Brompton Road depot was advertising that Benz held the World’s speed record, at, 127.877 mph. At Brooklands “Cupid” Hornsted was enchanting the habituees with the 150 hp and 200 hp Benz racing cars, the latter lapping at 112 42 mph in April 1914.

Even on the eve of Britain going to war against Germany, Milnes-Daimler-Mercedes held a banquet at the Trocadero in London to celebrate the 1, 2, 3 victory by Mercedes in the 1914 French Grand Prix, and Gordon Watney another celebration in Weybridge to announce that he was buying the winning car driven at Lyons by Lautenschlager and would run it at the Brooklands August meeting. But Mercedes refused to sell him that particular car and the deal fell through. Instead. Mercedes painted the race-winning number on three out of the five GP cars and sent one to London, one to Paris. and one to Berlin, for display in their agents showrooms: the car sent to Long Acre was seized by the Admiralty and rushed to Rolls-Royce in Derby for examination, some of its features being incorporated in the R-R “Eagle” aero-engine — and “tis said that honest Henry Royce afterwards paid royalties to Mercedes for the ideas he had pinched…”

Whether the British Mercedes depot, of which Waller Dewis was the Manager, was used for the repair of military vehicles during hostilities I do not know, but a certain amount of trading seems to have gone on there, with future racing-drivers like Segrave. Lou Zborowski and Alastair Miller visiting it from time to time. After the Armistice German cars were banned from races and the Motor Show. But before they were re-instated in England Count Zborowski took a flavour of Mercedes to Brooklands with his two “Chitty-Bang-Bangs”, both having old chain-drive chassis of this make, and Maybach and Benz aviation engines respectively. And later Zborowski had the Mercedes hybrid with a six-cylinder aero-engine in a shaft-drive chassis. He also had successes at Brooklands from 1920 with a 1914 GP Mercedes, at least two of which came to England.

In fact, a number of the older Mercedes and Benz cars enlivened things at the Track for quite a number of years after the war, one of the first to do so being the 1908 GP car of the Cooper brothers, until they were persuaded to install a vee-eight-cylinder Clerget aero-engine in it and It crashed in practice, killing Hartshorne-Cooper. But as late as 1929, Pole’s 17.8-litre six-cylinder aero-engined Mercedes ran in the BRDC 500 mile race, almost completing the distance, a performance it no doubt could have improved on had not Dunlop recommended keeping to a lap speed of 100 mph for the sake of the tyres, and in 1930 Cyril Paul got the old 1914 21 1/2-litre four-seater Benz round at 115 mph, faster than either Barlow of Duff had managed with the Blitzen-type two-seaters.

Soon after the War, Lou Zborowski had a sleeve-valve chauffeur-driven Mercedes saloon for the Countess, and C H Crowe, whom David Scott-Moncrieff has described as about the best mechanic in the whole country, set up in business in Kennington restoring pre-war Mercedes; one of his creations was a 240 hp Benz-powered Mercedes similar to “Chitty II”. Rumours that American financiers were about to acquire the Mercedes Unterturkheim works and the Bosch factory were unfounded, but feelings against Germany remained strong and it was some time before new cars were imported, and Mercedes did not appear at the Olympia Show again until 1927. Meanwhile the British Mercedes Co traded in used cars from the premises at Long Acre.

Eventually, new cars began to arrive in Britain from Germany and interest was created because Mercedes had adopted supercharging, with the blower delivering air to the carburetter, a complicated arrangement, especially as the blower clutch-engaged, operated only towards full-throttle, although the system whereby air was delivered under pressure had been used by Alfa Romeo and Fiat for their 1924 GP cars. MOTOR SPORT tried a 12/40 hp supercharged Mercedes in 1925 and was disappointed when it would not exceed a speedometer 80 mph on Brooklands. The brakes were inadequate at over 70 mph, and the best cruising speed was 50 mph, which made the price of £775 seem very high. The high quality of the workmanship could not be denied, however, and some people — maybe war profiteers did not much care whether the cars they bought were German or otherwise! — could not resist these post-war Mercedes, which combined dignity with a spotting panache. Just as Japanese war atrocities have been forgotten and cars from Japan now flood the country, so Mercedes were soon accepted, although Benz concentrated more on trucks, which Mercedes also made. In 1926 Benz and Mercedes amalgamated, the former’s laurel wreath now surrounding the celebrated triple-star Mercedes badge.

