Top trumps
© Jörg Walz
April 2021

Top trumps

For 130 years engineers have been investing enormous energy in the development of the automobile. Increasingly faster, safer, comfortable and efficient – passenger cars have been approaching perfection step by step. 14 representative milestones on four wheels mark the development path from past to present.
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Benz Patent-Motorwagen Type 1 (1886)

Cubic capacity 984 cc
Engine Single cylinder
Power output 0.75–0.88 HP
Output per liter 0.82 HP/liter
Vmax 16 km/h
0–100 km/h Not possible
Weight 265 kg (approx. 330 kg/HP)
Consumption 10 l/100 km

Key innovations The world’s first automobile; lightweight, fast-running single-cylinder four-stroke engine; first balancer weights on the crankshaft of an IC engine; new drive system and chassis designed from scratch.

The car and its history Carl Benz tested his invention of a “vehicle with gas engine operation” as thoroughly and as long as possible before finally holding patent number 37435 in his hands on January 29, 1886 – proving that this was the world’s first automobile and a product fit for everyday use. He had designed it in 1885 not only incorporating an engine into a carriage, but reinventing everything else around it as well: an automobile of the kind that is still being built today – with an engine, an ignition and cooling system, a transmission, wheels and brakes. Only the steering system posed too great a challenge for him – which is why the car has three wheels. With 0.82 HP per liter, specific output as a measure of engine power, owing to the times, was still relatively modest.

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Panhard P2D (1890)

Cubic capacity 921 cc
Engine V2
Power output 2 HP
Output per liter 2.19 HP/liter
Vmax 20 km/h
0–100 km/h Not possible
Weight 420 kg (210 kg/HP)
Consumption Unknown

Key innovations Introduction of standard design (front engine, rear-wheel drive); first car built in low-volume production.

The car and its history Following various changes in ownership of a former manufacturing company for woodworking machines, Panhard & Levassor was established in Paris in 1886. In 1890, they built France’s first automobile, the P2D, as a prototype. Assisting the company in this endeavor was the friendship with Gottlieb Daimler who allowed Panhard to build Daimler’s V engine under a licensing agreement starting in 1890. The first P2D actually became true mid-engine cars, which allowed for four full-size passenger seats, albeit with the occupants sitting back to back (“dos-a-dos”). In 1891, the engine – that grew to 1,290 cc and delivered up to 3.3 HP in the course of time – moved forward. Even today, the “standard car design” of the engine, radiator and transmission sitting at the front and rear-wheel drive is still based on this “Système Panhard.”

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Olds Curved Dash Runabout (1901)

Cubic capacity 1,564 cc
Engine Single cylinder
Power output 5.1 HP
Output per liter 3.27 HP/liter
Vmax 32 km/h
0–100 km/h Not possible
Weight 500 kg (98 kg/HP)
Consumption Unknown

Key innovations First volume-production automobile; longitudinally mounted leaf springs also serving as side members and suspension.

The car and its history Ransom Eli Olds began his engineering career at the end of the 19th century by experimenting with steam engines and electric motors. He came to the conclusion that the future would belong to IC engines and developed the Curved Dash Runabout that would later become the world’s top-selling car in its day. In 1901 alone, Olds Engine Works built 425 of these cars, each selling for 650 dollars. The car’s name was derived from its round, upwardly curved front which is nothing but a rolled wooden floor. By 1907, a total of about 11,000 cars were built, so Olds contributed to IC engines displacing steam-powered electric automobiles in a major way.

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Austro-Daimler 27/80
“Prinz Heinrich Wagen” (1910)

Cubic capacity 5,714 cc
Engine R4
Power output 95 HP
Output per liter 16.62 HP/liter
Vmax 132 km/h
0–100 km/h Approx. 13.5s
Weight 1,207 kg (12.1 kg/HP)
Consumption approx. 27.5 l/100 km

Key innovations The world’s first sports car; excellent specific power output; dual ignition; four-speed transmission; good aerodynamics thanks to V-shaped radiator and tapered-tail body style.

