Sicilian adventure.

One hundred years ago, the sun burned down on the Madonie range, the coastal mountains in the north of Sicily. The tremendous countryside vista stretched out to create a Mediterranean panoramic view among rugged peaks and shady woodlands. But the beauty of the scenery was lost on the men steering their racing cars at breakneck speed along narrow and mostly unpaved mountain roads in the summer of 1921. They were participating in the Targa Florio, the legendary road race on the island in the very south of Italy, which took place from 1906 right up until 1977.

Drivers and co-drivers alike applied their undivided attention to the winding route which often took them past precipitous drops. Steep climbs alternated over and over again with difficult descents. The route was 108 kilometres long and was used unchanged from 1919 to 1930. Along the route there were villages and small towns with names that must have sounded really strange to German ears at the time: Caltavuturo and Campofelice, Cerda, Collesano and Polizzi.

The fastest lap under the Sicilian sun was achieved by Max Sailer and his co-driver, Hans Rieger, seen here at the finish of the Targa Florio in 1921.

The Mercedes 28/95 PS Sport was the first vehicle from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) to be equipped with four-wheel brakes. The drum brakes on the front and rear axles were clearly visible through the wire wheels of the 1921 Targa Florio racing car.

Mercedes drives to victory.

But the thundering procession of racing cars and standard production vehicles did not stop at any of the picturesque market squares – the cars had to keep moving. No less than four circuits of the full route had to be covered. And each time, there were around 1,500 bends and a change in altitude of 800 metres. The Viennese Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung described this Targa Florio 100 years ago as the “most difficult race of the year”. For the teams in the cars, the race was gruelling, while for the spectators lining the route, it was a nail-biting experience.

Right at the front of the field in the 1921 Targa Florio was Mercedes works racing driver Max Sailer in a Mercedes 28/95 PS Sport. He and his co-driver, Hans Rieger, completed the race in 7 hours, 27 minutes and 16.2 seconds, which meant an average speed of 57.9 km/h. The team only narrowly missed out on victory. Instead, they achieved the fastest lap time, a class win in the touring cars over 5 litres and second place overall. 

Noticeable improvement in braking power.

Numerous punctures were to blame for the missed overall victory. These were caused by horseshoe nails, lost by draught animals used for agricultural purposes along the unpaved roads. A bulletin published by the then Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) explained: “Sailer had to change tyres nine times, while the absolute winner of the Targa, who arrived just two minutes ahead of him in a special Fiat racing car, did not have a single flat tyre.”

Apart from the tyres, however, Sailer’s racing car was extremely reliable under these extreme conditions. One particular innovation made the Mercedes 28/95 PS Sport stand out: this was the first vehicle from DMG to be equipped with four-wheel brakes. That system generated a noticeable improvement in braking power and, as a result, driving safety. The car had already proven its reliability on the journey to Sicily. The team drove the racing car to Sicily themselves – that was around 2,000 kilometres from Stuttgart to the island at the southernmost tip of Italy.

The racing driver from Germany was awarded a special trophy for his performance by the Sicilian Automobile Club for the “first in the series class”. The prize was donated by the Italian industrialist Vincenzo Florio, after whom the Targa Florio was named.

Back in Stuttgart, Sailer and Rieger were given a festive welcome at the factory, and their trophy win was celebrated in grand style. For Mercedes, the 1921 Targa Florio was one of the first internationally significant races in which the brand took part after the end of the First World War.

This class victory in 1921 was the first of several important successes for Mercedes and later Mercedes-Benz in the Targa Florio: the following year, in 1922, Count Giulio Masetti won in an enhanced Mercedes 115 PS Grand Prix racing car, while Max Sailer won the class of touring cars with a displacement over 4.5 litres in a Mercedes 28/95 PS – this time equipped with a supercharger.

Christian Werner in the Mercedes 2-litre supercharged racing car on his way to victory at the Targa Florio in 1924.

In a red Mercedes to victory in the 1924 Targa Florio.

Christian Werner’s victory in 1924 in a 2-litre supercharged Mercedes racing car was equally legendary. The vehicle was painted red – the typical colour of Italian competition vehicles – for camouflage purposes. The idea was to discourage the local fans from any disruptive action against a racing car from Germany.

In the 1955 Targa Florio, it was Stirling Moss, who died last year, and Peter Collins who won in the 300 SLR racing sports car (W 196 S). Behind them, their team-mates Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling finished in second place. This one-two victory clinched the 1955 World Sports Car Championship for Mercedes-Benz.

From motorsport to series production.

The Mercedes 28/95 PS Sport was the evolution of the high-performance luxury-class Mercedes 28/95 PS launched in 1914. After being thoroughly modified for racing in 1921, the model was given the suffix “Sport” and produced as a model in its own right. In addition to the four-wheel brakes, the improvements include a more powerful engine, a reduced wheelbase for better manoeuvrability, and lower positioning of the cooler and driver’s seat. 

From June 1921, the 28/95 PS Sport – and as a result, the four-wheel brake system – was included in the range of standard models available. This is an example of how racing paves the way for a new vehicle technology. From 1923, DMG also equipped the production version of its sporty top model, the 28/95 PS, with this “all-wheel brake system”. 

Mercedes 28/95 PS Sport with a Phaeton body. This powerful luxury vehicle was one of the pioneers of the Mercedes-Benz supercharged S-series cars in the 1920s and 1930s.

Reception at the DMG plant in Untertürkheim for the successful Sailer/Rieger team after the 1921 Targa Florio. They covered the roughly 2,000-kilometre journey to Sicily and back themselves in their racing car.

Four-wheel brake becomes series equipment.

Over time, the four-wheel brake system became the standard in automotive engineering worldwide. Initially, the difference between this system and the previously used brake that only acted on the rear axle was striking: the brakes were so effective that, in the mid-1920s, there was discussion in Germany about a corresponding warning sign at the rear to inform other road users in good time.

The premiere of the four-wheel brake in the Mercedes 28/95 Sport 100 years ago was followed by numerous other milestones in Mercedes-Benz braking technology which are part of the long success story of the Stuttgart brand’s development of safety features – reaching back 100 years and forward into the future. 

Image gallery.