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Like Father, Like Son: Karl Maybach - autoevolution

In many families, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Not such good news if one of the parents is Ted Bundy, but very good if the father is brilliant engineer Wilhelm Maybach, one of the founding fathers of the modern automobile. This is the story of Wilhelm's son, Karl Maybach, and his passion and talent for anything mechanical related.

Karl was born in 1879 and followed in his father's footsteps since he was a child, growing up around what were the first modern cars, thus learning as much as he could about the construction of an engine with internal combustion. Following a tumultuous relationship with Gottlieb Daimler and eventually with his firm, DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft), Wilhelm Maybach wanted to start his own business.

After Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's Daimler-powered LZ4 airship had engine problems and was destroyed in a storm, Wilhelm took the opportunity to jump start his son's career. He wrote a letter to the Count, informing him of a new improved engine design which was created by Karl Maybach.

Since von Zeppelin had already heard of Maybach's mechanical skills he thought nothing less of his son, so in 1909 he opened the Luftfahrzeug Motorenbau GmbH airship engine factory together with the two Maybachs.

In 1912, the company moved to Friedrichshafen from the original location in Bissingen, also changing its name to Motorenbau Friedrichshafen. In the same year, the Maybachs bought a 40% share in the company, and Wilhelm made his son the technical director, thereby paving the road for the second stage in the Maybach legacy.

Just before the end of the First World War, on the 6th of May 1918, the company's name was again changed, only this time it included the two engineers' names, Maybach Motorenbau GmbH.

Even though the Maybach name is nowadays known for high tech luxury cars, Karl didn't originally planned to become an automobile maker. Because after the end of the World War I all German companies were prohibited from manufacturing aircraft engines by the Versailles Treaty, the young engineer had to change focus to other areas of work in order to stay in business.

Since the basic plans for an engine were pretty similar, the company switched to the production of train locomotive and naval ships engines. Wanting to expand the business even further and conquer new transportation markets, Karl Maybach also started to search for automobile manufacturers to buy Maybach engines.

After numerous tries, only the Dutch from Trompenburg - the company which owned Spyker Cars – secured a contract. A Maybach 5.7 liter six-cylinder engine was put in the Spyker 30/40 C4 automobile, but the Dutch firm ran into financial troubles and went bankrupt, thus ending the contract and leaving Karl to start manufacturing cars on his own. Following two development prototypes which were used for testing (W1 and W2), the first ever Maybach automobile destined for production, the W3 model, debuted at the 1921 edition of the Berlin Auto Show.

Just like his father, Karl Maybach's ambition was to manufacture only the most technically advanced vehicles, so the W3 gained a lot of media attention for its innovative design. All the cars which followed had highly advanced designs for their period, thus making them usually more expensive but also more sophisticated than most of its competitors.

Built around the tastes and wishes of the wealthy, some of the best Maybach cars had custom bodies fitted by various coachwork specialists, from Erdmann&Rossi to Jacques Saoutchik. Most of the custom coachbuild was done by Hermann Spohn's company though, which was favored by Maybach mostly thanks to its nearby headquarters, since it was based just 20 kilometers away from Friedrichshafen, in Ravensburg.

After having completed studies at Lausanne and Oxford, Karl was given the title of honorary doctorate of the Stuttgart Technical University. Some of his most notable inventions during his time as a technical director were the most advanced transmissions available at the time, some of them having up to eight speeds and requiring no clutch pedal.

Of course, his most famous design was the Zeppelin line of cars started in 1929, which were among the first automobiles fitted with a V12 powerplant under the hood. Other notable innovations were the world's first streamlined automobiles constructed using the principles of Paul Jaray, one of the earliest aerodynamicists, after wind tunnel tests conducted right in the REAL zeppelin hangars in Friedrichshafen.

During the time of car manufacturing, Maybach didn't stop producing ship and train engines. In 1932, the world speed record for trains was set by the “Fliegende Hamburger” (Flying Train from Hamburg, which is a play on words with the “Flying Dutchman opera” by Richard Wagner). The aerodynamic train was powered by two Maybach twelve-cylinder engines designed by Karl Maybach himself, while its streamline shape was developed in the Maybach wind tunnel.

When World War II erupted, the company had to start manufacture tank and assault ship engines for the Wehrmacht, and passenger car production ended in 1941. After the war ended, the Friedrichshafen headquarters were rebuilt, but only as a repair shop. Automobile production wasn't restarted until 2002, when Mercedes-Benz revived the Maybach brand. Karl was able to keep the plant open by agreeing to build engines for the French.

Over time, the engine operations survived and once again started to prosper, so the possibility of returning to the car business was taken into consideration, but Karl decided against it. After withdrawing from the company in 1952, he was appointed honorary professor at the Technical University in Stuttgart. He passed away on the 6th of February 1960, in Friedrichshafen, leaving the family business in good hands (the engine manufacturing business reunited with Daimler in early 1960s). The rest, as they say, is history.

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