Karl Maybach: Mastermind of High Technology

Posted on July 06, 2004

Karl Maybach assumes a prominent role in the history of automotive engineering and engine technology.
Karl Maybach assumes a prominent role in the history of automotive engineering and engine technology. He is the founder of the luxury brand Maybach, a tradition which is continued today by DaimlerChrysler with its models "Maybach 57" and "Maybach 62". Karl Maybach's father, Wilhelm, developed the first high-speed gas engine and in 1901 designed the first modern automobile, the Mercedes car. The French named him King of Designers, and today he is counted among the most influential automobile designers in the world. Karl Maybach continued his father's life work. He gained world fame with the Maybach automobiles, produced between 1921 and 1941 in Friedrichshafen.

Karl Maybach is among the founding fathers of Maybach Motorenbau, the predecessor company of MTU Friedrichshafen. This is the reason, it is thanks to the inventor and designer, Karl Maybach, that up until today high-performance diesel engines are produced in Friedrichshafen and sold around the world. mtu is one of the best-known manufacturers of high performance diesel engines and complete drive systems for off-highway applications worldwide and distinguishes itself from its competitors - entirely in the tradition of Maybach Motorenbau - by its role as technological leader in the industry.

Luftschiff-Motorenbau GmbH, founded in 1909 by Wilhelm and Karl Maybach in Bissingen on the Enz River, was relocated to Friedrichshafen in 1912 in order to build engines for Count Zeppelin’s airships. Maybach Motorenbau, as the company was called from 1918 onwards, succeeded in developing lightweight, high-performance, fire-proof engines that also proved as reliable in civilian airships. In addition to airship engines Maybach Motorenbau soon produced airplane engines as well. The world’s first high altitude aircraft engine, model Mb IVa, which delivered the same performance at high altitude as on the ground, was a complete success.

The Versailles Treaty prohibited Germany from producing engines for civilian airplanes. For this reason, the company had to reorganize its entire production program within a very short time. Maybach Motorenbau began to develop high-speed diesel engines for locomotives and ships and subsequently turned to the automobile. The company’s managing director, Karl Maybach, wanted to specialize in manufacturing engines and transmissions for other automobile manufacturers. Thus, the Dutch automobile factory Trompenburg ordered engines from Maybach for their exclusive Spyker car. Unfortunately, it ran into financial difficulties and could no longer purchase the engines.

It was at this point that Karl Maybach decided to produce automobiles himself. His objective was to design and manufacture an automobile that was the most technically advanced of its time and suited for the most demanding customers. The first Maybach car, the model called W 3, already created a sensation at the Berlin Motor Show in 1921. The Maybach cars soon were known everywhere for their high-performance engines and for the modern pre-selector transmissions, forerunners of today’s automatic transmissions. In 1929 the company introduced the famous Maybach model 12 on the market. Along with the Horch automobiles, this was the only German car before World War II to have a 12-cylinder engine. The engine capacity was seven and later eight liters, the performance was 150, and later, 200 hp. With a price tag of 50,000 Reichsmarks, the Maybach "Zeppelin" as it was called after 1931 cost as much as five family homes or 33 times as much as an Opel P4.

Correspondingly, production numbers were low. By 1939, a mere 200 vehicles of this model had been built. The Maybach was predominantly a luxurious status symbol. Except for the sporty convertibles, a chauffeur was standard. Maybach owners were prominent personalities and celebrities: kings, members of the high-ranking nobility, heads of states, high-ranking politicians, company board members or stars from the entertainment business – the order lists maintained in the company archive of mtu read like a “Who’s Who“ of the upper ten thousand of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and numerous countries and even includes Maharajahs from India.

In the early 1930s, German yacht shipyards – in particular Lürssen – built many fast engine-powered yachts for customers in the United States of America. All of them were powered by airship and diesel engines produced by Maybach. At this time the Friedrichshafen company also owned two demonstration boats on Lake Constance. Jointly with the airship manufacturing sector, Maybach developed a streamlined shape in the wind tunnel for multi-unit railcars (Triebzüge) that can be termed the forerunners of today’s high-speed trains, first and foremost among them the famous Fliegende Hamburger (in a play on words with the Flying Dutchman opera, the Flying Train from Hamburg).

After World War II, Karl Maybach saved his factory by agreeing to develop engines for France if the factory in Friedrichshafen would be granted permission to continue with its production. At the time, the main market for Maybach Motorenbau was the railroad; and, the engines’ high power density indeed soon turned the series into the unrivaled means of propulsion for high-speed boats and ships.

Despite the economic successes enjoyed by the company, Karl Maybach’s successor, Jean Raebel, recognized at the end of the 1950s that it needed a partner in order to be able to survive in the long term. This he found in Daimler-Benz AG, who in turn had been searching for a manufacturer of large engines with whom to join forces. Thus, the 1960s were marked by the merger with the large-engine division of the Stuttgart-Untertürkheim company, which created the Maybach Mercedes-Benz Motorenbau GmbH in Friedrichshafen. In 1969 then, Daimler-Benz and MAN founded MTU Friedrichshafen, which was to build high-speed diesel engines in the performance range between 1,000 and 10,000 hp. The main market outlets for sales were soon mainly to be found abroad. Up until the beginning of the 1990s the share of engines exports steadily increased to above 70 percent. Revenues increased from 270 million marks in 1970 to over 1.3 billion Euro in 2003.