There was a larger version of the s/c Mercedes 12/40, the 16/65, at £1,475 with German bodywork, but perhaps it was the 33/140 and then the 33/180 of 1926 which put Mercedes-Benz firmly back on the map. The 33/180 was timed at 94, mph over the Brooklands half-mile, but it too had inadequate anchorage. These expensive but beautifully-made cars were sold from Mercedes House, 127 Long Acre, WC2. A depot had also been opened at 111 Grosvenor Road, on the river side of the Thames Embankment (with Mr K F Speed as manager and secretary from 1936), but this depot was closed again when war broke out, and turning in there after the war with my petrol-gauge on zero, I was distressed to find that it had become a filling-station for taxis only! In the late 1920’s, when Frank Seddon was General Manager of British Mercedes-Benz Limited and his Works Manager was Mr Kellaway. Showrooms were opened at King’s House, 37 Davies Street, in fashionable Grosvenor Square. That is where I went as a schoolboy to be given a 100 mph demonstration run in an open 36/220, after which Mercedes meant something special to me and has ever since.

To the supercharged 24/100, 33/140, 33/180, 36/220 and 38/250 models, Mercedes added the non-sporting 21/60, 24/70 and Straight-8 32/90 hp cars. The great Stuttgart manufacturer had by now returned to racing, Englishman Lou Zborowski having realised his long-held ambition to drive for them. Alas, he was killed on his first appearance in the Mercedes team, in the 1924 Italian GP at Monza. A three day enquiry was instituted by Mercedes into the cause, but nothing was definitely established. In England, Edward Mayner, a Mercedes salesman, did well at Shelsley Walsh, Southport, Skegness, Pendine and Herne Bay in 1925 with one of the 4-cylinder 2-litre Targa Florio-type Mercedes, which Mr Seddon asked Raymond Mays to drive in Sprint events in 1927, after Mays had publicised a 33 180 hp Mercedes in Scotland. A supercharged Mercedes was converted into a truck to carry the racing car, driven by the mechanic Moore. With this Mercedes, Mays was second fastest to Davenport s GN at Shelsley Walsh and won his heats and the final race at Southport. Mr Seddon being keen enough to motor up from London to watch. This was followed by ltd at Colwyn Bay, Lowestoft and Skegness.

So pleased were British Mercedes-Benz with Mays successes that later in 1927 Stuttgart sent over a crated straight-eight 2-litre Mercedes of the latest kind for him, together with a crate of spares, and many German mechanics to look after it. At the second Shelsley Walsh meeting in 1927 the older Targa Florio car was again second to Davenport’s GN but the straight-eight proved a difficult car to warm-up, and dangerous to drive. Mays refused to run it at Shelsley and although he later finished second to Eyston’s Bugatti in a 1927 Brooklands Handicap-race, lapping at 116.91 mph and going down the Railwaystraight at 130 mph he decided the car was unsafe – this uncharacteristic Mercedes had killed two other drivers. At the 1927 Olympia Show the German Mercedes Directors invited Mays to drive for them in Germany, but he had to decline. Later the many fine performances in Great Britain, of the 36/220 and 38/250 MercedesBenz, particularly Rudi Caracciola’s victories in the 1929 Ulster TT and 1930 Irish GP and the good showing of these cars at Shelsley Walsh, Brooklands, and elsewhere by Caracciola, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Earl Howe etc, enhanced the reputation of these great Porsche-designed blown six-cylinder Mercedes, which I thought at the time the greatest sports-car of all.

In 1935 it was decided to take premises at Brook House in London s prestigious Park Lane, facing Hyde Park, with Herr von Keller as Manager of private-car sales. The war caused these showrooms to be closed in December 1939, but for a time after the war there was a retail showroom in Alberrnarle Street. Today Normand (Mayfair) Ltd. London’s largest Mercedes-Benz dealer, has Premises, at 127, Park Lane, W1, so this connection has been reinstated.

Although Mercedes was quite well established in Britain by the mid 1920s, it was not until 1927 that British-Mercedes again exhibited at Olympia. Then on Stand No 155, they showed the side-valve 2-litre 16/50 hp Six with gearbox-driven pump for automatic chassis lubrication, a car cornpletely overshadowed by the 36/220 hp sports-model — it seemed a good time to be alive, whether as teenage-admirer or a wealthy enthusiast able to pay £2,300 to lake delivery of one of these 36/220s, guaranteed to do 120 mph and undoubtedly the fastest car at the Show.

Mercedes were soon to forsake sports-car racing for the real thing. Production Mercedes ranged from the little Type 130 and 170 rear-engined models, through the Stuttgart Mannheim and Nurburg types, to the 7.7-litre Grosser Mercedes, with the 26/220 and 38/250 sports models replaced by the luxurious Types 500K and 540K, mit kompressor and coil spring ifs. Very soon, encouraged by the Hitler regime, Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union were building the fastest and most advanced road-racing cars in the World, the arrival of which at Donington in 1937 and 1938 was to bring the biggest crowds ever seen to British motor racing. Interest in Mercedes being increased further because Dick Seaman (who like Zborowski before him, was to be fatally injured, while leading the Belgian GP at Spa in 1939) drove for them, although it was Auto-Union that won on both occasions at Donmgton and had got to Shelsley Walsh which those Mercedes never did. Dick Seaman and his W125 were at the Park Lane showroom after the 1937 GP, and the Mercedes-Benz racing drivers and the MD of Mercedes-Benz in Germany used Mercedes-Benz saloons which were, I think, Type 230s and the Grosvenor Road staff went up by coach, to watch the race. At the opposite extreme, Mercedes-Benz pioneered diesel-engined private cars, one of which David Scott-Moncrieff tested for MOTOR SPORT in Germany before the war.

