- Originated as a subsidiary of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH
- Automobile production commenced in Friedrichshafen in 1921
- Thanks to Maybach the name “Zeppelin” becomes a synonym for luxury cars featuring innovative technology
Whether Zeppelin DS 8 or SW 42, between the world wars luxury automobiles of the Maybach brand were among the very best the German motor industry had to offer. These cars were built by Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH, established on 23 March 1909 as Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH in Bissingen. Maybach cars ranked high in the public’s favour, on a level with prestige cars such as the Mercedes-Benz 770 “Grand Mercedes” and those from Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Isotta-Fraschini and other luxury brands.
The link between the names Daimler and Maybach goes back to the pioneering days of motor vehicle manufacture. Wilhelm Maybach (1846-1929), designer of the first “Mercedes” which appeared in 1901, was probably Gottlieb Daimler’s most important collaborator. His innovative ideas enabled the development of the high-speed internal combustion engine that debuted in 1884. In the years that followed, he thought up numerous detailed solutions to advance the motor vehicle from motorised carriage to modern automobile.
Aero engines from Lake Constance
But Wilhelm Maybach’s position at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) was weakened after the company founder passed away in 1900. A victim of intrigues, the King of Designers, as he was respectfully called, left DMG in 1907 and on 23 March 1909 founded Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH (LMG) in Bissingen, manufacturing drive systems for the airships of Count Zeppelin. The technical director of the new company was Maybach’s son Karl (1879-1960), who designed the airship engines himself.
Karl Maybach, whose innovations would also shape the future of Maybach brand automobiles and its other products, initially decided in favour of repair-friendly in-line six-cylinder engines. If they malfunctioned in the air, they could be made to run again with tools carried on board the aircraft. Karl Maybach bore responsibility for technical affairs at the company for the most part on his own, but both father and son had stakes in the firm. The biggest shareholder was Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH.
How strongly the Maybachs influenced the development of the company is reflected in the name changes. When the company moved to Friedrichshafen in 1912, the Zeppelin subsidiary was called simply Motorenbau GmbH. In 1918, however, it was renamed Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH.
Karl Maybach, automotive visionary
By the time the company officially took on the name Maybach in 1918, it was son Karl Maybach whose developments represented the brand. In the outgoing 19th/early 20th century, father Wilhelm had made many highly significant inventions that helped ready the automobile for mass production. In the 20th century, his eldest son Karl followed in his footsteps as a design engineer of equal standing.
Born on 6 July 1879, the son of Wilhelm and Bertha Maybach was introduced to mechanical engineering as a child: In Deutz, where Karl came into the world, his father worked as chief design engineer in the gas engine factory of Nikolaus Otto. As the Maybachs lived quite close to the factory, Karl soon discovered the drawing offices and production shops as an exciting little world for himself.
From Deutz to Lausanne and Oxford by way of Cannstatt
When Gottlieb Daimler left Deutz in 1882, Wilhelm Maybach followed him to Cannstatt with his family. Adolf (1884) and Emma (1892), Karl’s younger brother and sister, were born in Cannstatt, and Karl Maybach attended intermediate secondary school there until 1897. Karl’s father consistently encouraged his interest in all things technical. In line with his talent for mechanical engineering and motor vehicle construction, from 1897 to 1900 Karl gathered practical work experience at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and Maschinenfabrik Esslingen. He then took up a course of study in mechanical engineering at the Royal Construction Engineering School in Stuttgart, obtaining a diploma in 1902.
Then followed a period of employment as a design engineer with Ludwig Loewe & Co. in Berlin and at the Central Office for Scientific and Technological Studies in Potsdam. Finally, Maybach travelled to France and England to further improve his technical skills in Lausanne and Oxford and get practice speaking foreign languages. After returning to Germany, Karl worked at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft as a test engineer and assistant to his father from 1904 to 1906.
Inventing for the family honour
Working for DMG was a great opportunity for Maybach. At the same time he was forced to witness how his father Wilhelm increasingly suffered from the intrigues spun by the management. His engineering responsibilities were curtailed, his merits were called into question, and new developments came under criticism. One of these new developments was the Daimler six-cylinder racing car, which was developed between 1905 and 1906. This car was the only one that Wilhelm and Karl Maybach ever worked on together. The future automobiles of the Maybach brand were the work of Karl Maybach alone. On the other hand, he always saw his work as a way of acknowledging and rehabilitating his father.
In 1906 Karl again changed employers. He moved to Saint-Ouen in France (near Paris), to the Societé d’Atelier de Construction de Comte Henri de Lavalette, to develop a 150 hp (110 kW) car engine. All the time he maintained a professional correspondence by letter with his father. After Wilhelm Maybach left the employ of DMG, the two considered designing a new automobile in cooperation with the Opel works in Rüsselsheim. But then Maybach Sr. became excited about the airships of Count Zeppelin. On 1 November 1909 his son took over the technical direction of Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau GmbH Bissingen (LMG), the airship engine manufacturing company founded at his father’s suggestion. Both Maybachs became shareholders in the new company.