The car and its history Prince Albert Wilhelm Heinrich of Prussia, the brother of the German emperor, was a true automobile fan. In 1907, he initiated a competition to “perfect” the touring car and to promote tourism. In addition, the special stages were supposed to convey a racing character. The regulations specified that only four-seat road-going cars with four- or six-cylinder engines could be used. Exactly the right challenge for Ferdinand Porsche who at that time was employed with Austro-Daimler and in 1910 designed an appropriate car with aerodynamic performance which he drove himself. The four-day tour covered a 2,000-kilometer distance from Berlin to Homburg in the Saarland. Porsche triumphed: three Austro-Daimlers on podium and the professor himself in position 1.

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Bugatti Type 41 “Royale” (1926)

Cubic capacity 12,763 cc
Engine R8
Power output approx. 275 HP
Output per liter 21.57 HP/liter
Vmax Approx. 200 km/h
0–100 km/h Unknown
Weight 3,200 kg (11.6 kg/HP)
Consumption 55 l/100 km

Key innovations Monoblock engine; three valves; largest engine of all time in a road car; largest passenger car in automotive history.

The car and its history Luxury, luxury, luxury – Ettore Bugatti was never a modest man. Consequently, he put what is arguably the heaviest and most luxurious passenger car of all time on wheels: the Bugatti Type 41 “Royale.” Length of up 6.5 meters, wheelbase of 4.53 meters, engine 14.7 liters (prototype), followed by 12.7 liters (production). As was the custom in those days, Bugatti only supplied the “rolling chassis,” but meticulously monitored what type of body the (obviously) finest metal tailors would bolt to it. The eight-cylinder unit derived from an aircraft engine did not require a cylinder head, which made it particularly durable. As innovative as the Type 41 was – it would ultimately prove too large and too expensive. So, the world economic crisis carried it off in 1929. Only six complete cars plus one chassis were produced.

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Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B (1935)

Cubic capacity 2,905 cc
Engine R8, two compressors
Power output 180 HP
Output per liter 62.07 HP/liter
Vmax 185 km/h (short wheelbase)
0–100 km/h Unknown
Weight 1,150 kg (6.3 kg/HP)
Consumption 21.4 l/100 km

Key innovations Racing technology in a road car such as a sheer racing engine; independent front suspension.

The car and its history The Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 cars are regarded as technologically outstanding and visually fascinating automobiles not only with respect to their times – in a nutshell: They marked the pinnacle of pre-war automotive engineering, based on sheer racing technology. Transferred to this day and age, an 8C 2900 today would be a Formula 1 race car sporting one of the most beautiful bodies with road approval, which explains its high output per liter. The proportions of the Alfa are perfect and the round Veglia instruments for the tachometer and speedometer are reminiscent of Art Deco elements. Only a few of these cars – with a short (2,800 mm) or long (3,000 mm) wheelbase according to the customer’s preference and intended use – were built: between 30 and 36 depending on the source.

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Tucker ’48 “Torpedo” (1948)

Cubic capacity 5,473 cc
Engine 6-cylinder boxer
Power output 166 HP
Output per liter 30.33 HP/liter
Vmax 191.5 km/h
0–100 km/h Approx. 11.0s
Weight 1,921 kg (11.4 kg/HP)
Consumption 12.7 l/100 km

Key innovations Rear engine, safety belts, directional third headlight (“Cyclops Eye”); independent front and rear suspension; collapsible steering column; safety windshield; door cutouts up to the roof for easier ingress; four-speed transmission with automatic pre-selection.

The car and its history Preston Tucker – an engineer from Chicago – was a true visionary. He felt that all the cars on the market were not safe enough, so he designed his own with a length of more than 5.5 meters and named it ’48 based on its model year (it was only called the “Torpedo” in advertising). The technology and safety features of this rear-engine car were outstanding, but his financial backers soon cut off his money supply – legend has it that established U.S. automakers had a hand in this to keep from having to offer all these new features soon themselves. That’s why only 51 of these cars, including the prototype, were built – each selling for a certainly competitive price of 2,485 dollars.

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Chrysler New Yorker Firepower-V8 „Hemi“ (1951)

Cubic capacity 5,425 cc
Engine V8
Power output 182 HP
Output per liter 33.70 HP/liter
Vmax 158 km/h
0–100 km/h (62 mph) 16.4s
Weight 2.010 kg (11 kg/HP)
Consumption 22 l/100 km

Key innovations Engine with hemispherical combustion chambers; Hydraguide power steering.

