Development of the record-breaking Benz 200 hp started in 1909 at Benz & Cie. in Mannheim under the guidance of Victor Hemery. The starting point for the new vehicle was the Benz 150 hp racing car. By enlarging the bore to 185 mm, the displacement of the 15.1-litre engine was increased to a substantial 21.5 litres. The unit produced up to 147 kW (200 hp) at 1600 rpm. The four-cylinder in-line engine consisted of cylinders cast together in pairs, and weighed 407 kg. It had overhead inlet and outlet valves as well as two spark plugs per cylinder. The engine’s power was transferred to the rear axle by a four-speed manual transmission via an idler shaft and chain.
Initially the engine was used in the body of the Benz 1908 Grand Prix car. With Fritz Erle at the wheel the car successfully completed its first outing at the one-kilometre race in Frankfurt am Main on 22 August 1909. With a flying start, Erle covered the kilometre in 22.6 seconds, equivalent to an average speed of 159.3 km/h. Erle and Hemery had made the car as narrow as possible in order to reduce wind resistance to a minimum, which explains why the gearshift and handbrake levers and the exhaust system were located outside the body of the car, with only bulges in the hood giving the exhaust rocker arms the space they required. The high-standing, narrow radiator core was accommodated behind a brass grille, whose upper end formed an expansion tank pointing out sharply from the front of the car. This “bird’s beak” helped to give the record-breaking machine its striking and somewhat aggressive appearance, whilst at the rear of the car the body tapered off into a pointed tail. When it came to the seat positions, the driver and co-driver were literally shoulder-to-shoulder. Co-driver’s job in the car was to operate the hand-operated petrol pump.
The sound levels produced by the four-cylinder engine were described as “infernal”. This was because the combination of the cylinders, each with a capacity of more than 5 litres, created a thunderous roar which left spectators’ ears ringing and the earth shaking. The fact that the exhaust pipe also ejected flames from time to time only served to underscore the brute strength of the car.
Victor Hemery drove the 200 hp car for the first time on 17 October 1909 at a sprint race in Brussels, where he succeeded in totally outclassing the competition. Race victories were not the primary aim of Benz & Cie., however. It rather more had its sights set on breaking the iconic speed mark of 200 km/h. On 8 November 1909, Victor Hemery looked to exceed 200 km/h on the track at Brooklands, which was the only track in Europe at the time on which a speed of 200 km/h was possible. But Brooklands did not make it easy. The two steep curves of the concrete oval, designed for the highest speeds, also posed a barrier at the same time. If Hemery would drive too fast, there was a danger of taking off.
Hemery succeeded in mastering both the car and the track. A speed of 202.648 km/h was recorded for the kilometre, and he even reached 205.666 km/h over the half-mile, from flying starts in both cases. The 200 km/h mark had now been broken for the first time in Europe. The race tracks of old Europe, however, weren’t able to support any higher speeds. This is why Benz & Cie. turned its focus on America.
After completing a series of trial runs around Mannheim, the car was shipped off to America in January 1910, complete with new body. After discovering that Jesse Froehlich had taken delivery of the car, event manager Ernie Moross proposed a deal with the New York-based Benz importer. He offered his 150-hp Grand Prix Benz plus 6000 dollars in exchange for the record-breaking racer. The businessman even had a catchy name in mind. This was a lightning-fast car, so why not call it the “Lightning Benz”. The name was painted onto his new purchase.
Moross’ driver Barney Oldfield lined up at Daytona Beach in Florida on 16 and 17 March 1910 without any kind of specific preparation for his record attempt – and duly posted a new best of 211.4 km/h. However, the A.I.A.C.R. (Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus), the highest authority in car racing and the precursor to the FIA refused to recognise the record because the Benz had not covered the distance in the opposite direction as well. Subsequently Moross organised a series of show events for the “Lightning Benz”. The car’s name was soon to lose its sheen in the eyes of its restless owner, who replaced it with the German translation “Blitzen-Benz”.
In late 1910 the American Automobile Association (AAA) took the step of excluding Barney Oldfield from all racing activities. In his most recent outings, Oldfield had subjected the Blitzen-Benz to such a severe battering that Moross had to have it repaired. His seat for the following season was taken by the former Buick works driver Bob Burman – much to the annoyance of Oldfield, who was well aware of the reserves of speed still locked up inside the car.
Burman lined up at Daytona Beach on 23 April 1911. Tapping the car’s full potential, he squeezed out an average 228.1 km/h for the mile with flying start and 226.7 km/h over the kilometre with flying start. This was an absolute land speed record which was to remain unbroken by any other vehicle until 1919. Only Ralph de Palma was able to establish a new world record, clocking up a speed of 241.2 km/h (149.875 mph) over the flying mile at Daytona Beach on 12 February 1919 in his Packard.
In 1911, the record-breaking Benz 200 hp was not only faster than all other cars and locomotives (the rail vehicle record of 1903 was 210 km/h), but also twice as fast as the aircraft of the time. The Blitzen-Benz spent the rest of the season decked out in “war paint”, with an imposing Imperial Eagle and thick trim lines being added to the paintwork. The car was now also fitted with a speedometer, with the transfer shaft located outside the car itself and extending forward to the right front wheel.
The Blitzen-Benz embarked on a tour across the USA, becoming something of a sensation on wheels. However, a change in the regulations in 1913 stopped it in its tracks. With displacement limited to 7.4 litres, the legendary Blitzen-Benz was passed on to Stoughton Fletcher, who hired Burman to carry out the necessary conversion work during 1914. In October 1915, Fletcher then sold the car to Harry Harkness.
On 2 November 1915 the car made its return to public life, re-badged as the “Burman Special” for a race against Ralph de Palma’s Sunbeam at Sheepshead Bay, New York, USA. However, the record-breaking car of years past was barely recognisable, with its wire spoke wheels now containing more tightly arranged spokes, concertina-type dampers fitted in place of spring-loaded shock absorbers, staggered seats, a bulge in the cockpit construction acting as a wind deflector, and a significantly longer and more rounded tail which sloped downwards towards the rear.
In Easter 1922 the Benz appeared at Brooklands, where it sported white paintwork, a modified engine cover and a new radiator. Count Louis Vorow Zborowski was the new owner of the car, but was unable to pilot the Blitzen-Benz to any further success. In 1923 he tore the car apart and used some of the powertrain components for a new project of his own, the Higham Special.