When war came in 1939 the Company Secretary of British Mercedes-Benz was the London Solicitor, Percy John Davis. who looked after the Company s interests when the Vesting officer of the Board of Trade, under the Enemy Act, 1939, transferred all the shares in 1940 to Ernest Fass, KCMG. Custodian for England of Enemy Property During the war years work was done on radar equipment, although the late-flying-bomb attacks ended night shifts in the machine shop, and the profit for 1944-45 was only £962 10 -.

After the war had ended the Directors, Charles and Percy Davis, took the books to Unterturkheim and Charles Davis showed the Directors of Daimler-Benz AG how he had kept the British Company alive. They rewarded him with the British franchise when the enemy property embargo was lifted in 1953 and later Davis look in the Irish entrepreneur, Stephen O’Flaherty (who had taken up the Volkswagen franchise in both Britain and Eire), as a partner

For a lime at a depot in Camberwell New Road, about 25 people looked after the servicing and repair of pre-war Mercedes and those Ihd models imported by returning Service personnel, the Manager being Mr Stillwell, whose daughter Betty ran what sales side there was, a task she took on straight from school, remaining until she died! Mrs Hildegarde Bull was in charge of spares from 1954 to 1984 and saw this grow from a Cinderella operation to a £40 million a year turnover business. As things improved, Jimmy Silver was given the job of appointing a chain of Mercedes-Benz distributors, many of whom remain Dealers to this day. Some of these Dealers, though, went over the head of the retail sides/the business, going direct to Stuttgart for cars, instead of getting them from Mercedes-Benz (GB) Ltd. After that business was sold to Thomas Tilling Ltd in June 1960, things realty began to move fast, under W. J. Argent, aided by the move to the Brentford premises adjacent to the Great West Road, on the outskirts of London in 1958.

There a second building was acquired in 1961 and after Argent had concentrated first on service, sales began to build up, and by 1966 the Company was large enough to be the first British car-importer to install its own computer, before some manufacturers had need of this…

Mercedes-Benz (GB) Ltd. thus launched its highly successful sales career, of those post-WW2 Mercedes-Benz models which I have many times described as the best engineered cars in the World. It is recalled that Jimmy Silver was a close friend of the impresario Jack Hilton. who would buy 190SLs for his girlfriends. The advent of the 300SL gull-wing coupe re-established Mercedes-Benz in the forefront of high-performance car manufacturers, and when racing was resumed with these and the 300SLR the make’s reputation was again fully endorsed, enthusiasts in this country having the added attraction of British drivers Stirling Moss and Peter Collins in the Mercedes-Benz team, and of seeing Moss finish just ahead of Fangio at Aintree in the British GP of 1955 in a W196, arid Mercedes-Benz enjoying another 1, 2, 3 victory, led by Moss, with the 300SLR sports cars in the Dundrod TT that year.

The big demand for Mercedes products, both cars and commercial vehicles, made a move to new premises at Hayes necessary, with W. K. Kleinlooh appointed a new-style professional Parts Manager in 1971, to bring fresh skills into data-Processing of parts supplies. Then Mercedes-Benz (UK) Limited out-ran even those facilities. and is now established at ultra-modern premises at the Mercedes-Benz Centre at Milton Keynes.

The Parts Division was first established there in 1983, after which the M-B Operations Centre was opened there in a modern administration block by 1984, on a 35-acre landscaped site, incorporating a staff restaurant, fast food cafeteria, social club and games room. The Centre comprises a 485,000 sq ft parts warehouse and offices and a 76.000 sq ft office building built around a Roman-style “atrium,” air-conditioned, with potential for expansion. This emphasises the importance Daimler-Benz AG place on business in Great Britain.

Mercedes-Benz vehicles set a top-level prestige standard the World over and in this country Diplomatic and Export sales are handled from new showrooms in Devonshire House, Piccadilly, once owned by the Rootes Group, where Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson attended the opening ceremony, reminder of the Mercedes-Benz victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia. won by the 300SLR at record speed. The Managing Director of the British Centre is Hans Tauscher and for very many years Erik Johnson has looked after publicity, and has helped with this brief history — W.B.