Motorcars were not always as effortless to drive as they are today – we head to George to experience a Benz 10/30hp, a car predating the unification of Daimler-Benz
I’m off in first gear – barely at jogging speed – but, for the first time in my driving life, I’m rather scared of changing into second gear. The problem is, I can’t keep the car in first gear, as it would take hours to drive to our planned destination. This car is the oldest – and one of the most intimidating – I’ve ever driven... All those inspirational posters that say, “It is not about the destination but the journey”, have a point, but I can’t stay in first gear for the next three miles. With a high level of trepidation, I press the clutch pedal and try (rather unsuccessfully) to blip the throttle and pull the long, vintage gearlever backwards. After a second or two of clatter-clacking, everything comes together and second gear is engaged.
Now I need to build up confidence for third gear (I can already feel the sweat
droplets forming on my brow). The thing is, you need to press the throttle after
you have engaged the clutch to make the gear change process as slick as possible. This is one of the many challenges of an early car such as this Benz 10/30hp, which doesn’t have a synchromesh gearbox.
Apart from that, I need to stay focused. There are three pedals, but they do not operate things in the order you would expect; the clutch and the throttle pedal have been swapped around. I remind myself of this configuration constantly and, fortunately, I never get it wrong. It is not all smooth sailing, though. As we slowly make our way up the spectacular mountain pass in the Southern Cape region, I only realise when we arrive at the turnaround point that I have driven the entire distance with the handbrake lever engaged! Embarrassment engulfs me, and not just because the owner was sitting right next to me the whole time.
It is on the return downhill, with second gear selected and a light application on the brakes, that the drivetrain’s characterful whine is most noticeable. In the distant past, I suppose one was only too happy not to have to walk to your destination, and this mechanical noise was possibly preferable to the sound of a horse’s hooves. These are pretty much my thoughts every time I get behind the wheel of this 1913 Benz – a car produced a good 13 years before Daimler-Benz was officially founded.
As I sit behind the wheel, I ask the owner about each of the gauges and controls. These include a speedometer on the far left, and even a neat interior lamp to illuminate some of the gauges at night. The centre of the steering wheel also offers a throttle lever, fulfilling a similar function to the cruise control system of modern cars. You can even increase your speed by turning this throttle lever in a clockwise direction. Each of these controls is made from brass or copper, and for a moment I cannot help but think of the bridge of the RMS Titanic.
After all, that majestic ship collided with an iceberg just one year before this Benz 10/30hp rolled off the production line. It is important to remember that this was an era when the manufacturing of motorcars was not as complicated as it is now.
Unlike today, when manufacturing is mostly done by massive global companies, during the first decades of automotive manufacturing there were around 4 000 different companies (and individuals) who tried their hand
at the business of building cars. The year 1913 was also the last year companies and countries could focus fully on motor manufacturing before the start of World War One in 1914. Following the onset of the war, both Benz and Mercedes would change their focus to building military vehicles and aeroplane engines.
It is also understandable why these early cars were still frowned upon by the general public. Firstly, they made a lot of noise, and if you were used to the relaxing, clip-clop soundtrack of horse riding, the noise pollution of these cars would easily disrupt an entire village upon its arrival.
Indeed, this is the first motorcar I’ve driven in which I can truly sense the historical connection with a horse-drawn vehicle. Although the cloth roof is in place, when it is removed the car closely resemblances a carriage. Walk around this Benz and it is the details that grab your attention, such as the little brass light at the rear illuminating the numberplate, the copper (!) exhaust pipe, and the fuel tank that is there for everyone to see. There is even beading between the rear wheelarches and the bodywork of the cabin. The two spare tyres are
positioned next to the driver, and the wheels have so many spokes I don’t even want to contemplate counting them – or cleaning them!
At the front, the angled radiator (no grille in front of it) was a well-known Benz feature at the time. The headlights are situated above the single spotlight and the hooter. If you feel brave, you can still start the engine manually by using the crank handle. Fortunately, this car’s owner has added an electrical system, which connects a button next to the steering wheel with the engine. Thus equipped, it only takes a push of this switch to start the car.
Don’t forget the toolbox attached to the side steps. In it you will find a comically big spanner, required to loosen or fasten the centre-wheel nut. Rear seated passengers can easily become comfortable and stretch out their legs without touching the front seats, although comfort is somewhat hindered by the breeze that whips around the cabin when the roof is lowered.
The owner of this car is a passionate Mercedes-Benz collector. His collection spans a good few models starting with this 1913 Benz, up to a 1984 Mercedes-Benz W123 200 with only 10 000 km on the odometer! The 1913 Benz formed part of an automotive auction in 2000. There were obviously several other cars on offer, but the owner had his heart set on this specific example. Fortunately, the car was basically in the condition you see on these pages. However, although it has lived in South Africa since the 1930s, it was at one stage in pieces scattered around a yard. It was around this time that two enthusiasts found it and rebuilt it.
Over the years a few things needed some attention. The cloth roof was overhauled, and so was the 2,6-litre, four-cylinder engine. The latter work is evident from the way the two-valve motor idles perfectly while I chat to the owner. For a car that is just over 100 years old, it is in exceptional condition. There is an interesting twist to the early life of this Benz, though. On the left-hand side of the car, there is a brass plate showing that the body was manufactured by ‘Carosserie H. Buhne’ in Berlin. After some research, the owner discovered that this company was only founded after World War One. This means that the body of this car was redone after it left Benz in 1913.
Could it be that the car might have been used during the war and needed refurbishment afterwards? And to whom did it belong? Questions without answers...
The plaque may also explain why this particular car only has a single door, while other similar models had three doors, meaning the driver must enter the Benz via the front passenger side. Hardly an ideal first date car, then.
A Benz reborn
As we head back to the owner’s residence, I’m slightly more relaxed and have time to focus on the quality of the ride. With such a thin wheel and tyre combination (815x105 6 ply tyres front and rear) I expected a bumpy and choppy ride, but that is not the case – the leaf spring suspension certainly absorbs some bumps better than I had anticipated.
Once the car is moving, it can be steered easily by means of the thick, wooden steering wheel. Parking at low speed is a different matter, however. Fortunately for drivers in the first half of the 20th century, three-point turns and parallel parking were not so important. At higher speed, the steering wheel becomes ever so slightly heavier when you turn away from the centre position, but that hasn’t put off this car’s owner, who has taken the Benz on several runs spanning more than 70 km and the best part of a few hours to complete. The challenge is managing the car’s speed, particularly when going downhill, as there are only drum brakes at the rear and no brakes up front!
It is understandable why, for some enthusiasts, a car such as this 1913 Benz might seem slightly less appealing than Mercedes’ later creations.
After all, the cars from the 1920s and 30s are more practical and usually take less effort to drive. However, the rarity factor is definitely part of this car’s appeal. One 10/30hp model, which was restored, came up for sale a few years ago at the prestigious Auto Salon Singen showroom on the border between Germany and Switzerland. The price was a substantial €259 000.
High value aside, piloting this car was such an illuminating experience. It comes from a time when people still needed to fully grasp the concept of a self-powered carriage. It was a time when nobody could have known, or predicted the future of these remarkable vehicles, and a time when driving a road car required great physical exertion – such actions unlikely ever to be needed again.
Model: 1913 Benz 10/30hp
Engine: 2 610 cm3, four cylinder
Power: 30 bhp (22 kW) at 1 750 r/min
Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD
Chassis weight: 960 kg
Top speed: 70 km/h
Fuel consumption: 15-17 L/100 km
Years produced: 1912-1914