100 Things You Should Know About Daimler | #27

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Right on track: Daimler once manufactured streetcars

Whether on water, on land, or in the air, Gottlieb Daimler tinkered with a great variety of transportation systems in his early years, even though he is primarily mentioned in history books as an automotive pioneer. Some people even joke that he motorized everything that stood still for long enough. This also includes vehicles that very few people would today associate with Daimler: streetcars and locomotives.

Admittedly, the Daimler Motor-Draisine’s technical data — 1.1 horsepower, four seats, and a top speed of 20 kilometers per hour — didn’t appear to be serious competition for the railroad. But was it really so hopeless? No, because the world’s first rail vehicle with a gasoline engine would beat any other in the “year of manufacture” category: A draisine and a railcar from Daimler had already been tested on the route between Esslingen am Neckar and Kirchheim/Teck in 1887.

But that was just the beginning for motorized rail mobility: In the same year, Daimler put a narrow-gauge streetcar into operation at the Cannstatter Wasen fairground. It caused a minor sensation, because in the late 19th century streetcars were generally pulled by horses or mules. As is the case with many innovations, Daimler’s replacement of the draft animals with tractor units was viewed skeptically by many of his contemporaries.

“As if it was being pulled by a spirited horse”

However, Daimler’s six-seat narrow-gauge rail vehicle that moved at a cozy 16 kilometers per hour was a real public relations stunt. For example, the widely read magazine “Die Gartenlaube” contained a detailed report of a ride: “Once the vehicle stops at its destination after a speedy journey, and is no longer to be used for the rest of the day, the conductor carries off the box that contains the entire machine that moved the vehicle as if it was being pulled by a spirited horse.” This box contained the engine that Daimler registered for a patent in 1886 and that was also called the Grandfather Clock due to its appearance. The engine’s crankshaft drive and flywheel are contained in an oil- and dust-tight crankcase. The “Schwäbische Merkur,” which, at the time, was the leading daily newspaper in the Kingdom of Württemberg, praised the “superbly successful” trips of Daimler’s experimental streetcar. The small streetcar (and the Grandfather Clock) can now be viewed in the Mercedes-Benz Museum, where it is referred to as the Waggonet.

Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach together with their families at the narrow-gauge railroad station next to the Cannstatt Kursaal (spa building).
Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach together with their families at the narrow-gauge railroad station next to the Cannstatt Kursaal (spa building).

From Cannstatt to Stuttgart — and around the world

Such press reports attracted people’s attention from around the world. From Berlin to Buenos Aires, streetcars and engines from Daimler were exported to numerous locations. Needless to say, interest in motorized rail vehicles also grew more or less next door to Cannstatt, in Stuttgart, where the hilly topography was inimical to horse-drawn vehicles. As a result, additional horsepower was needed for inclines. However, even such additional horses only enabled the vehicles to go uphill at a walking pace. Test drives with motorized vehicles of the local horse tramway company produced promising results. “The vehicle, which can transport up to 20 passengers, was able to maintain a steady velocity as it easily navigated the sharpest curves as well as straight stretches and inclines of about 2%,” stated another newspaper, the “Schwäbische Kronik.” As a result, the Daimler streetcar was used on the routes of the Stuttgart horse tramway from 1888 to 1889. A little later, the engines from Daimler were also installed in vehicles of the Württemberg State Railway, from where they made their way to rail networks throughout Germany and beyond. The Daimler streetcars were also greatly appreciated and ridden at international trade fairs and expositions, including at the Vienna Prater (1890), the Esposizione Nazionale di Palermo in Sicily (1891/92), and the World’s Fair in Chicago (1893).

Benvenuti in Sicilia! Gottlieb Daimler (fourth from left) and his streetcar at the National Exposition in Palermo.
Benvenuti in Sicilia! Gottlieb Daimler (fourth from left) and his streetcar at the National Exposition in Palermo.

Last stop for Daimler on tracks

So, why is it that Gottlieb Daimler made history as an automotive pioneer rather than an innovator for railways? The answer is simple: The rail vehicle chapter proved to be only a very brief episode in the 135-year history of Daimler. In the following years, electrical catenary systems became the standard technology for streetcars. Although such systems were briefly offered by the Austrian subsidiary of Daimler Motorengesellschaft (Austro-Daimler) and the plant in Berlin-Marienfelde as a variant of the Mercedes Electrique, they quickly reached their last stop as well. That’s because Daimler and Benz focused on the things that the Mercedes brand still stands for today: luxurious automobiles and individual mobility. They include many automobile models that will always come out on top.

Cornelia Hentschel

was allowed to steer a (driving school) streetcar during her journalistic training. She is also frequently a passenger on the trams of the SSB public transportation company in Stuttgart. However, it was not until she conducted research for this article that she found out that the Swabian singer Wolle Kriwanek had memorialized the “Strossaboh” (Swabian for “streetcar”) in song.

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