In response to an advert in the “Stuttgarter Anzeiger” newspaper, a charitable organization offered to look after him. He attended school at Reutlinger Bruderhaus and Gustav Werner, the founder and director of the school spotted and nurtured the boy’s technical talents.
In 1865 in Reutlingen he met Gottlieb Daimler. Wilhelm Maybach became a congenial companion for Gottlieb Daimler and remained a very close friend right up until Daimler’s death. In September 1869 he went to Karlsruhe with Daimler and later followed in his footsteps to work for “Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz.” This spell inspired him to work on designs for a light-weight high-speed internal combustion engine, suitable for water and land-based as well as airborne vehicles.
Daimler left Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz in the middle of 1882 after disputes with the management and was followed to Cannstatt in October 1882 by Wilhelm Maybach where they were to embark on the development of light-weight, high-speed internal combustion engines. Through his extensive research work, Maybach unearthed a patent belonging to the Englishman Watson describing an unregulated hot-tube ignition system – an essential element in generating high engine speed. The horizontal engine of 1883 was followed by the “grandfather clock,” a particularly light-weight and compact engine with a vertically-fixed cylinder which was particularly suited to installation in vehicles. In 1885 the new engine was installed first into a wooden riding car and then, a year later, into a carriage. Nevertheless, Maybach quickly realized that he could not be content with merely producing engines for carriages.
The first product of this realization was the steel-wheeled car. With this vehicle Maybach also gets the credit for introducing the sliding pinion gear system into automobile construction. Presented at the Paris World Exhibition of 1889, the steel-wheeled car also precipitated the birth of the French automobile industry. When Daimler founded Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft with Duttenhofer and Lorenz in November 1890, Maybach was to be appointed chief engineer. However, he cited unacceptable terms of contract for his decision to leave the company in February 1891.
For the next one and a half years Maybach continued his design work in his own flat. In the fall of 1892 development work, also supported financially by Daimler, began in the Hotel Hermann which yielded such important designs as the spray-nozzle carburetor and the Phoenix engine as well as improvements to elements of the belt drive system.
Pressure put on DMG by English industrialist Frederick Simms led to Maybach eventually being reinstalled as the company’s technical director in November 1895. Once back in the fold he first developed the tubular radiator with fan, followed later by the honeycomb radiator this effective form of engine cooling opened the way to the development of the modern automobile. The “Roi des Constructeurs” (king of designers), as the French called him, went from one technical achievement to another, creating the first four-cylinder automobile engine, and in 1898/99 a whole generation of engines consisting of five models producing between 6 and 23 hp.
Of all his designs, Maybach created one of the most outstanding after Daimler’s death in 1900: the first Mercedes, which caused such a sensation at “Nice Week” in March 1901, a vehicle which stood head and shoulders above anything previously conceived or built at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and which drew a line under the carriage era in automobile construction. Credit for the birth of the new car was due both to Maybach and to Emil Jellinek, who constantly challenged Maybach and DMG to produce vehicles with higher performance and speed capabilities.
Despite the great success of the Mercedes cars in the years that followed, Maybach was the victim of scheming behind his back. He was replaced as chief engineer and his activities were reduced to the level of an “Inventors’ Office.” His acrimonious departure from DMG followed in 1907.
When the Zeppelin LZ 4 airship was destroyed in a storm in Echterdingen on August 5, 1908, Maybach offered to build Graf Zeppelin a new, improved airship engine. The resulting negotiations led to the creation on March 23, 1909 of “Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau-GmbH Bissingen.” The technical manager was Wilhelm Maybach’s son Karl who also designed the new engine.
In 1912 the firm, renamed “Luftfahrzeug-Motoren-GmbH,” moved to Friedrichshafen. Father and son both had a 20% stake in the company although Wilhelm Maybach placed the future of the business firmly in the hands of his son.
After 1922 luxury cars were also produced in Friedrichshafen. One highlight of the product range was the 1929 Maybach 12 type DS, the first automobile with a V12 engine and, along with its successor the type “Zeppelin,” seen as the German answer to Rolls Royce.
Wilhelm Maybach was laid to rest on December 29, 1929.