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Nigel Mansell drives the 1902 Mercedes Simplex in this year’s Veteran Car Run. (Mercedes-Benz)
Nigel Mansell drives the 1902 Mercedes Simplex in this year’s Veteran Car Run. (Mercedes-Benz)

Classic cars 1902 Mercedes-Simplex

Celebrating 115 years of London to Brighton Add to ...

With its 6.6-litre, four-cylinder engine wound up to something approaching the 1,050 rpm at which it makes its full 40 hp, Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell launched a 1902 Mercedes-Simplex racer from the Hyde Park starting gate and set off on this year’s historic London To Brighton Veteran Car Run.

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The big white Merc was part of a 496-car field of pre-1905 automobiles assembled to mark the 115th anniversary of the emancipation of the automobile in Britain, which the run has been doing on the first weekend of November since the late 1920s. And, with its three Mercedes-Simplex running mates – considered the first “modern” automobiles – it represented Mercedes-Benz’s final factory-backed international outing as part of its 125 Years of the Automobile celebration year.

The event was held for the first time in 1896 to celebrate the passing of the Locomotives on the Highway Act, which raised the national speed limit from four mph to 14 mph and no longer required a man with a red flag to walk in front of the vehicle.

To celebrate, a group of 33 car enthusiasts ceremoniously destroyed a red flag (still done today) and set off from London for the seaside town of Brighton, with 14 completing the trip. Although one, an electric, was thought to have arrived by train then daubed with mud to make it look like it had made the run under its own power. The first formal re-enactment of the run – it’s an endurance test of machines and drivers, not a race – took place in 1927.

Jutta Benz, the great-granddaughter of Carl Benz, symbolically opened this year’s Royal Automobile Club event at the tiller of an 1896 Benz Patent-Motorwagen. And the first to be officially flagged off was 17-year-old Oliver Wright at the wheel of an 1894 Benz. But it was Matt Roberts and his French 1897 Marot-Gardon Tricycle that made it to Brighton first, covering the almost 100 km in three hours and 25 minutes.

A bearded Mansell (1992 F1 World Champion and later McLaren-Mercedes driver), and passenger Minister for Transport Mike Penning, were among the 420 to make it to Brighton with the former describing the run as “Brilliant. Fantastic. The car hasn’t had a hiccup.”

Mansell’s hiccup-free 1902 Mercedes-Simplex – the name describing its simplicity of design and operation – was the racing version of what is often described as the first modern automobile, which came into being in 1901 as the Mercedes 35, the first car to bear that now well-known name.

Before the name was attached to a car, it belonged to the daughter of Austrian-born Emil Jellinek who was an early auto enthusiast and racer and distributor of Daimler Moteren Gesellschafft’s (DMG) cars in Nice.

Prior to the turn of the century, automobiles were still ungainly and unwieldy contraptions more akin to horse-drawn carriages or tippy tricycle-like contrivances and Jellinek had owned both, before spotting an ad for a Daimler and ordering one. But with its mid-mounted twin-cylinder engine, it could only manage about 15 mph and that just wasn’t good enough for Jellinek to impress his pals in dust-ups on Nice’s dusty country roads.

He ordered four faster versions, selling three, and then ordered half a dozen more provided they came with front-mounted, four-cylinder powerplants. Jellinek felt that as horses were generally located in front of carriages so should car engines.

These were certainly faster but one promptly killed its driver in the La Turbie hillclimb indicating to Jellinek a new approach was needed, something lighter, lower and with a wider track. He then bullied and tempted the factory, which had just experienced the death of founder Gottlieb Daimler, into designing it by promising to buy 36, if he could sell them under his daughter Mercedes’ name.

DMG pointed engineer Wilhelm Maybach and Daimler’s son Paul at the project and a prototype emerged just as the new century began.

The Mercedes 35 was unlike anything that had gone before. Its huge 6.6-litre, four-cylinder, 35-hp engine’s intake and exhaust valves were mechanically operated, it had Bosch electric ignition and actually “revved” to around 1,000 rpm versus thudding at a few hundred rpm like a stationary engine. Behind it was a four-speed gearbox with gated shifter.

The frame was of pressed steel with solid front and rear axles, pedal-operated drum brakes were fitted on the rear wheels backed up by a hand-operated band brake on the transmission which delivered drive to the rear wheels via a pair of chains.

Up front was a honeycomb radiator and bodywork that included flared fenders, two seats and a steering column that was inclined rather than vertical. At 2,200 pounds, it was half the weight of the previous model, which had a top speed of about 37 mph and could reach a heady 55 mph.

It arrived just in time for speed week at Nice and left rivals in its dust. The previous Daimler model had averaged 19 mph up La Turbie, this one 32 mph. Jellinek then dropped white four-seater bodywork on it and paraded it on the Promenade des Anglais. And had to beat buyers off with a stick.

With an engine that now made 40 hp, a longer wheelbase and a lower profile among other improvements, it went into production as the 1902 as the Mercedes Simplex and racing versions went on to score numerous race wins, including events in the U.S. with notorious tear-about-town multi-millionaire William Kissim (Willie K.) Vanderbilt Jr. behind the wheel.

*****

Back in 1902

Mercedes didn't have it all its own way during speed week at Nice in 1902 – a steam-powered French Gardner-Serpollet becomes the first non-electric car to take the world speed record with a run on the Promenade des Anglais during which it reaches 119 km/h.

Denmark becomes the first country to adopt fingerprinting as an official method of identifying criminals.

The United States pays France $40-million for the concession to build the Panama Canal.

Greek archeologist Valarious Stais discovers an artifact recovered from a wreck is actually a complex mechanical calculator constructed in 150-100 B.C. and used to make astronomical calculations. The Antikythera mechanism has been hailed as the world's first analogue computer.

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