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HomeCar CultureWhich came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?

Which came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?

You might be surprised at the correct answer

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Forget the chicken and the egg; do you know which came first — the motorized carriage or the motorized boat? 

In the summer of 1886, and before the first drive in Gottlieb Daimler’s 3-wheeled car, he and Wilhelm Maybach launched a combustion engine drive system in three vessels they used on water near Bad Cannstatt, Germany.

Mercedes-Benz notes that August 2021 marks the 135th anniversary of the accomplishment, part of the pair’s goal for motorization “on water, on land and in the air.”

Daimler, Which came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?, ClassicCars.com Journal
In August 1886, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (sitting on either side of the engine housing) undertook the first test drives with Daimler motorboats on the Neckar River

“In the summer of 1886 Daimler equipped three differently-sized boats with the small and powerful one-cylinder engine, which, because of its distinctive shape, was also known as the “grandfather clock,” Mercedes reports in a news release.

“They offered enough space for between two and ten people. The ‘Neckar’ was the biggest of the three, with the ‘Rems’ in the middle and the ‘Schwaben’ the smallest. 

“The engine, on which Daimler and Maybach had been working since 1882 in Cannstatt and which debuted in the two-wheeled ‘Reitwagen’ (riding car) in 1885, proved to be highly successful as a boat drive.”

However, the story continues, there were reservations among the public about using these new engines in vehicles. 

Daimler, Which came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?, ClassicCars.com Journal
Daimler built boats in this facility starting in 1888
Daimler, Which came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?, ClassicCars.com Journal
1893 advertisement for Daimler Motor Boats

“Daimler therefore wanted to give the impression of an electric drive system. His son, Paul Daimler, reported: ‘In this [first] boat, which was even fitted with electrical insulators and wires during the day in order to keep the fact that it was powered with petrol a secret, the engine was removed and installed on a daily basis. My father’s explanation for this: ‘It runs on oilectricity’.’

“This meant the boat from the summer of 1886 was a forerunner for later prototypes in automotive development. After all, their design and technology is also camouflaged during testing.”

It was on October 9, 1886, Daimler registered a patent for a “Device for operating a screw-shaft of a boat by means of a gas or petroleum engine.” 

Patent DRP 39367 was issued June 1, 1887, in Germany. He also was granted US patent No. 361,931 for his “Explosive Gas Marine Engine” on April 26, 1887.

Daimler also devised a reversing unit so boats could be driven forward or backward for safer docking maneuvers.

Daimler, Which came first for Daimler: Motorcars or motorboats?, ClassicCars.com Journal
Daimler powered the chancellors boat, which is displayed in the Mercedes-Benz Museum

Patent in hand, Maybach took a compact motorboat through Frankfurt in the spring of 1887. The event was crowd pleasing, drawing the attention of a rowing regatta and even the police as he cruised the river Main.

Daimler established a shipyard in Bad Cannstatt and began motorboat production in 1888. Among the craft he powered was “Marie,” owned by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, which could reach 11 km/h with its 1.5-horsepower engine. Daimler soon was demonstrating his craft in Hamburg and in Italy and selling motorboats to people including the Sultan of Morocco, whose boat was disassembled into six pieces for transport via camel.

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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