The Blitzen Benz

Before the First War, the Benz company decided it needed a machine to boost its image. The result was a barnstorming monster which took the land speed record. Bill Boddy reports.

Before the aero-engined cars stirred spectators at Brooklands there was sensation aplenty, when prior to the war of 1914 the gigantic Blitzen Benz were let loose there. When aeroplanes were only just about flying seriously from the aerodrome this very fast racing car from Germany was sensation indeed.

The Blitzens had scored many successes in Europe before one arrived on these shores. It was entrusted to L G ‘Cupid’ Hornsted, who was more than capable of handling the monster – until its tyres went, for in those days even the Palmer Cords were unable to cope for long with the Blitzen’s power and pace. It had four huge cylinders of 185mm bore and 200mm stroke, giving a swept volume of 21,504cc, invoking a tax rating here of 84.8hp. Enormous push-rods prodded overhead valves, and this big short-wheelbase Benz could be geared to do 140mph at 1400rpm. The body was a cramped two-seater, and final drive was by side chains. The great Victor Hemery, who drove one at Brooklands in November 1909, found the bankings tricky, but set a new LSR of fractionally under 126mph. Homsted got his just before the 1913 Motor Show. His mission was the hour record, but even the Palmers lasted for only about 60 miles, restricting him in the December weather to short-distance records. When a burst tyre locked a back wheel, there was a skid which, it was said, lasted for about a kilometre and nearly sent the Benz over the banking top. Only a hasty change into third gear and booting the power in saved him.

Hornsted called it a day after June 1914, having broken more short records, and set the LSR to a two way 124.01mph. After the war two of these mighty Blitzen-type Benz appeared at the Track. One was entered by J L Dunne, who ran the British Benz Co, from Grafton Street, with the flamboyant Horace V Barlow, a publicity seeker who upset or amused other drivers depending on their temperament. The other Benz, owned by Zborowski’s friend Major R F Cooper, was billed as a new hush-hush post-war racer but was, in fact, Homsted’s old car. Cooper’s was the 1909 Hemery Benz.

Zborowski had a go in his friend’s Benz. He won a 1922 race but, brave as he was with `Chitty-Bang-Bang’, he declared the big Benz unsafe for further racing. It was left to Barlow to provide the sensation such a car always promoted. He left the paddock on fire in his first race appearance, trailing a plume of black smoke for a mile or more and setting his passenger’s overalls alight before the white car pulled up and the flames were extinguished, leaving the occupants covered in soot but not badly hurt. Horace, who liked to exaggerate the dangers and difficulties of driving such a fast and powerful car with lurid newspaper stories, did win a lightning handicap at 105mph in August 1922.

That seemed to be it for these dangerous old monsters at Brooklands, except that for the last meeting of 1923 John Duff, the Bentley driver, wanting to move to faster stuff, took out the Benz instead of Barlow. He failed to pull up after the line and over the banking sailed the Benz and its occupants, putting Duff into hospital. This caused Horace to be rude about Duff’s ability, although he had lapped quicker than Barlow before the accident. Exciting these 21 1/2-litre Benz most certainly were. Hornsted found that driving from the docks to Brooklands on London’s wood-paved roads, “the rear wheels just spun if you even looked at the accelerator too sharply”. Then both cars disappeared, Zborowski using the gearbox of Cooper’s Benz for what is now the famous `Babs’.

That is how the crowds who attended the meetings of the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club saw the invasion of the Blitzen Benz. In fact, although these were among the very few truly fast and fearsome racing cars to be seen “taking the cement”, as Zborowski described it, the Blitzen-type engine with its massive cylinders was to be used for production versions of the Big Benz.

These chassis, still with the 21 1/2-litre engines, were listed here at £1800 in 1912, and one made some desultory appearances in BARC races soon after Hugh Locke King’s famous Track re-opened after the war. Reputed to have been General von Hindenberg’s staff-car in the war, it was found some years later languishing behind a pub by the versatile Brooklands-driving baronet Sir Alastair Miller, who acquired this impressively large four-seater for £50 and raced it consistently. Improvement in fuel and tyres was perhaps the reason why it lapped at 115.82mph, when driven by one of Miller’s mates, Cyril Paul. It still resides in England.The body is by a Parisian coach-builder; the mystery of why it was bodied there but is said to have been in use on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 is one to ponder…

The Benz Company of Mannheim had approved of motor-racing for publicity and development purposes and had built cars for the prestigious 1908 French Grand Prix at Dieppe. The drivers were the sardonic Victor Hernery and Rene Hanriot. Hemery had earned the reputation of being a rude and difficult personality, but aged 32 he had won the St Petersburg-Moscow race for Benz and finished second in the 1908 American Grand Prix at Savannah.

