by Adrian Dorofte and Adrian Andronic
e-mail: mercedesbenzblog@gmail.com

Historic commercial vehicles: With a flat belt and pinion drive

One of the forebears of the new Mercedes-Benz Atego was the “Daimler 4 hp” truck from 1899 – the third version of the world’s first truck, dating back to 1896. The first ignition in the truck – still with petrol from the pharmacy in those days – had occurred just three years previously in Bad Cannstatt, where Gottlieb Daimler built his motor vehicle for the transportation business 117 years ago. Even in 1909 petrol was only available in pharmacies, chemist’s, bicycle shops or inns. The first motorised truck looked like a horse and cart without a drawbar. Its engine with a displacement of one litre was hung on the tail end and actuated the rear wheels via a pinion drive. It had two cylinders which were cast in one block, and its design corresponded to that of the Phoenix engine, which also powered Daimler’s motorised passenger carriage. This is where Daimler’s congenial partner Wilhelm Maybach demonstrated to posterity how engines are made.

A shaft located transversely to the longitudinal axis of the vehicle was driven via a belt transmission. There were pinions on both sides of the shaft and each one of these engaged in the internal toothing of a gear rim, which was firmly attached to the wheel to be driven. This solution was nothing short of visionary and its technical principle is regarded as being the predecessor of the planetary axle launched decades later. These axles play a major role in all-wheel drive vehicles for the construction site and today they are built at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Gaggenau. The principle involves the most powerful torque being built up at the point in the drive system where it acts as close as possible to the application of force – that is to say where the power is transferred from the wheel to the road surface.

The entry in the Daimler-Motorengesellschaft production record in Cannstatt, dated 1 October 1896, read: “Motorised truck order no. 81, vehicle no. 42, 4 hp two-cylinder engine, weight of the entire vehicle 1 200 kg for transporting 1 500 kg, invoiced to British Motor Syndicate Ltd. London.” This was the first truck in the world driven by a combustion engine to be put to commercial use. The truck was ordered on 19 February 1896.

Engine at the tail end was deemed annoying

The vehicle may not have been to the liking of the Daimler/Maybach duo themselves, for that same year they built a further motorised truck. The engine attached to the tail end of the first model was an obstruction, at least when loading at the rear. And so on the second model it was mounted on the vehicle frame beneath the driver’s seat. A year later the engine was positioned in the front end of the truck above the front axle – and this architecture has retained its validity to this day.

The “Daimler 4 hp truck” dating back to 1899 is one representative of this category. According to a note made in the commission book on 12 April 1899 it went to the “Stuttgart Municipal Waterworks”. A photo taken at the underpass next to the railway station in Cannstatt directly before the vehicle was delivered gives an insight into the times: the driver sat at the front on the open coach box, a worker stood on the drop-side body, next to him a huge vice and alongside that a fixture for cutting tubes and threads, some of the most important utensils used when laying water pipes, which consisted entirely of metal in those days.

According to the description the Daimler truck was available with a “2- or 4-cylinder engine” and now also with “electric ignition”. The “hot-tube ignition” which was customary back then and involved igniting wood chips, had a not-infrequent side effect: it blackened the face, obscuring the view. These delivery vans, as they were called, had outputs of 4, 6, 8 and 10 hp. The loads of the vehicles were given as 1 500, 2 000, 3 750 and 5 000 kilograms. “The wheels have iron tyres” it says in the terse description. One can only imagine what the noise on the cobblestones was like – this was the usual road surface back then. In the photo the brake pads made of wood are also clearly discernible on the rear wheels.

“The first truck was equipped with a belt drive at the rear wheels, but that did not work when transporting heavy loads”, remembered the foreman Hugo Rettich in 1950, having joined Daimler in 1896. “So they moved the belt drive to the front”. “For the five-tonne models”, Rettich continued, “the 10 hp two-cylinder Phoenix engine with hot-tube ignition was installed, and the rear wheels were driven via the aforementioned flat belt and pinion.”

Testing by customers was a Daimler maxim even back then

Gottlieb Daimler already recognised how valuable customer testing is: “This vehicle was trialled for 13 weeks at a brick factory in Heidelsheim near Bruchsal, the defects which occurred were immediately put right and the truck was made even more powerful.” This did not impress Emperor Wilhelm II: “The car has no future. I am placing my trust in the horse”, he claimed in 1904. Gottlieb Daimler, on the other hand, issued a promise even then: “You can rely on my trucks”. Today the official English claim is “Trucks you can trust.”

The “Daimler 4 hp truck”, in any case, performed loyal and sterling service for the Stuttgart Municipal Waterworks from 1899 to 1923. The trucks became more powerful and diverse. There was a considerable development boost in particular after Emperor Wilhelm and his Ministry of War expressed interest in the motorised trucks after all.

After 24 years the Stuttgart Waterworks replaced the truck with a new model and gave it back to Daimler in 1923, where it was included in the collection in the museum. When the 1944 bomb attacks in Untertürkheim drew nearer, part of the museum collection was evacuated to Dresden. In the ensuing period of occupation and not least when the “Iron Curtain” divided East and West, all retrieval attempts on the part of the Stuttgarters were in vain – even at the highest level. Exchange attempts in the 1970s were also unsuccessful.

It was only after the Wall fell in 1989 that Daimler-Benz AG succeeded in concluding a contract with the Free State of Saxony in 1991 during negotiations lasting two years. This resulted in 16 historic vehicles, among them the “Daimler 4 hp truck”, being brought back to the museum’s collection following an absence of 63 years.

Credits: Daimler AG

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