Daimler Motor Company

Established over a century ago Britain’s pioneer motor manufacturer’s fortunes were many and varied.

Gottlieb Daimler in Germany

Gottlieb Daimler

The name Daimler is rarely heard of these days, even though it is Britain’s earliest motorcar manufacturer.  One of the true pioneers of the internal combustion engine was Gottlieb Daimler, who was born in Schorndorf-Wurttemberg near Stuttgart in Germany on 17 March 1834.  At an early age Daimler showed an interest in the new mechanical inventions that were creeping into daily life.  He was very bright and by the age of thirteen, he had completed his six years of primary studies in Lateinschule where he had also had additional drawing lessons on Sundays and expressed an interest in engineering.  The next year, he was apprenticed to a local gunsmith and, with his teacher, Riedel, built a double-barrelled shotgun.  However, much as he enjoyed the work at the gunsmith’s, Daimler was frustrated by his general studies as he really wanted to pursue a career in engineering.  In 1852, aged eighteen, he finally decided to take up mechanical engineering and left his hometown.

Gottlieb Daimler took up his first mechanical engineering work in industry at Graffenstaden, but abandoned it in 1857 to begin studies at the Stuttgart Polytechnic.  He also took a job with a Strassburg steam engine factory while he completed his training as a mechanical engineer at the Polytechnic.  During his time at Stuttgart he was introduced to the more advanced and highly developed levels of machine construction in Britain.  He returned to Strassburg in 1859, where he continued with his work as well as experimenting with engines of his own design.  Daimler identified the need for a small, low-power engine capable of economic intermittent operation, but he felt suffocated by the lack of progress and, in 1861, he left to tour France and England.

In Paris he saw E. Lenoir’s revolutionary new gas engine and in England he saw the many gas and steam-driven engines that were used to power the factories.  In the United Kingdom, Daimler helped start engineering works in Oldham, Leeds, and Manchester (with Joseph Whitworth).

On his return to Germany in 1863, Daimler joined Bruderhaus Maschinen-Fabrik in Reutlingen as manager and there met Wilhelm Maybach, with whom he was to collaborate closely for the rest of his life.  By now, Daimler’s name and fame as an inventive engineer had spread and, in 1869, he was head-hunted (to use a modern term) by the Maschinenbau Gesellschaft in Karlsruhe where he became a director.  Three years later he joined Gasmotoren-Fabrik in Deutz as chief engineer and together with N. A. Otto and Eugen Langen he perfected the Otto atmospheric (oil) engine.  The success of the engine encouraged the Deutz board to ask Daimler to develop a petrol-powered version, but this idea was dropped in favour of commercial exploitation of the four-cycle Otto engine.  Their action spurred Daimler on and, in 1882, together with Maybach, he set up a factory in Stuttgart to develop light, high-speed, liquid petroleum-powered internal combustion engines.  At that time, gas was the preferred source of fuel but as it was not easily transportable, engines remained static.  The two men had a clear vision right from the onset that they wanted to make engines for use in powering a vehicle.  This is the first instance where an engine was specifically designed for such an application rather than as an afterthought.

Successful Daimler Engine

During early bench-running trials it would appear that keeping the engine running was a problem and that ignition trouble was the root cause.  They had tried the Deutz ignition system, which was rather crude but in the absence of anything better had become the accepted method.  The Deutz electric method fired an explosive mixture by mechanically opening a small sliding trap-door in the cylinder at the crucial moment to expose the flammable gas to a naked flame.  Frederick Lanchester had designed an efficient ignition system and Deutz had developed their own method along his lines without infringement of patents.  Daimler was not impressed and set about designing his own ignition system, which kept some features of the Deutz method.  Daimler retained the burner outside the cylinder, but used it to lower a glowing hot hollow platinum tube right into the combustion chamber; as the piston rose in the cylinder the gas or petrol and air mixture was forced into the hot tube and detonated.  It was far more reliable and quite simple; Daimler filed a patent in 1883 to cover the new ‘hot-tube’ ignition system.  The Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust’s (JDHT) 1897 Daimler, the oldest surviving Daimler, retains this hot tube ignition system.