He was regarded by many as the hero of the French GP that year, as he was held up by tyre trouble and had to come in for medical attention after a stone broke his goggles, but still completed the difficult 477 miles in second place to Lautenschlager’s Mercedes. It was his desire to be the fastest driver of all which led Hemery to goad Benz into building the Blitzens, their powerful engines designed by Louis de Groulart. As we have seen, it worked, with a 32-second mile at Brussels and that record at Brooklands which would later be classed as the Land Speed Record. He had achieved his ambition of beating the Stanley steamer, by 38mph, and on the banked Brooklands track, whereas Marriot, in 1900, had run on the level Daytona Course.

It is interesting that after he went to Lorraine-Dietrich these cars for the 1912 French GP had 15-litre engines very like those of the 1908 GP Benz, and that they were driven by the ex-Benz drivers Hemery, Hanriot and Helm. But by then Georges Boillot and the revolutionary twin-cam, multi-valve 7.6-litre Peugeot was in the ascendant.

In insular England the Blitzens faded from the scene after 1909, but not elsewhere, for by 1910 the showman Barney Oldfield, taking his barn-storming fleet of racing-cars about in a special train, drove the Hemery Blitzen, which he is said to have bought for $10,000, at Daytona to a claimed 131.275mph over the mile. The problem was that the AIACR refused to homologate the speed, as it had not been officially timed. At Brooklands, Col Holden’s new ticker-tape electrical timing apparatus had been used for Hemery’s attempt. Oldfield didn’t care, labelling his train to say he held the world speed record – twice as quick as the fastest aeroplane or any train!

Incidentally, the car had won races, driven by Fritz Earl and Hemery, at Frankfurt, Semmering and Tervuren in Belgium before coming to Brooldands. In 1911 another barn-stormer, Wild Bob Burman, went to Ormond Beach, Daytona, and was credited with a one-way 141.3mph, not accepted by the AIACR. By 1910 the US record claims had had another set-back: the AIACR demanded two-way runs within a time-limit, to combat any help from wind or gradient. Hence Hemery’s battle with the bankings at Brooklands in 1914. So Burman’s speed was ignored in Europe, and it seems that even Benz thought the Burman mile was a short one.

Before this the No 1 Blitzen Benz had appeared all over the United States in crowd-pulling races at grass and dirt tracks. With a sharp prow to the top of its radiator to complement its other alluring features it must have been a heart-gripping sight. Even the cranking up must have been exciting. But I doubt whether it was fully extended, remembering how many tyre failures Hornsted experienced as late as 1914.

It is thought that perhaps five genuine Blitzen Benz were built. At first they had artillery spoked wheels, but later detachable centrelock Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels were used. The short-lap circus racing, sometimes artfully staged, saw one of the Big Benz actually labelled ‘Lightning Benz’ with the German Imperial Eagle crest on its flanks. But more serious achievements included short-distance US records at the new brick-surfaced Indianapolis Speedway, on Firestone racing tyres. A ‘300hp’ Benz was named the ‘Jumbo Benz’. In 1910 there was a new GailIon hillclimb record at 97.3mph, and with a different body this was upped to 102.5mph on a test run. Blitzens had also set the track lap-record at Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach track.

There were other so-called successes, some of them dubious, such as at the first Salt Lake, Utah, speed trials, to which Moross took 150 spectators and two Blitzen Benz cars, in one of which Teddy Tetzlaff was said to have done 142.85mph but with suspect timing. Then Ralph ‘Pappy’ Harkness, who operated a dirt track syndicate, had a rebuilt Burman Special Blitzen in 1915 but it lost its Match Race against Ralph de Palma in the V12 aero-engined 9-litre Sunbeam.

As late as 1922 Manheim was campaigning two of the old Blitzens, ‘Skinny Joe’, with a slim body, and ‘The Grandmother’, and with one of them Frank Homer won the Semmering hillclimb that September. Up to 1923 these cars were used for publicity appearances by Daimler-Benz. In 1936, for its 50th birthday, the company started a Blitzen reconstruction which is now in the Stuttgart museum. A long life of racing cars, few of which were as exciting as those Blitzen Benz. Hemery ended his racing in a Rolland-Pilain in the French GPs of 1922 and ’23, but sadly took his own life in 1950, at the age of 74.