As chief engineer at Benz & Cie. and later Daimler-Benz AG, Hans Nibel (1880 – 1934) played an influential role in developing products at both companies. Among the vehicles he designed were the Lightning Benz (1909), the 770 Grand Mercedes (1930), the Mercedes-Benz 170 (1932) and the W 25 Silver Arrow racing car (1934). As a member of the board of management he was also one of the architects of the merger between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) that led to the creation of Daimler-Benz AG in 1926.
Hans Nibel was born on 31 August 1880 in Olsany/Moravia, then part of Austro-Hungary and today in the Czech Republic. His father was a factory director, probably of a paper factory, so his son was exposed to a Czech environment from an early age. As a school report from 1899 illustrates, he was a quick and eager schoolboy, the grade “outstanding” in subjects such as mathematics, physics and drawing providing an early clue as to the direction Hans Nibel would later follow in his professional life. He enrolled as a student at the Technical University in Munich, graduating with a degree in Engineering. He started out in employment with various small engineering works, before joining Benz & Cie. in Mannheim as an engineer on 1 March 1904. Here he accompanied the company’s rise to one of the world’s leading car makers.
Nibel was soon promoted to deputy office chief, and in 1908 was appointed head of the design department aged just 28. Numerous vehicles were created with his participation and under his leadership, including smaller models that placed the company on a broader commercial footing, such as the 6/14 hp Benz introduced in 1910, but also luxury-class vehicles that acted as global ambassadors for the outstanding automobiles from Mannheim. Another vehicle closely associated with the name Nibel was the Lightning Benz, the most powerful and fastest car in the world at the time. First unveiled in 1909, it established a new world speed record for a car in 1911 of 228.1 km/h, a mark that would remain unbettered until 1919.
Such successes quickly advanced Nibel’s career. In December 1911 he became an authorised signatory of Benz & Cie., and as if to confirm the services of its chief engineer, the company was awarded the Kaiserpreis (“Emperor’s Prize”) in 1912 for the best German aero engine, another element of the company’s product range at the time.
On several occasions Nibel also stood in the spotlight at motorsports events. In 1909, for example, he received the Preis der Erbprinzessin von Sachsen for the Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt, in 1912 the Silver Medal at the International Austrian Alpine Trials and in 1914 the Interior Ministry Prize at the Carpathian Rally.
Services to car and company
Nibel joined the board of management of Benz & Cie as a deputy member in August 1917. This was not just recognition for his services to automotive design; it also reflected his achievements at Benz & Cie. in the years prior the First World War. As was common at the time, the production programme had been adapted to meet military requirements, combined with the many new designs that were developed under Nibel’s aegis. As such, he played a major role in helping to steer the company successfully through these rather difficult times.
Benz & Cie made Nibel a full member of the board of management in August 1922. That same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Technical University, Karlsruhe, in recognition for his services as a designer and engineer. Also in 1922, Nibel worked with Max Wagner, head of the chassis design office in Mannheim, to develop the first streamlined racing cars with individual suspension, an innovation that would soon lead to international racing success. In addition he was to prove a major influence on the use of diesel engines in road vehicles – in 1922 Benz & Cie. introduced an agricultural tractor equipped with a self-ignition engine, the world’s first diesel-powered road-going vehicle.
When Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft formed a community of interests in 1924, Nibel also joined the board of management at DMG. He worked in the same design office and on an equal footing alongside Ferdinand Porsche, although Porsche carried ultimate responsibility.
Nibel was a strong advocate of the merger between the two companies that followed in 1926 – after which he joined the board of management of the new Daimler-Benz AG. That same year, 1926, he switched his workplace once and for all to the Untertürkheim design office of the new company. As an engineer, but also as a member of the company’s board of management under the leadership of chairman Wilhelm Kissel, Nibel was a key protagonist in the events that brought about the successful merger between the world’s two oldest carmakers.
Technical director at Daimler-Benz AG
On 1 January 1929 Nibel succeeded Ferdinand Porsche as Technical Director. He refined his predecessors’ vehicle designs, his improvements for example transforming the successes of the 8/38 hp Mercedes-Benz Stuttgart 200 (W 02 series), a car that rewarded the brand during the years of the Great Depression with remarkable unit numbers. Nibel also improved the sporty S, SS, SSK and SSKL models (W 06, 1926 – 1934) and the elegant Nürburg series (W 08, 1929 – 1939), enabling these vehicles to achieve their full impact– whether on the international sporting scene or in the international luxury car market.
