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  • The workaholic who made the automotive revolution possible

    Industry pioneer
    March 17, 1834-March 6, 1900

    Bradford Wernle
    Automotive News Europe

    The man who is widely credited with pioneering the modern automobile industry apparently did not like to drive and may never have driven at all. Certainly Gottlieb Daimler was a passenger in 1899 during a rough, bad weather journey that accelerated his declining health and contributed to his death the following spring.

    Daimler, pioneer of the modern internal combustion engine, was a workaholic before the term was invented. A relentless perfectionist, he drove himself and his co-workers mercilessly.

    He did not invent the internal combustion engine, but he improved it. With his partner Wilhelm Maybach, he made engines small, lightweight and fast-running, which made the automotive revolution possible.

    Daimler was a cosmopolitan man, instrumental in founding auto industries in Germany, France and England. His core competency was engines, and he didn't care whether they were powering cars, boats, trams, pumps or airships.

    Daimler was born in Schomdorf, Germany in 1834. Early in his engineering career, he became convinced steam engines were an outmoded form of power, and he started building experimental gas engines.

    He was difficult to get along with, and he left a series of engineering firms because they did not share his vision or his work ethic. At one of them he met Maybach, a man who understood him. Maybach became his partner, inseparable friend and engineering soulmate.

    In 1872, Daimler worked as technical director of Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik, where one partner was Nikolaus Otto, a pioneer of the four-stroke engine. Daimler assembled a team of the best people from all the shops he had previously worked in, with Maybach on the top of the list.

    He insisted on the utmost precision and he instituted a system of inspections. By 1874, they were making two engines a day, but Daimler was unsatisfied. He wanted to spend more on research and development, while Otto wanted to produce more engines. Daimler left.

    In Cannstatt, he and Maybach patented their four-stroke engine in 1885. That same year, they created what was probably the world's first motorcycle by mating a Daimler engine to a bicycle. In 1886, they adapted an engine to a horse carriage.

    In 1889, they made their first purpose-built automobile and founded Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. Ten years later, Maybach designed the first car named Mercedes, after his daughter. During this period, Daimler was persuaded by a group of investors to take his company public. They seized majority control and eventually blackmailed him into selling his own shares. Daimler became bitter.

    With his health failing in the autumn of 1899, he was told to stay in bed, but the workaholic insisted on being driven in bad weather to inspect a possible factory site. On the way home he collapsed and fell out of the car. He died with his family around him early on March 6, 1900.

    Gottlieb Daimler was an engineer with a peerless ability to synthesize ideas others had developed before and to create something better. That spirit lives still in the industry today.