It was 115 years ago, in April 1902, that the Mercedes-Simplex 40 PS left the competition in its wake in the prestigious hill climb race from Nice to La Turbie. The luxurious high-performance sports car was a further development of the first Mercedes, which revolutionised automobile construction in 1901. Still today, a drive in the iconic vehicle is an experience.
Winner of the mountain race Nice-La Turbie 1902: E. T. Stead in a Mercedes-Simplex 40 hp.
The engine of the Mercedes-Simplex - a masterpiece.
Yet the name Simplex is somewhat misleading! Changing up gear in the white vehicle from 1903 is a procedure that demands full concentration: foot off accelerator, engage clutch, change gear to neutral, release clutch, re-engage clutch and select the next-higher gear. Many a Formula One racing driver has got it wrong, had to sleep on it and memorise the procedure before getting it right the next day.
On the road to La Turbie, the legendary finishing point of the hill climb that started in Nice, we don't make full use of the vintage car's power reserves. After all, the white sports car is extremely precious and would definitely fetch a seven-figure sum in euros.
Beautiful and demanding at the same time: the pedals.
Strong steering commands desired: a steering wheel for strong pack.
A steering system that demands lots of muscle power.
So caution needs to be exercised. Yet the experience of being at the wheel of a landmark vehicle is exhilarating. The Simplex has it all: H gearbox, several independent brakes, which are activated by means of a hand lever and by pedals on left and right, and a steering system that demands lots of muscle power. On going into one of the many curves, you need to clasp your fingers around the wooden rim of the steering wheel, which is as thick as a sausage, and heave the vehicle round the bend with all your might. This also requires you to shift your body weight. 'It's quite a struggle,' admits ex-Formula One driver David Coulthard, who made his way up the hill in another Mercedes-Simplex.
In memory of factory driver Wilhelm Bauer.
At the very first curve after the starting point in Nice, which is today home to a bus station, you see something to send a shiver down your spine. Hanging there is a plaque in memory of a factory driver of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, Wilhelm Bauer, who, in the race back in 1900, crashed into the rock face at this point after taking evasive action to avoid spectators who had run onto the road. He died one day later.
Victim of early motor racing: Wilhelm Bauer.
Evidence of the now-quaint propulsion technology.
We continue our chase along the iconic route. Doing its work at the front under the bonnet, which has the shape of a roof gable, is the mighty 6.8-litre four-cylinder engine. Every stroke of the combustion cycle is evidence of the now-quaint propulsion technology; each of the rare backfires offers loud proof of the authenticity of the engine conceived by ingenious chief designer Wilhelm Maybach; and each burst of the throttle causes the veteran motor car to shudder. The 40 horsepower from the four-cylinder machine are enough to accelerate the white sports car to over 110 km/h. But that's on the flat. Progress uphill is not quite as speedy. Even so, driving the Simplex is more of an art than sheer manual labour.
As the engine speed picks up, to tease as much torque as possible out of the mighty engine, the steering wheel is fitted with a lever that can be adjusted in fine increments. This advances the ignition timing, with the spark ideally coming just before the piston reaches top dead centre. 'This calls for a very delicate touch,' says classic-car fan and ex-Formula One driver Jochen Mass, who throws his Simplex round the legendary hairpin bends as if there was no tomorrow.
The road to La Turbie is a winding one.
In the early days of the 20th century, the road from Nice to La Turbie had not yet been asphalted, but was a gravel track. Nevertheless, in their quest for glory, the daring drivers hurtled their motorised crates fearlessly round the bends. The danger of coming off the road was ever-present. Despite that, even such well-to-do contemporaries as members of the Rothschild family risked their precious necks.
'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.'
Over 115 years ago, the visionary businessman Emil Jellinek well understood the marketing principle: 'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday' and used the races as a shop window in which to show off what Mercedes cars could do. The rich and beautiful of the age appreciated the glamorous town on the Côte d’Azur as a paradise offering a mild and comfortable climate in winter.
Emil Jellinek with family in front of his Mercedes-Simplex 60 hp at the port of Nice.
Genius chief designer of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft: Wilhelm Maybach, here in the year 1903, on the passenger seat of a Mercedes-Simplex 18/22 hp.
Completely redesigned engine.
Cars were hip in those days. Yet it was only at the insistence of Emil Jellinek that Wilhelm Maybach set about designing an entirely new type of vehicle that no longer looked like a motorised horse carriage. The centre of gravity was lowered; the completely redesigned engine was made lighter and more efficient, and a closed cooling system, the so-called honeycomb radiator, could finally cope with the heat produced by the mighty machine - whereas, in earlier times, it had been necessary to repeatedly replenish the system with huge quantities of water.
The innovative and luxurious high-performance car – we today would call it a super sports car - thanked its name to Jellinek's daughter Mercedes, whose Christian name was fondly used by the visionary as a pseudonym. Whenever Jellinek showed himself in Nice, the public would whisper: 'Look, there goes Monsieur Mercedes!'
Witnesses of an era: four Mercedes-Simplex models with up to 60 hp.
The Mercedes-Simplex was very comfortable by the standards of those days.
The Mercedes-Simplex represented an important milestone in the development of the automobile. Speaking in 1901, the French journalist Paul Meyan put it in a nutshell: 'We've entered the Mercedes era.' At that time, the French press warned against the all-powerful vehicles from Germany, which had turned the automotive world order upside down. Today, the inhabitants of La Turbie smile and wave enthusiastically as the Simplex convoy reaches the destination of the classic hill climb.