Daimler and Maybach also turned to the problem of the rather crude liquid petroleum or Benzin that was available and experimented with various combinations, they found that the best combustible mixture was 91 per cent air and nine per cent petrol with a specific gravity of 0.68 g/cubic cm.  In 1885, they created a carburettor which mixed Benzin with air allowing its use as fuel.  Both Maybach and Daimler worked to reduce the physical size of their engine and to increase fuel-economy.  By 1885 their first operational petrol-powered air-cooled engine (Patent 36-423 Impff & Sohn ‘Vehicle with gas or petroleum drive machine’) was running and for test purposes it was fitted to a specifically-designed motorcycle.  This vehicle was named the Reitwagen (riding car) and Maybach rode it for two miles (three km) alongside the river Neckar, from Cannstatt to Untertürkheim, reaching 7 mph (12 km/hr).  We should also note that in 1885 Karl Benz built a three-wheeled motor-waggon and was granted a patent for it dated 29 January 1886.

Daimler and Maybach had abandoned the existing conventional, open, horizontal type engine design with an external flywheel and designed the engine to stand upright with an internal flywheel.  The casting was sealed against oil and dust, a must for the dusty roads of the time.  Daimler’s engine weighed 130 lb (60 kg) and was modest in output at 0.5 hp (0.37 kW), with a cubic capacity of 164 cc at 700 revolutions per minute.  Deutz gas engines were slower at 180 rpm.  Daimler’s motorcycle became quite a familiar sight around the town, but already work was in progress with a more powerful, water-cooled engine.

Within a few months, the new engine had been bench-tested and fitted to a stagecoach made by William Wafter and secretly bought by Daimler and Maybach on 8 March 1886.  Neighbours were told that it was a birthday gift for Mrs. Daimler.  Maybach supervised the installation of a larger version of the upright engine into the carriage and it became the first four wheeled vehicle to reach 10 mph (16 km/hr).  This engine was equipped with a carburettor and was built into a wooden frame.  This new engine had a higher output, probably 1 hp (0.76 kW) and power was transmitted by a set of belts.  In September 1886, Daimler and Maybach made their first trip around Bad Cannstatt in this vehicle to the amusement and fascination of the locals.  Like the motor cycle, it was also tested on the road to Untertürkheim, nowadays, built-up and quite unrecognisable as the once open countryside.

However, the power output of the engine was not really sufficient for a road vehicle and Daimler turned his thoughts to motorboats and to developing a more powerful engine.  He did sell some of the small engines to tramway companies, but as cheap electrically-powered motors became available the petrol engines fell out of favour.

While work was in progress with a more powerful engine, Daimler installed the 1 hp unit into a small motor boat for tests at Cannstatt, but he needed to show the engine and boat off to a wider audience.  Work commenced on building a larger motor launch, the Rems, with ten seats and a new two-cylinder Vee-engine of about 2 hp (1.5 kW) was fitted.  On 13 October 1886, he gave demonstrations on the Waldsee in Baden-Baden, the spa town that was a favourite fashionable resort.  All the civic dignitaries attended and the event was front page news the next day.  Daimler took the tiller of the Rems and was kept busy all day.  A newspaper report states that the ‘engine is positioned in the middle of the boat and takes up little space; equally, the mechanism is also positioned in a practical, simply constructed space and sets the craft in swift and steady motion.  The motor functions smoothly and with negligible noise.  The speed is considerable and the maneuverability is light and sure.  Despite the lake being 3,600 square metres, the boat shot through the water as swift as an arrow.  Mr. Daimler was awarded full recognition of his handsome invention.’

In 1887, Daimler purchased a small factory so he could produce and sell the successful 2 hp engine.  Although he still wanted to design and manufacture a motorcar of his own he had to be patient and concentrate on boats.  Daimler engines were used on many craft including racing boats that Maybach and he entered in regattas.  Their boats were the only examples powered by petrol, all others were steam-driven and Daimler wanted to show that petrol or Benzin was a safe and cheap option.  To do this he even, unofficially, took his new 2 hp launch The Seven Swabians to join a line-up of steam boats at Hamburg harbour when the Kaiser arrived on an official visit in October 1888.  Moving swiftly, quietly and without belching smoke from a funnel, the launch caught the eye and made the next day’s papers.  Interest in Herr Daimler’s petrol engined boat was increasing.

