A displacement of 21.5 litres, a top speed of more than 200 km/h and a streamlined body. And all this as far back as 1909: the "Lightning Benz" – known internally as the Benz 200 hp – is one of the most fascinating creations to emanate from the early days of Mercedes-Benz. It was developed under the aegis of Victor Héméry, a successful French racing driver who had been under contract to Benz & Cie. in Mannheim since 1907.
Carl Benz himself was in fact against the project. He was of the opinion that motor racing did not add anything of value to the production of regular automobiles. Julius Ganss, a board member at Benz & Cie., had very different ideas. He felt that there was one thing above all to be gained from the proposed record-breaking car: publicity.
For it would be faster than any other road-going or airborne vehicle of its time, including motorboats and trains. The technical basis was provided by the Benz 150 hp racing car of 1908. There was just one objective: a maximum speed of more than 200 km/h. By widening the bore to 185 millimetres, the displacement of the four-cylinder racing engine was increased from 15.1 to a monumental 21.5 litres . This is a figure that remains a record to this day: No racing or record-attempt car from Mercedes-Benz has ever had a larger displacement. The engine developed an output of up to 147 kW (200 hp) at 1600 rpm. The huge four-cylinder in-line unit weighed 407 kilograms; the entire vehicle 1450 kilograms. An intermediate shaft and chain drive transferred this tremendous power to the rear axle via a four-speed transmission.
For its first outings of 1909, the engine was still set within the body of the Benz Grand Prix automobile of 1908. The new 200 hp car made its first appearance on 17 October 1909 in a sprint race in Brussels, which it promptly won. The declared aim, however, was to exceed the 200 km/h mark.
To the infernal thunder of the four-cylinder engine, he achieved a speed of 202.648 km/h over a kilometre. The half-mile was covered at a fulminating 205.666 km/h, in both cases with a flying start. The magical barrier of 200 km/h for an automobile with an internal combustion engine had been breached.
To this end, it was Victor Héméry who took the wheel on 8 November 1909, on the high-speed Brooklands circuit in England.
Next in line was the conquest of America, for in 1906 a certain Fred Marriott had managed 205 km/h on Daytona Beach, driving a steam-powered Stanley Steamer. In January 1910 the record-breaking Benz was sent across the Big Pond.
Its destination was New York, where Benz importer Jesse Froehlich operated his business. Its arrival soon became known to event impresario Ernie Moross Wind – and he negotiated a deal: he handed his 150 hp Grand Prix car over to Froehlich, counted out a further 6000 dollars onto the table and received the record-breaking Benz in exchange . And because the name really does say it all in this case, he began by christening the car the “Lightning Benz”.
The German name "Blitzen-Benz", which sounded even more combative to American ears, was not used until a little later. An imperial eagle was also painted onto the bonnet. But it was as yet without this embellishment that the Benz appeared on Daytona Beach for its record-breaking attempt on 16/17 March. The driver this time was the daredevil Barney Oldfield, who set a new record of 211.4 km/h. The record was not recognized, however, because the attempt did not comply with the regulations valid at the time.
This was a new land speed record that was to remain unbroken until 1919. Following this, the “Blitzen-Benz” toured America as a show attraction.
It was not until 1911 that Moross was able to try his luck again, albeit this time with the former Buick works driver Bob Burman behind the wheel of the Blitzen-Benz. On 23 April Burman raced across the sands of Daytona Beach to achieve an average speed of 228.1 km/h over a flying mile, with 226.7 km/h for the flying kilometre.
In 1913 the legendary record-breaking car was retired from service. Its history can continue to be traced up to 1923,when it was disassembled and its parts were used for another racing car project. A total of six Benz 200 hp cars were built, some of them with the "Blitzen-Benz" body and some with different bodywork. Three of them remain: number 6 with an extended chassis and touring coachwork is owned by an American collector. The example in the Mercedes-Benz Museum was reconstructed in 1935 from parts then still in existence, and was restored in 2004.
And then there is the car owned by Bill Evans, a Californian hotel magnate and automobile collector. Without any regard for expense, he decided to commission the reconstruction of a further Blitzen Benz. For this project, the Mercedes-Benz Museum made its own car available to him as a model.
Then his enthusiasm takes hold: “The enormous torque is what pushes your body back into the seat. At low rpms your eyeballs actually shake inside your sockets when you drive, because the car vibrates so much.”
Evans was also able to use the parts from the Benz 200 hp with the serial number 3, once known as “Lean Joseph”, that were still in the possession of Mercedes-Benz Classic, for example the original engine with the number 9141.
“Everybody knows what the 'Blitzen-Benz' is, but nobody's ever really seen it. So that's why I wanted to bring it back to life” is the way Bill Evans explains his motivation. “Even as a kid, I was fascinated by this car. Its reconstruction represents a lifelong dream come true,” the collector continues.