The car and its history “New Yorker“ from 1939 to 1997 was typically the name given by the Chrysler brand to its top-of-the-line models – making it one of the model names used for the longest time in U.S. automotive history. In 1948, Chrysler launched an all-new “New Yorker” which in 1951, instead of the previous 5.3-liter eight-in-line unit, was equipped with an ultramodern 5.4-liter V8 – the so-called “hemi” (officially: Firepower V8). It had hemispherical combustion chambers. Their greatest advantages: high efficiency and high engine power with low compression. The main disadvantage: more expensive due to the more complex design.

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Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow (1965)

Cubic capacity 6,230 (later 6,750) cc
Engine V8
Power output 178 HP
Output per liter 28.71 HP/liter
Vmax approx. 190 km/h
0–100 km/h Approx. 11.5s
Weight 2,062 kg (11.6 kg/HP)
Consumption 22 l/100 km

Key innovations First RR featuring unibody construction (more compact exterior with a larger interior than predecessors) and disc brakes; front and rear independent suspension; hydraulic braking system (redundant for safety reasons) and hydro-pneumatic self-leveling.

The car and its history By the mid-60s, Rolls-Royce was no longer able to ignore the signs of the time and was in urgent need of a successor for the baroque body styling of its traditional models. In parallel to the new Silver Shadow the near-identically constructed Bentley T-Series was produced. While the exterior dimensions shrunk, the interior provided more room to the passengers. For the hydro-pneumatic system, the Britons used an existing one built on licenses from Citroën. The Silver Shadow was also available as a two-door coupé and convertible (sold as the Corniche from 1971 on). The convertible was retained in the model range until 1995. In total, 35,000 units of the most successful “Rolls” of all time to date were produced in 30 years.

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Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9 (1975)

Cubic capacity 6.834 cc
Engine V8
Power output 286 HP
Output per liter 41.45 HP/liter
Vmax 225 km/h
0–100 km/h 8.0s
Weight 1.985 kg (6.9 kg/HP)
Consumption 22 l/100 km

Key innovations First hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension in a Mercedes; central locking; headlight washer system; hydraulic lash adjusters from Schaeffler.

The car and its history Did the Mercedes managers have any idea that by coining a new term, the “S class,” they’d be creating a synonym for large executive cars? The 450 SEL 6.9 launched in 1975 combined sporty performance (286 HP) with all the amenities of a chauffeured sedan (including an additional 10 cm of wheelbase). The large V8 was a bored heirloom from the Mercedes 600 state sedan provided with dry sump lubrication. All W116 models featured innovations such as front double wishbone suspensions, anti-dive systems, a collision-protected fuel tank, deformable switches, steering wheels with impact absorbers, a safety passenger cell and finned taillights to keep dirt away. 7,380 “six-niners” were built in four and a half years (total W116 sales were 473,035 units) and sold for the price of a handsome detached house (1975: 70,000 marks; 1981: 81,300 marks).

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BMW 750 iL (1987)

Cubic capacity 4,988 cc
Engine V12
Power output 300 HP
Output per liter 60.00 HP/liter
Vmax 250 km/h (limited)
0–100 km/h 7.4s
Weight 1,860 kg (6.2 kg/HP)
Consumption 13.1 l/100 km*

Key innovations First German post-war twelve-cylinder; electronic damper control, car computer; electronic gas pedal.

The car and its history Mercedes was not amused at all when the once ailing acquisition candidate from Bavaria launched the first German post-war twelve-cylinder. The 1986 BMW 750i 1986 (factory code: E32) was truly awesome. Responsible for its both timelessly modern and elegant styling was Claus Luthe, the engine was created by Adolf Fischer and his team. From the beginning, the high-class business sedan was available either with a normal wheelbase (750i) or one extended by 11.4 centimeters. The car impressed with supreme comfort. Obviously, Mercedes very soon followed suit, particularly since BMW was able to sell nearly 50,000 750i and iL models – for about 130,000 marks a piece.

