100 Things You Should Know About Daimler | #10

How piano manufacturer Steinway brought Daimler to the States

Seldom were the fates of grand pianos and grand automobiles so intertwined as they were at the end of the 19th century on the east coast of the United States. A German family by the name of Steinweg had emigrated to that part of America, where they proceeded doing what had made them famous in the old country: building musical instruments. The Steinwegs anglicized their own name and the name of their company, which then became known as Steinway & Sons and quickly advanced to become one of the leading piano manufacturers in the United States. One of the family’s sons, Wilhelm, or William as he was now called, was also very interested in innovations such as the “horseless carriage” that had been designed and built by Gottlieb Daimler.

William Steinway decided that he wanted to bring this new technology to the New World. While visiting Germany in August 1888, William went to see Gottlieb Daimler in Cannstatt, close to Stuttgart. “Had a long talk with Daimler,” he wrote in his travel journal. This talk quickly led to action, as the Daimler Motor Company was established in Long Island City in Queens, NY, on September 29, 1888 — just two-and-a-half years after the automobile was invented. The establishment of the Daimler Motor Company made Daimler the first European automaker with a subsidiary in the United States.

The Daimler Motor Company’s office in New York at the end of the 19th century.
The Daimler Motor Company’s office in New York at the end of the 19th century.

Plans at that time did not include the production of complete motor cars, as the Daimler license initially only covered the import and construction of stationary engines and ship engines. However, after considering the import duties, which could be as high as 45 percent of the purchase price, Steinway, who was a clever businessman, quickly decided that the subsidiary would need to manufacture locally. And so it came to be that American engineers began studying the Swabian drive assemblies. After doing their homework, they began manufacturing the first fully operational vehicle engines in the United States. Daimler Motor Company built these engines, which were used in boats and machines, for nearly a year. However, Steinway wanted to exploit the huge geographic expanse of his adopted homeland — and for him that meant putting these engines on the road as well. A modified version of Daimler’s “wire-wheel car” that was presented at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago got the American public interested in the idea of individual mobility. In the meantime, Steinway was cooking up another plan, as he described in an interview that he gave in 1895: “The cars which we intend to produce for the American market will be capable of carrying between two and four people and will be driven by engines with between 2 ½ and 3 ½ horsepower. The fuel — petroleum — costs about one cent per hp and hour, making the automobile considerably less expensive than horse power.” Steinway also wanted to sell robust vehicles that could handle the “rough cobblestone streets” on his side of the Atlantic.

Gottlieb Daimler presented his wire-wheel car at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. This was his exhibitor pass.
Gottlieb Daimler presented his wire-wheel car at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. This was his exhibitor pass.

However, no car was ever built under Steinway’s guidance, as he passed away in November 1896, after which his heirs quickly sold their shares in the Daimler Motor Company. It is not known whether they ever came to regret that decision, but it is known that the Mercedes “Made in Swabia” from the year 1900 attracted a great deal of interest in the United States as well. Indeed, in 1904 the model was the best-selling imported vehicle in the U.S., with no less than 25% percent of the total production volume sold in this market — despite the high import duties.

In 1905 the first Mercedes was built on American soil. It was henceforth known as American Mercedes.
In 1905 the first Mercedes was built on American soil. It was henceforth known as American Mercedes.

The successor to the Daimler Motor Company — the Daimler Manufacturing Company — finally built the first American Mercedes in 1905. This vehicle was basically a copy of the 45 hp Mercedes that was built more than 6,000 kilometers away in “good old Germany.” As things turned out, the success of the American Mercedes came to an abrupt end before it ever really began. The factory that built the model burned to the ground in February 1907, thus marking the official end to the shared history of piano and automobile manufacturing in the United States. It is not known how many of the American twins of the Swabian original were actually built. However, one of the rare specimens of the model is now part of the Mercedes-Benz Classic collection.

Cornelia Hentschel

liked to bang on the piano — literally — when she was a small child. The fact that her “career” as a pianist ended with the “Flohwalzer” (Flea Waltz) has nothing to do with the fact that the instrument she so badly mistreated wasn’t a Steinway.

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