Frederick Simms in England

Frederick Simms

That same year, a young Englishman (aged 26), Frederick Richard Simms, who had been born in Hamburg, was visiting the Bremen Exhibition where he was captivated by the small ten-passenger rail-cars that were busily taking visitors around the Exhibition showground.  Simms had been looking for a small self-contained power source for a venture that he was hoping to market.  This was an overhead passenger cable-borne carriage system that would give visitors to exhibitions, showgrounds and funfairs the sensation of flying.  He enquired about the rail-cars and was told that the engines were made by a man called Daimler.  Simms lost no time in seeking out the inventor, who, though he was twice Simms’s age, recognised a kindred spirit.  Daimler explained what he was trying to do and the problems that he was encountering, especially with the steamboat lobby.  He also told Simms about his work on a new engine for a motorcar, which was then in-build so it must have been seen by Simms.

Maybach and Daimler continued with the development of their new two-cylinder Vee engine and fitted it to a motor car of their own design.  Although Daimler had set out from the onset to produce an engine specifically for a ‘horseless carriage’, he did not spend as much time on the design of the actual carriage.  This drew heavily on the standard carriages of the day, modified only for steering purposes and for the engine, which was mounted under the rear floor.  However, Daimler’s car was practical and he exhibited it at the 1889 Paris Exhibition.  Although it did not create as much interest with the visiting public as he would have liked, it did, however, attract Messers Panhard and Levassor, who developed the Daimler engine in France and began to manufacture automobiles of their own in 1891.

Frederick Simms had, by now, really got to know Gottlieb Daimler and was very interested in doing business with the German engineer.  He was also involved in another prank that Daimler played with his new boat at some military manoeuvres in Potsdam.  Daimler’s boat was capable of a speed of 12 knots and he announced his intention of demonstrating the vessel on the Wannensee near the Kaiser’s palace at Sans Souci.  Unfortunately, Daimler had already sold the boat and the new owner (who had not yet taken possession) was displeased that it was going to be used to upstage the official demonstration by the Marine Salvage Corps in front of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  He issued a writ to stop Daimler, but the vessel was already on the lake and making great progress with Simms, Paul and Gottlieb Daimler on board.  An official trying to serve the writ set off after the Daimler, but he was in a slower steam-powered launch and simply could not catch up.  The writ was not served.  Watching the spectacle was the Kaiser and he was very interested in the Daimler, so much so that he invited Simms to explain the petrol launch to him.  History does not record what the customer of the Daimler launch had to say about the episode.  He was probably pleased that his boat had attracted the attention of the Kaiser.

Daimler Germany Re-financed

Although their engines were successful, Daimler and Maybach were struggling financially, they were not selling enough engines or making enough money from their patents.  Word got about and two financiers and munitions makers, Max Von Duttenhofer and William Lorenz, along with an influential banker Kilian Steiner, agreed to inject some capital and, on 28 November 1890, converted the company into a public corporation named the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft  (DMG).  Unfortunately, the new financiers knew nothing about engines and had no faith in automobile production, they put restrictions on Daimler and Maybach and even considered merging DMG with Otto’s Deutz-AG.  Things deteriorated and the plans that Daimler and Maybach produced to produce automobiles were coolly-received by Duttenhofer and Lorenz.  Maybach was denied a seat on the Board and on 11 February 1891, left the Company.  He continued his design work as a freelance, with Daimler’s support,  in Cannstatt from his own house and later moved to the closed Hermann Hotel in the autumn of 1892, using its ballroom and winter garden, employing twelve workers and five apprentices.

Frederick Simms Acquires British Rights to Daimler Engines and forms Daimler Motor Syndicate

Meanwhile, Frederick Simms decided to take up an agency for Daimler engines and acquired the British rights, which includes the rights to sell in the British Empire and Dominions.  A letter written by him on 8 February 1891, to his London solicitor contains the first recorded use of the term ‘motor car’.  ‘I have started a department for petrol motor boats  and cars,’ he wrote, ‘and I have concluded an agreement with the Daimler Motor Company of Cannstatt which has just been turned into a limited company.  I am going to exhibit a motor car at the German Exhibition at Earls’ Court, London, and I want to run a beautiful motor boat on the Serpentine to show the grand thing in England which I have secured.  The motor is unequalled, no smell, quite dangerless, fifty per cent cheaper than all other motors and with a very small consumption, viz 2 lbs. per horse-power hour.’

