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February 12, 1908, was the starting date for "the greatest auto race" – a spectacular transcontinental dash from New York to Paris. The course, some 22,000 kilometers long (about 13,700 miles) carried the contestants across three continents, mountain ranges, and mile after mile of muddy tracks, not to mention rivers and deserts.
The first "round the world" car race was organized by two newspapers, Le Matin in Paris and the New York Times. A total of six cars, driven by four teams from the USA, France, Italy and Germany, lined up to start their adventure before 250,000 excited spectators in New York’s Times Square. The starting of the engines was met with thundering applause from the crowd. Then the President of the Automobile Club of America stepped in front of the line of cars and fired the starting gun.
The participating carmakers were De Dion-Bouton, Motobloc and Sizaire-Naudin from France, Züst from Italy and Thomas from the U.S. The Thomas entry was driven by George Schuster. The German team’s driver was Lieutenant Hans Koeppen, driving a Protos car that had been built by 600 workers in just 16 days at the Berlin factory of the same name.
The Protos was a home to us modern nomads for a long time, and our refuge in every situation of a genuine life of adventure
Hans Koeppen, 1909
The car was a bivouac and a repair shop all rolled into one – the workshop being housed in a heavy superstructure under draft-free tarpaulins. The team slept over the seats, where an extra bunk was installed. The car was also loaded with spare parts, food, medications, weapons, and even sled runners. And it was equipped with six massive tanks carrying a total of 700 liters of gasoline (185 gallons) and 100 liters of oil (24 gallons), because there would be few filling stations along the way. The four-cylinder engine, with a capacity of 4,360 cubic centimeter, could generate 30 metric horsepower and reach a top speed of 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) under ideal conditions.
The Protos braved nasty weather to achieve a one-day record of 625 kilometers (388 miles) on the leg from St. Petersburg to Germany. Hans Koeppen recorded his experiences and impressions in his book, "Around the World by Car," and described the challenging situations he and his team overcame. The Protos got to Berlin on July 24, 1908, where a vast crowd awaited. Two days later, after a run of 167 days, it reached Paris. Koeppen described the arrival: "We were at our destination! […] and were the first to log in." Nevertheless, the German team was not declared the winners. Because the Germans had covered 150 kilometers of the route in the USA by rail – which was originally allowed – they had to concede the victory to an American, George Schuster. Despite the disappointment, Koeppen was celebrated as a hero on his return home.
The race inspired Hollywood director Blake Edwards to make the adventure comedy "The Great Race" in 1965, starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. But that title tells nothing about the close association between the Protos race and the industrial history of Berlin. In 1898 engineer Alfred Sternberg founded the Protos motor factory in Schöneberg, which at the time was still a separate town near Berlin. A few years later, the company moved to Reinickendorf, and began building six-cylinder, 100 horsepower models. But the economic crisis of 1907/1908 had left Sternberg’s factory in a precarious state.
The publicity that surrounded the race paid off for Protos’ founder, because in the effort to tap new growth segments for Siemens-Schuckertwerke, Wilhelm von Siemens, the company’s "Head of the House," took advantage of the opportunity to buy up the Protos plant in 1908. From then on, "Protos cars from Siemens-Schuckertwerke" – as the cars were officially named – would be built in Berlin-Reinickendorf. Two years later, the product range included seven different gas-powered models and three electric cars.
Nevertheless, within a few years corporate management was forced to realize that the automotive industry offered little prospect of success. Between 1920 and 1924 alone, 121 new companies began building cars in Germany. So in the mid-twenties, the electric company went back to concentrating on its core competences, and stopped making cars. But it kept producing and selling electric home appliances under the Protos brand for years to come.
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