Wilhelm Maybach was born in Heilbronn on 9 February 1846. After his mother had died in 1856 and his father in 1859, a philanthropic institution at Reutlingen took in Maybach as a student. Its founder, Gustav Werner discovered Maybach’s technical talent and sent him to the school’s engineering workshop. Maybach also took extra classes in physics and mathematics at Reutlingen’s public high school.
At the age of 19, Wilhelm Maybach was already a qualified designer working on stationary engines. At this time he met Gottlieb Daimler, who noticed Maybach’s efforts and took him on as his main assistant. Daimler subsequently took Maybach with him wherever his professional activities led him. The first of these posts was at Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft Karlsruhe in 1869. When Daimler joined Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz AG as a director in 1872, Maybach went too. Here Wilhelm Maybach was promoted from simple draughtsman to chief designer and acquired his first experience with the Otto engine.
When Daimler departed Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz AG following a dispute in 1882, Maybach went with him and made Cannstatt his new home. Here, he and Daimler developed the small, high-speed internal combustion engine. In 1887 they moved into new production facilities on the slopes of the Seelberg. Shortly after Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) was established in 1890, Maybach left the company. However, between 1892 and 1895 he continued his cooperation with Daimler, creating around twelve cars during this time. Daimler also quit DMG in 1893.
They both returned to DMG in 1895, but Wilhelm Maybach left DMG again as a result of a dispute in 1907. After that he began working on plans for a joint venture with his son Karl. On 23 March 1909, Luftfahrzeug-Motorenbau-GmbH Bissingen was established as a subsidiary of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin. The new company manufactured drive systems for the Zeppelin airships. The technical director of the new company was Wilhelm Maybach’s son Karl.
Wilhelm Maybach enjoyed a peaceful and richly decorated old age. The King of Württemberg appointed him Royal Chief Engineer of Württemberg, the following year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. The King of Prussia presented him with the Order of the Red Eagle 4th Class and from the Association of German Engineers he received their highest award, the Grashof Memorial Medal. Before his death on 29 December 1929, he was able to witness the unveiling of his son Karl’s twelve-cylinder Maybach DS.
Wilhelm Maybach can be considered as the creator of the modern car. The 35 hp Mercedes from 1901 bears many of the design features one still finds today in cars all over the world. Maybach was responsible for many of the innovations that would have a lasting influence on vehicle design, including toothed-gear transmission (1889), the spray nozzle carburettor (1893), the tubular radiator (1897) and subsequently the honeycomb radiator (1900), as well as the first V-engine in 1889 and in 1896 the world’s first truck, in 1897 the Victoria model, and in 1898 the Phoenix racing car.
Between 1898 and 1899 he built five new four-cylinder engines with outputs of 6, 10, 12, 16 and 23 hp. Then in 1902 came the 300-hp Maybach-Loutzky marine engine system along with the Mercedes-Simplex, and in 1906 a six-cylinder racing car with overhead camshaft and twin-plug ignition.