On 29 September 1888, piano manufacturer William Steinway established the Daimler Motor Company on Long Island, New York.
Thus began the history of Daimler in North America, 125 years ago – just two years after the birth of the automobile. The aim was to produce stationary and marine engines in the United States according to a patent owned by Gottlieb Daimler.
Innovation, in the form of the high-speed internal combustion engine, was at the heart of the automobiles that Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz invented, independently of one another, in 1886. Yet these novel machines were capable of much more than simply powering a four-wheeled (the Daimler Motor Carriage) or three-wheeled (the Benz Patent Motor Car) road vehicle.
Gottlieb Daimler demonstrated this by implementing his single-cylinder unit, often called the “Grandfather Clock” due to its distinctive shape, as a stationary engine and as a means of propulsion in a range of vehicles. Examples of mobile applications include a two-wheeled riding car (1885), the motor boat “Marie”, a four-seater railway trolley, a motorised narrow-gauge “Waggonet”, or tram, (all 1887) and Wölfert’s airship (1888).
New York piano-maker William Steinway was particularly interested in the use of Daimler engines as stationary power sources and marine drive systems. Born Willhelm Steinweg in Seesen near Braunschweig (Brunswick), Germany, in 1835, the famous instrument builder had emigrated to North America in 1850 and met Daimler on a visit back to his homeland in 1888. Steinway had known Wilhelm Maybach, design engineer and Daimler confidant, since 1876, and it is likely that he was responsible for bringing the two together.
On 22 August 1888, Daimler and Steinway met to discuss in detail the idea of licensing production of the Cannstatt engines in the United States. “Have a long talk with Daimler”, noted Steinway later in his travel diary. He returned soon afterwards to New York, where the Daimler Motor Company was established in Long Island City on 29 September 1888.
So it was that Gottlieb Daimler, whose private company was the precursor to Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in Cannstatt, became the first European motor manufacturer to have a subsidiary in the USA. Despite this, the intention was not to build complete motor vehicles in New York, rather the Daimler licence would be used for the import and, from 1891, for the construction of stationary and marine engines.
In August 1890, Daimler shipped the first Wilhelm Maybach-designed four-cylinder engine to New York. The 451-kilogram power plant boasted a displacement of 6 litres and delivered 9 kW (12.3 hp) at 390 rpm. This was followed 10 days later by a 2.4-litre variant, developed in parallel, which weighed in at 153 kilograms and had a power output of 4 kW (5.9 hp) at 620 rpm. Both models were intended for installation in boats.
During the following year, 1891, in Hartford, Connecticut, William Steinway commissioned production of the first operational vehicle engine in the States, built under licence for the Daimler Motor Company on the basis of original plans from Gottlieb Daimler. Sales of the American Daimler engines were lifted by DMG’s participation at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The Cannstatt company showed a modified version of the wire-wheel car, which was also its first working automobile to be displayed to the American public. Gottlieb Daimler attended the World’s Fair in person during his honeymoon with second wife Lina.
William Steinway had ambitious plans for the motorisation of the United States, stating in an 1895 newspaper interview: “The cars which we intend to produce for the American market will be capable of carrying between two and four people and will be driven by engines with between 2 ½ and 3 ½ hp. Each car will have four different speed settings: 3 ½, 6, 9, and 14 miles per hour. The fuel – petroleum – costs about one cent per hp and hour, making the automobile considerably less expensive than horse power.” He considered Daimler’s wire-wheel car too lightly-built for the “rough cobblestone streets we have in this country” and as such intended that Daimler Motor Company would “create a model that will be adapted to conditions in America”. In fact, Steinway died in November 1896 before a car could be built under his guidance.
Steinway’s heirs sold their shares in Daimler Motor Company to General Electric Company and, following restructuring, from 1898 onwards the manufacturing operation became the Daimler Manufacturing Company. It was not until 1905 that the first “American Mercedes” was finally produced. This was essentially a copy of the Mercedes 45 hp already built in Cannstatt.