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Lexus LS 400 (1990)

Cubic capacity 3,969 cc
Engine V8
Power output 245 HP
Output per liter 61.25 HP/Liter
Vmax 250 km/h
0–100 km/h 8.5s
Weight 1,857 kg (7.6 kg/HP)
Consumption 11 l/100 km*

Key innovations Automatic air conditioning system, memory function of the front seats; radio with digital display; CD player; electric front-seat belt height adjustment.

The car and its history At the end of the 80s, nobody knew what a Lexus was – a new separate Toyota brand created for marketing high-class and high-grade automobiles in export markets, launched as “Project F1” with eight-cylinder engines from the American Indy Car and Champ Car series. From 1990 on, the products also came to Europe – the first model was the LS 400. The design was not regarded as very innovative, but the high-class cars soon acquired a reputation of solid reliability, good quality, delightfully long life combined with luxurious details. The engine was running quietly with silky-smooth refinement, and corrosion protection was perfect. Today, Lexus is regarded as an established alternative to Mercedes, BMW and Audi for solvent customers.

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Maybach 62 (2002)

Cubic capacity 5,513 cc
Engine V12 biturbo
Power output 550 HP
Output per liter 100 HP/liter
Vmax 250 km/h (limited)
0–100 km/h 5.4s
Weight 2,855 kg (5.2 kg/HP)
Consumption 16 l/100 km*

Key innovations The world’s highest-torque (900 Nm) production engine; four-zone air conditioning; electro-transparent panoramic glass roof with solar module; electrohydraulic brake; air suspension; voice control; automatic “teleaid” emergency call system, adaptive cruise control; contactless access and locking system.

The car and its history In 2002, Mercedes revived the former Maybach premium brand and under this name built upgraded S-class vehicles with luxury galore. The 240 model range was available as Maybach 57 (5.73 meters) or as a top-of-the line model 62 (6.17 meters). About five vehicles were built per day, some of them with up to 78 fine-wood components. For long and highly comfortable trips, the cars could be equipped with entertainment systems in any electronic form, humidors, sterling silver champagne flutes, etc. But the car was no success. After some 3,000 of them had been built, Maybach production ended in late 2012. Today, some of the top-end model ranges are called “Mercedes-Maybach.”

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Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid (2017)

Cubic capacity 2,894 cc
Engine V6 biturbo plus e-engine
Power output 330/462 HP (V6/system)
Output per liter 159.31 HP/liter (system)
Vmax 278 km/h
0–100 km/h 4.6s
Weight 2,170 kg (4.7 kg/HP)
Consumption 2.5 l/100 km (Hybrid)*

Key innovations Full torque from the start, use of electrical energy to boost top speed; a new electromechanical clutch for shorter response times; eight-speed double clutch; newly designed display and controls concept (Porsche Advanced Cockpit) with touch-sensitive panels and custom-configurable displays.

The car and its history The most recent electric design from Porsche is a new edition of the four-door Panamera sports sedan as a hybrid version that delivers both performance typical of Porsche (700 Nm of maximum torque from rest) and offers about 50 kilometers of all-electric travel distance at a maximum speed of 140 km/h (86.9 mph). The hybrid strategy of the all-wheel drive car stems from the 918 Spyder “super athlete.” While its predecessor still had a battery with an energy content of 9.4 kWh, the new e-hybrid is equipped with a 14.1-kWh battery – without an increase in battery weight.

* Mix laut Herstellerangabe auf Grundlage damaliger Messnormen

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The photographer

“It’s all a matter of perspective” ... A palm would be large enough to park all the cars on it. They’re artistically crafted 1:43 scale miniatures. Photographed in a real-world environment, they would take on completely different dimensions. A project Jörg Walz initially started as a social media experiment on Instagram has since evolved into a unique digital automobile museum.

Roland Löwisch
Author Roland Löwisch
Working efficiently is daily bread for freelance motor journalist Roland Löwisch – due to lots of driving, lots of research and lots of travel. If at all, heat losses are only incurred by a lack of time for family and friends. For those who might like to know: his own two cars have a specific output of about 54 HP/liter – at a combined age of about 70 years.