1912: Move to Lake Constance
The enterprise set up in Bissingen, meanwhile doing business under the name Motorenbau GmbH, relocated in 1912 to Friedrichshafen to a site close to the Zeppelin dockyard. In May 1918 it was given the name Maybach-Motorenbau; the company logo was a double M inside an arched triangle. The company was forced to give up its focus on aero engines after the First World War – the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the building of such engines by German companies.
In response to this incisive restriction, in 1919 Karl Maybach began developing, versatile compact, high-speed diesel engines for a variety of applications, as well as petrol engines for passenger cars. Maybach introduced the first high-speed diesel unit for railways in 1924. These power units were gradually improved for use among other things in the first high-speed rail-coaches of the German Reichsbahn, such as the “Fliegender Hamburger.” But the engines also were fitted in ships. Maybach-Motorenbau GmbH (the name of the company since 1918) planned to sell power plants for passenger cars to various car manufacturers in Germany and abroad – following the business model that was applied earlier to drive units for airships and airplanes.
1919: Experimental car as nucleus for the construction of luxury automobiles
The first Maybach car engine was the six-cylinder side-valve engine W 1, which developed 46 hp (34 kW) at 2000 rpm. To test it, in 1919 the Maybach engineers built a test car which also was designated the W 1. From a historical viewpoint, this marked the beginning of automobile production under the brand name Maybach – even though the people at Friedrichshafen had no plans at the time to manufacture motor vehicles on their own. The next development project was the 5.7-litre W 2 engine derived from the W 1. It already delivered 70 hp (52 kW) at 2200 rpm.
In a long-term test in a chassis from Spyker, a Dutch brand, in 1920 the W 2 covered 30,000 kilometres in a record-setting 37-day run. In the wake of this demonstration of extraordinary reliability, Maybach entered into a contract with the Dutch manufacturer Trompenburg, maker of the Spyker cars. Maybach was to deliver a total of 1000 W 2 engines to power the Spyker 30/40 (C4) automobile. But the Dutch firm ran into financial troubles and took delivery of just 150 of the ordered units, not even managing to pay for all of them.
1921: Maybach 22/70 hp (W 3) model
Karl Maybach now decided to go into car production on his own to utilise the large production capacities that were lying idle as a result of the cancellation of the Dutch order. The new car brand was ready to unveil its first production car at the Berlin Motor Show in September 1921– the Maybach W 3. The five-metre-long vehicle that attained speeds of up to 110 km/h (68 mph) was powered by the 70 hp (52 kW) in-line six-cylinder W 2 engine. The innovative features of the W 3 included a four-wheel brake system with mechanical braking power compensation and a two-speed transmission without gearshift. Gears were changed by depressing a foot-operated starting lever.
Designed for simple operation and thus high driving reliability and safety, this car targeted the customer group of “gentlemen drivers,” as the manufacturer himself described them in his operator’s manual. This term refers to those men (and women) who drove their car themselves rather than by a chauffeur. Maybach offered them a technically convincing concept centring around the engine: “The exceptional flexibility of the engine in conjunction with effective four-wheel brakes permits high average cruising speeds without having to drive at excessively high speeds,” explains the operator’s manual.
Like many other car manufacturers of the period, Maybach viewed engineering alone as the company’s core competence. And so the manufacturer from Friedrichshafen left the fitting of a body to the chassis to independent specialists like Auer (Cannstatt), Josef Neuss (Berlin), Franz Papler & Sohn (Cologne) and – in many cases – Spohn (Ravensburg). In all, from 1921 to 1928 the company built around 300 units of the Maybach 22/70 hp, as the W 3 officially was called, based on taxable horsepower and actual output. Buyers appreciated the cruising qualities of the car, but some also used it successfully in motor sports.
1926: Maybach 27/120 hp (W 5)
As second model alongside the 22/70 hp, in 1926 Maybach introduced the 27/120 hp with a newly developed seven-litre in-line six-cylinder engine. The internal designation did not follow the system of the W 3 model with the W 2 engine model, instead both vehicle and power plant were christened W 5. This car was an early indication of Maybach’s claim to leadership among the European manufacturers of luxury cars: “Indisputably, Maybach was the highlight of the show,” wrote the trade journal Motor in 1926 on presentation of the W 5 at the Geneva Motor Show.
Initially the new Maybach was offered with the two-speed transmission without gearshift, familiar from the W 3. In the W 5 SG of 1928 an overdrive transmission with dog-type shift mechanism complemented the two gears of the planetary gear group. This solution effectively resulted in four forward gears, but still made do without a clutch. Now the 27/120 hp could travel comfortably over longer distances at a top speed of 130 km/h (81 mph).
Other manufacturers also used the Maybach overdrive transmission in their cars – including Mercedes-Benz, in the models 500 K, 540 K, 580 K and 770 “Grand Mercedes.”