Daimler appointed Simms as their British agent and, as a show of good faith, decided to lend him one of their motor launches.  This was a good move as the existing Locomotives on Highways Act in Britain made it virtually impossible for Simms to import a Daimler Motor-Wagen (motor-car) for demonstration purposes.  For the Earl’s Court Exhibition a single Daimler 1 hp engine was shown on the Dresden stand driving a chocolate-making machine.  Not quite what Simms had in mind.  Undaunted, he despatched his German mechanic Johann van Toll to make ready the Daimler boat, which was operational by May 1892 on the River Thames by Putney Bridge.

The Daimler agency proved so successful that in 1893 Simms founded the Daimler Motor Syndicate.  Two years later, Simms announced his plans to form the Daimler Motor Company Limited, to build Daimler engines in this country.  The motor launch business flourished and Simms rented a railway arch beneath Putney Bridge Station, for £25 per annum, as a workshop. One of those who had purchased a Daimler-engined launch was the Hon. Evelyn Ellis, a wealthy landowner.  He also purchased a Daimler-powered Panhard et Levassor in Paris and for some time kept and drove it in France, as the unreasonable Highways and Locomotives Act of 1878 meant he was unable to run the car on British roads.  However, after a change in the Act, on 3 July 1895 and the car was licensed by Daimler Motor Syndicate, it arrived in Britain, Ellis drove the 3½ hp car from Southampton docks to his home at Datchet in Berkshire at an average speed of 8 mph (13 km/hr) without incident, either mechanical or from the law.  Ellis had collected Simms from Micheldever Station, north of Southampton and Simms accompanied him the rest of the way to Datchet.  Eliis converted part of his stable at Datchet to store the car and from the French word ‘garer’ meaning to store, he coined the term garage!

Frederick Simms in his 1895 Cannstatt-Daimler

It must have been quite a drive; this was the first petrol motorcar to be seen on the roads in Britain, whole villages turned out to see it pass, and from Simms’s account, it did not frighten the horses!

Later, Ellis would make the first long journey by car in Britain when he drove a Coventry-built Daimler from his home to the Malvern Hills.

The stage was now set for cars to be imported and manufactured in Britain.  Following this demonstration of motor-power the Daimler Company received many orders and enquiries about the car.  Consequently, they took out a licence with Panhard et Levassor, and would receive ten per cent commission on British sales.

Simms bought himself a belt-driven Cannstatt-Daimler in 1895 which he imported into England and displayed at Crystal Palace and continued to drive and demonstrate for the next couple of years.

Shortly afterwards everything was about to change as an enterprising and colourful company promoter named Henry Lawson entered the picture.

Enter Henry Lawson and Formation of Daimler Motor Company

Following a very profitable purchase and flotation of the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, Lawson had formed the British Motor Syndicate and started buying up patents in an attempt to gain control of the nascent British motor industry.  On 15 October 1895 Lawson’s syndicate offered Simms £35,000 to acquire his Daimler patent rights.

Simms sold out, but remained as a consultant, and the new Daimler Motor Co. Ltd. (DMC) was registered by Lawson on 14 January 1896.  Gottlieb Daimler was appointed to the board for two years, but there is no record of him attending any meetings.  The Hon. Evelyn Ellis was listed as a director in the prospectus.  Lawson wasn’t listed, possibly to keep his name out of the press due to some of his previous financial dealings, although he was subsequently nominated to the board and became the Company’s first chairman.

One of the first undertakings by the directors of the new Daimler company was to visit the Continent to study French (Peugeot, Panhard et Levassor and de Dion Bouton) and German (Daimler and Benz) motor production.  What emerged as paramount was the need for a factory; locations in Birmingham and Cheltenham were considered but deemed unsuitable.

At the March 1896 board meeting Lawson recommended the purchase of a factory in Coventry by the Canal, a former cotton mill from the now defunct Coventry Cotton Spinning & Weaving Company.  This was empty and had been rebuilt by insurers following a fire in 1891.  It also happened to be owned by one of Lawson’s financial friends Ernest Terah Hooley.  The board agreed the purchase for £18,000, with Hooley receiving a cheque for £4,000 that day.  Daimler’s ‘Motor Mills’ was born.