And the first Grand Mercedes 770 model (W 07, 1930 – 1938) anchored Mercedes-Benz in the collective international conscious as the brand that built the world’s finest cars – another of Nibel’s achievements, for as chief engineer he always answered for and understood the vehicle in its entirety. Among the technical innovations of the Grand Mercedes was a light alloy crankcase with cooling fins and a chromium-nickel steel crankshaft mounted on nine bearings and with integrally forged counterweights.
Then came the 170 (W 15, 1931 – 1936), which incorporated significant patents, including independent suspension, single wheel steering and an overdrive gearbox in line with the Mercedes-Benz-Maybach system. The transmission supplied the correct gear ratio for every speed and type of terrain; at the same time at higher speeds it had the effect of reducing revs and consequently fuel consumption. These and other innovations were also gradually channelled into other model series by Mercedes-Benz.
A temporary high point was reached with Nibel’s supercharged 380 model (W 22) presented in 1932, whose successors were the even more famous 500 K/540 K (W 29) models; in particular, these vehicles raised supercharger technology above the level of sports cars to that of sophisticated luxury automobiles. Their internally produced bodies (“Sindelfingen bodies”) set new standards in vehicle design – and were regarded worldwide as Mercedes-Benz masterpieces for the integrity of their overall design.
In 1934 a quite different but no less revolutionary drive concept bearing Nibel’s imprint celebrated its world premiere in the 130 model (W 23): this vehicle featured a rear engine. Although this car, along with the advance developed (mid-engined) 150 and 170 H models, proved rather luckless as part of the brand portfolio, in technical terms the Nibel design was considered pioneering. Rather more successful was the Mercedes-Benz 170 V (W 136, 1936 – 1942), introduced by Nibel – the first vehicle to feature an X-shaped, lightweight and rigid oval-section tubular frame.
The W 25 racing car, designed by Nibel for the 750-kilogramme formula, was another vehicle to cause something of a stir. With drivers such as Rudolf Caracciola at the wheel, the car brought the company numerous landmark racing successes between 1934 and 1937 – and also launched the tradition of the Silver Arrows.
Nibel also left his mark on numerous Daimler Benz aero engines from the 1930s.
On 25 November 1934, Hans Nibel was about to board the express for Berlin at the main railway station in Stuttgart in order to begin preparations for the 1935 motor racing season. His life was suddenly cut short by a heart attack, robbing the world of one of the most talented engineers of the pre-war era. Daimler-Benz AG lost its chief engineer – but in subsequent years the company was nevertheless able to build on the rich technological legacy Nibel left behind. The Mercedes-Benz 260 D (W 138, 1936 – 1940), for example, presented two years after Nibel’s death, can justifiably be seen as part of the engineer’s legacy: Nibel had overseen early developments of the first production passenger cars with diesel engines; this had been an extremely lengthy business dating back to his early experiences with the first diesel road-going vehicle, the agricultural tractor by Benz & Cie.
“In Dr. Hans Nibel Daimler-Benz AG has lost an outstanding designer and important engineer of international reputation and standing, a man whose creative designs have proved a paradigm of technical development for car and engine design for the whole world” – is how the company described Hans Nibel in an obituary. It went on to summarise his key achievements: “It is almost impossible to talk of the enormous success of the vehicle diesel engine, of independent wheel suspension, swing axles, overdrive transmissions or modern body and engine design without first mentioning his name.”
The vehicles in which Hans Nibel had a hand influenced the positive image of the Mercedes-Benz brand for many years both before and after his death. Many of his designs remained relevant until well after the Second World War. As such he can be regarded as one of the most influential automotive engineers not just of Mercedes-Benz, but of the industry as a whole. His successor was Max Sailer, who on account of illness was only able to fill the role until the end of 1941. Thereafter Fritz Nallinger took over as chief engineer until his retirement in 1965.
born: 31 August, 1880 in Olsany/Moravia
died: 25 November, 1934 in Stuttgart
- Studied at the Technical University, Munich, graduated with a degree in Engineering
- 1904, 1 March: Joined Benz & Cie.
- 1908: Appointed head of the design office
- 1911, 28 December: Head of the design office, authorised signatory
- 1917, 16 August: Deputy member of the board of management
- 1922, 25 August: Full member of the board of management
- 1922, 8 November: Awarded honorary doctorate by the Technical University, Karlsruhe
- 1929, 1 January: Succeeded Ferdinand Porsche as technical director at Daimler-Benz AG
- 1929, 1 March: 25 years of service