1896 Advertisement for The Daimler Wagonette
from The Great Horseless Carriage Company

Lawson and the DMC went on a patent buying spree in a bid to seize control of the industry, buying up patents from De Dion-Bouton and Léon Bollée in France and Pennington in the US and agreeing deals with Panhard & Levassor and Peugeot Frères in France.  By mid 1896 they had acquired over 70 patents and Lawson formed The Great Horseless Carriage Co Ltd in May 1896 leasing space in the Motor Mills, paying rent from one of his companies to another.

In February that year HRH The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had his first ride in a Daimler motor car – Ellis’s Daimler-engined Panhard – and, although slightly alarmed, was suitably impressed.  Apparently the Prince of Wales told Ellis not to drive “so fast”.  The Prince had first ridden in a motor car on the Continent in 1893.

Equipment and parts, including cast-iron cylinders,  arrived from the German Daimler company throughout the middle months of 1896 although there were initial problems with some of the drawings as they used the ‘metric system’.  It was also commented that the parts were ‘Made in Germany’ which at that time was a derogatory comment as Coventry was known for its first class workmanship from the years making bicycles.

Daimler got on with the business in hand and published a catalogue, which proclaimed them as ‘The Largest Autocar Factory in the World’.  That may have been so, as far as actual factory area was concerned, but they had yet to produce a motor car.  In November 1896 ‘The Autocar’ magazine published an artist’s impression of ‘the first British-built Daimler Autocar’, it was unusual, with an unsprung rear axle and, in the drawing, a shaft driven rear axle.  The car made its appearance the following year, but only as a mock-up for photography and to keep the investors happy.

Despite not having delivered  a single vehicle, the Company paid an interim dividend of 40% to its investors.

On 7 November 1896 Simms drove his Cannstatt-Daimler in the parade in London’s Lord Mayor’s Show.  Exactly one week later on 14 November 1896, Simms and Gottlieb Daimler used the same car to take part in The Motor Car Club’s Emancipation Day procession from London to Brighton, co-organised with Lawson, celebrating the lifting of the speed limit under the Locomotive Act which had required vehicles to travel no faster than 4 mph (6.4 km/h).   Lawson piloted the lead car on the run and the Mayor of Brighton later recalled (in 1935) that Lawson had handed out a printed report of his participation in the run – two days before it happened.

This Emancipation Day drive is still commemorated annually as the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

Development was swift with engines and chassis; different body styles were also offered including a transport van.  Coventry-built Daimler cars did become available during 1897 – with chain rather than shaft-drive – and they appear to have been reliable.  Many customers elected to collect their cars from Coventry and make the journey back in their new mode of transport.  They were usually accompanied by a Daimler member of staff to instruct on how to operate the car and also to make any adjustments that might be required en route.  After a few miles the Daimler person would leave to return to the factory.  Sometimes the Company would supply a member of staff to act as a tutor for the new owner’s chauffeur.  Today, it is very difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see and drive a car for the first time.

For 1897 this was quite a step forwards, horses still reigned supreme, but the internal combustion engine was making an impression on daily life.  Cars and vans from the Coventry factory could be seen in many parts of the country.  One of the first dealers was in Stirling in Scotland, who put their own bodies on the Daimler chassis and their business greatly assisted Daimler’s fortunes.  To prove the ability of the car Henry Sturmey, the editor of ‘The Autocar’ and a director of Daimler, set off in his new Daimler, on 2 October from John O’Groats in Scotland to drive to Land’s End in Cornwall.  Accompanied by a mechanic from the factory they completed the 929 miles (1,495 kms) on 19 October with 93½ hours running time.  It was an interesting journey with few mechanical problems and showed that the new marvel of the age was not a novelty and was here to stay.

Lawson sought to enforce his patents rigidly and when the Hon. Charles S Rolls imported a Peugeot from France he was taken to court, an injunction was granted and he was fined £15.  Rolls was then allowed to pay a ‘royalty’ and continue to use his Peugeot.

Before the purchase of the ‘Motor Mills’, Simms had recommended the purchase of a factory in Cheltenham and felt that the new company was not what he had wished for and resigned in 1897.  He went on to other things, including the founding of the Royal Automobile Club and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, of which he was elected president.

Early Progress

On 7 October 1897 Lawson resigned from the Daimler Board as the companies were taking up too much of his time.  The Coventry cycle industry collapsed in 1898 and Lawson’s friend Hooley went bankrupt – after putting £200,000 in his wife’s name.  In January 1898 the Great Horseless Carriage Company itself went into liquidation and was renamed The Motor Manufacturing Company (MMC).  The Daimler Motor Company worked together, with MMC producing the carriage-work and Daimler the engines and frames.

After a period of financial restraint in mid-1897 business picked up and the end of February 1898, Daimler had sold and delivered 89 complete vehicles or motors and frames, plus 24 engines for other applications.  The Company had also made their first entry into the car hire market, putting a number of the Coventry work-force through driver training so that cars could be provided together with ‘thoroughly reliable and competent drivers’.   In June the Company renamed the Motor Mills to ‘Daimler Works’ and in July Gottlieb Daimler resigned from the board, never having attended a meeting.

12 October 1897 James Critchley with Evelyn Ellis and his daughter Mary, at the top of Worcestershire Beacon
(Note the tiller steering)

On 12 October 1897, to prove the efficacy of Daimler’s hill climbing capabilities,  James Critchley drove his Daimler, accompanied by Evelyn Ellis and his wife, to the top of Worcestershire Beacon at 1,395 feet, the highest of the Malvern Hills, some of it a gradient of 1 in 4 (25%).

That same year, pioneer motorist John Scott Montagu, heir to the first Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, ordered a 6 hp Daimler.  In a radio broadcast of 1928, Montagu recalled that, “I cannot describe the joy which this first Daimler car gave me when it was delivered to my country house at the end of the summer of 1898.  I began to realise at once that the mechanical vehicle was going in time to produce a wonderful revolution in our transport methods.

 The 6hp engine was two-cylindered with a tube ignition; that is there were two platinum tubes heated by a forced draught petrol flame, and by this means the mixture of air and petrol vapour in the cylinder was exploded.  The car had tiller steering, was chain driven, and the gear change was by the front seat on a metal pillar, on which there were two levers on dials.  One of these moved the bevel wheel in or out of its connection with the drive, while the other lever operated four speeds in the gearbox.  The gear rings were made of ordinary steel, which, as they were not case-hardened, after a few hundred miles began to show many signs of wear.

  “There was no radiator, but a tank containing about twelve gallons of water was carried at the back, the water being pumped through the cylinder block by a semi-rotary pump; and as soon as it had boiled away the tank had to be refilled.  One tank-full generally lasted for about 20 or 30 miles.  The brake consisted of a foot brake operating a wood-lined metal band on the countershaft while the hand brake was merely a metal shoe which could be applied to the tread on the hind wheels.  One of the anxieties of those early cars was that if there was a strong wind, the ignition lamps generally blew out.  When they had to be re-lit, it was a risky job sometimes, for the petrol which had not been consumed after the lamp had been blown out occasionally exploded.  As to steering, if one struck even a small obstacle on the road the tiller was nearly wrenched out of one’s hand.  The springing was primitive and the bumping severe on any except a really good road.”

Lord Montagu also recalled that, “Stones were often thrown at passing motorists, and many persons would hardly speak to a well-known motorist like myself.  Indeed, I was considered by some of my relations to be a dangerous revolutionary.  Hotel-keepers generally regarded us as people not to be admitted, and I remember being rudely treated in two hotels in one day, and told we were not wanted.  One irate proprietor said he was not going to have any of these contraptions near his place, for they might blow up at any time.”

Montagu’s first Daimler came to an untimely end when it overturned while being driven by its chauffeur and was burned out near the family home in Hampshire.

The Start of Royal Patronage

1902 Edward VII in Lord Montagu’s Car

HRH The Prince of Wales had not forgotten his ride in a Daimler and when staying at Warwick Castle asked for Daimler to supply cars for him to sample.  Together with his friends in the house party the cars were driven around the local area (they drove south to Compton Verney) and fuelled the Prince’s interest in the motor car further.  A year later John Montagu drove the Prince in his new four-cylinder Daimler, bought to replace the destroyed car.  The Prince of Wales was now more than keen to own a car of his own and asked Lord Montagu to bring the car up to London for the Prince’s staff to examine.  Lord Montagu agreed and in 1900 the Prince of Wales ordered his own car from Daimler.  This was a 6 hp model with phaeton bodywork by Messers Hooper of St. James’s Street, painted in chocolate and black.

Sydney Letzer delivered the first Royal car to Sandringham on 28 March 1900.  Letzer worked for Daimler but was now appointed ‘Mechanician to the Prince of Wales’ as the first Royal chauffeur.  This car was one of the first Daimlers to be fitted with ‘double ignition’, both hot-tube and battery-and-coil ignition.  It also had the unusual feature of the steering column being pivoted at its base to ‘facilitate mounting and demounting’ for a gentleman of the Prince’s stature!  Later that year the Prince ordered two more cars from Daimler.  There is no record of Queen Victoria’s reaction to her son’s purchases.

1906 George V With His Own Daimler

Having the heir to the British throne as an owner-driver enhanced the Daimler name and motoring in general.  Motoring was given a boost with the 1,000 Miles’ Trial held between April and May 1900.  It was carried out in poor weather on a selected route; Daimler cars were in prominence and several took prizes, including Montagu, who won a bronze medal driving his 12 hp car.  In general the Daimler cars did well, out of the dozen cars that completed the trial, three were Daimlers; five out of ten silver medals and three out of four bronze medals were awarded to the Daimler drivers.  The outright gold medal winner was the Hon. Charles Rolls in his 12 hp Panhard.  Four years later he would join forces with Henry Royce to form a new motor car business.

Difficult Years – 1900 to 1905

From 1900 for a few years both the Daimler Motor Company and the Motor Manufacturing Company (MMC) were struggling and various different options of merging the two companies into one were investigated.  None of which came to fruition.

By 1902 Daimler had an excellent board of directors – under the Chairman Sir Edward Jenkinson and a 30 year old engineer Percy Martin was appointed as works manager.  Martin drew up plans to expand the range of models on offer.  The early look of a wagon without a horse attached had given way to a more recognisable image of the motor car.  Generally the car had been greatly improved and was becoming easier to own and operate, although they were still expensive.  For example, the Daimler 9 hp chassis was priced at around £500, the 12 hp £725 and the 22 hp at £1,200.  To these figures had to be added the bodywork and accessories.

Although at the 1902 AGM the company announced a loss of over £19,000 the financial position started to improve and it was able to report a return to profit at the AGM at the end of 1903.   But 1904 saw problems return through a reduction in sales.  A reconstruction scheme was drawn up and the old Daimler Company was wound up and a new company formed as the Daimler Motor Company (1904) Ltd. with capital of £200,000 in the name of Ernest Instone as trustee.   This company acquired all the assets of the old one and discharged all the debts.  At the first annual meeting of the new (1904) company Sir Edward was able to report a profit of £83,167 compared to only £7,334 for the previous year.  Martin’s efforts were rewarded with a substantial bonus of £3,400.  His starting salary at the end of 1901 had been £500 with a possible bonus of another £200!

By late 1905 MMC was in receivership and Daimler had taken over the whole of the Motor Mills allowing their floor space and manpower to be increased.  An attempt by Lawson to reform MMC in 1907 failed and his grand plan to control the British motor industry had come to an end.

New Technology – Sleeve Valve Engines – ‘Silent Knight’

An American engineer named Charles Yale Knight had developed a sleeve-valve engine in 1904 and built a small number of cars in the US.  Under competitive pressure from Napier Daimler were attracted by the concept and after Knight brought one of his cars to Coventry they signed an agreement in April 1908 to manufacture the Knight engine under a licence that covered ‘England and the Colonies’.  Though it was a running prototype the Knight engine needed some development and Daimler turned it over to Dr Frederick Lanchester who was working as a consultant for them.  Lanchester was one of the most original engineers of the day and by September 1908 the new engine was ready to be demonstrated to the Press.

The ‘Motoring Illustrated’ magazine commented, ‘The new engine has shown itself to be, in every respect, far and away superior to tappet valve type of engine hitherto made as standard, so that the company have no hesitation in nailing this particular flag to their mast, having thoroughly satisfied themselves as to its superiority for their purpose over any other type.  We were afforded the opportunity of seeing one of these motors running upon the test bench, and we can certainly testify to its wonderful quietness and smooth-running qualities; moreover, it seemed to possess the power of rapid acceleration under load in an extraordinary degree.’

Daimler was so pleased with the new engine that they dropped poppet valve engines in favour of the sleeve-valve unit.  They introduced a range of three four-cylinder engines – 3,764 cc, 6,280 cc and 9,236 cc – with a promise that if any owner was unhappy with the sleeve-valve engine within two years of buying a new Daimler, they would replace it with one ‘of the company’s late mushroom-valve types’.

By the end of October Daimler had built around 600 engines and installed them in 60 complete cars ready for sale.  Known as the Silent Knight it was launched at the end of October, though Lord Montagu had already acquired a 38 hp example from the factory.  He drove it to Le Mans in France, where he witnessed the flights by Wilbur Wright, and later wrote glowingly about the car – and the flights – for ‘The Car Illustrated’.  He noted that the, ‘…silence and smoothness of running were very remarkable for a four-cylinder engine…and the consumption of petrol, considering the power developed, was not excessive.’

The new Prince of Wales (later King George V) took delivery of a 38 hp sleeve-valve Daimler in October 1909 and ordered a 57 hp example for delivery the following year.

Animation of a sleeve-valve engine showing the sleeve rising and falling with the piston and twisting so that the inlet port on the sleeve lines up with the inlet port on the cylinder.


Following rigorous testing by the RAC in 1909, involving 132 hours’ bench testing and 2,000 miles on the Brooklands track, Daimler were awarded the coveted Dewar Trophy for ‘Outstanding British Technical Achievement in the Automotive Industry’.

From their early days the Company had manufactured commercial vehicles, especially trucks and buses.  In 1910 they produced a dozen Knight-Pieper-Lanchester (KPL) petrol-electric (hybrid in today’s parlance) buses to designs by Frederick Lanchester.  They had four-wheel brakes, unitary body/chassis construction and a separate sleeve-valve engine for each rear wheel.   Unfortunately, they were not a commercial success and the project did not progress further, though Lanchester did keep up his work on a hybrid engine.

Sleeve-valve engines continued in production into 1935, the last cars being produced powered by them were Double Six, 40 hp and 50 hp, models.  All subsequent cars were powered by poppet valve engines.

Takeover by Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA)

About this time the motor industry was dealt a blow by the Liberal Government’s ‘People’s Budget’.  This included the taxation of cars on their RAC horsepower rating – which was based on the bore and the number of cylinders – rather than on weight as they had been before.  The Chancellor, David Lloyd George, promised that the car tax would be spent on road repairs and the building of new roads.  However, the increases were quite out of proportion, for example a 60 hp car was taxed at £5-5s-0d (£5.25), but this would increase to £42 in the new budget and there was also a new excise duty levied on petrol.  Sales for large cars slumped, and Daimler sent a deputation to the Chancellor to argue their case.  The conclusion, as expected, was that no action was taken and the taxes came into effect on 1 July 1910.  Consequently, Daimler concentrated on smaller models and had a successful financial year, in fact selling 2,000 vehicles, about 25% of the total output of the British motor industry.

The Company then took a dramatic change of direction when on 1 September 1910 it was announced that Daimler and the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) were discussing amalgamation.   BSA had tried to make the transition from making bicycles to cars, with the launch of three small cars, in 1908 but with only limited success starting looking round for a more experienced partner in the car industry.  The final agreement was signed on 22 September and Daimler ceased to be an independent company, despite having recorded a record profit of £100,000 during its last year.  BSA assumed responsibility for all Daimler liabilities but order books for both companies were well filled and the future prospects looked good.

Under the new banner of the Daimler Motor Company (replacing the 1904 Company), production continued of cars and chassis for coachbuilders. Edward Manville became Chairman, Percy Martin  – Managing Director of Daimler, Ernest Instone continued as General Manager and industrialist F Dudley Docker, architect of the takeover and deputy chairman of BSA, joined the Daimler board.

They also supplied sleeve-valve engines to the London General Omnibus Company, who fitted them to a chassis built by the Associated Equipment Company (AEC).  The General omnibuses of London, with their solid rubber tyres and open top decks, were to become famous throughout the world.  This image of a double-decker persists today, over a century later.  AEC also used the chassis and engine for other commercial applications and they too became a familiar sight in Britain and the Empire.

Under BSA ownership Daimler and as a result of increasing demand, in 1902 the Company developed a new factory at Radford in the north of Coventry, which within a short time would be  turned over to supply products for a different application – wartime production.



Author: François Prins and Tony Merrygold


© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust