From Being Hidden In Berlin To Racing On The Nürburgring, This Rare Protos Race Car Has Some Stories
Photography by Máté Boér
By the dawn of the 20th century, the industry of the automobile was new but growing rapidly. Bertha Benz’s famous journey—the first road trip—inspired a revolution in personal mobility (and thus freedom), and in the early years of the 1900s it seemed that car manufacturers were cropping up in every city with factory potential, and various industrial operators started to produce automobiles on increasingly efficient production lines.
Many adventurous business minds were quick to try to build the best cars on the market, or else the most affordable or the highest-performing. Hundreds of car brands popped up (and disappeared) in those decades of automotive nascency; and in some regards, it can be considered the most colorful period of the industry to date. While today most of these brands have vanished entirely and long ago—among them once-big names like De Dietrich, Panhard et Levassor, and Wolseley. But the very few that could survive the first real opening of the floodgates have gone on to form vital parts of the spine of the automobile industry, like (Mercedes-)Benz, Cadillac, and Renault.
The list of defunct automobile companies is longer than the list of successes, and while we love the canonized tales of the Ferraris and Fords of the world, the stories behind the mostly unfamiliar names can be even more exciting—and not just because of their relative obscurity.
The Protos brand is a fine example of what I mean. I first became aware of the marque last year in the paddock area of the legendary Nürburgring during a vintage weekend. Amongst the always-appealing 300SLs and CSLs and such that garner most of the home crowd’s attention, I found myself drawn just as strongly to the form of this behemoth. The simple, unpretentious, yet somehow menacing “PROTOS” painted on the its great red flanks made it easy to identify its maker, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of the brand up to that point. I love coming across new-to-me specimens in the world of old cars, but even better is when you can learn about where they came from. In this case I lucked out, as the owners, the Engel family, were happy to school me on this machine.
The Protos brand began officially in Schöneberg, at the time a separate town near Berlin, two years before the turn of the century. As the Engels tell the story, Protos gained a strong reputation a decade after its founding thanks to an impressive achievement at the New York to Paris Race in 1908, being one of only three of the six starting cars finished the rough, 169-day-long, ‘round-the-globe route that started at Times Square and arrived in Paris by way of Alaska, Japan, and Russia.
The wanderlust of the participants and the resultant circumstances that these early machines survived can hardly be described by today’s standards. Although Lieutenant Hans Koeppen and the four-cylinder Protos Type 17/35 hp arrived four days earlier to Paris than George Schuster aboard the American-built Thomas Flyer, the later was declared the winner after Koeppen received a time penalty for skipping a part of the designated route and instead transporting the car by train.
In other words nobody was was robbed of victory, and the Protos team performed extremely well when not hitching a ride. The performance of the team on the New York to Paris race garnered a lot of positive attention for the marque, while the driver, Koeppen, became something of a national hero himself. Not long after, the well-known electrical engineering company, Siemens-Schuckert, bought the brand.
As mentioned earlier, Protos was founded in 1898 in what is now part of Berlin, and began producing cars in 1905, a few years prior to the big event. Another early success was earned with the company’s smooth-running engine, the so called “kompensmotor,” in which an extra, third piston compensated for the engine’s vibration caused by the two driving pistons. With the financial and technological background from Siemens, Protos would then develop six-cylinder engines and electrical vehicles offered along with their proven four-cylinder propelled cars.
The luxurious six-cylinder versions were admired by no less of an important personality than Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor himself, who only drove Protos cars. In 1927, another giant of the electrical industry, AEG, bought Protos and merged it into NAG, (the German National Automobile Company), and thus began the slow disappearance of the make, starting with a rename to NAG-Protos, then to simply NAG, which ceased car production in 1934. But let’s get back to the story of this particular Protos.
In its short history, the brand was best known for its passenger cars, which made the discovery of this beast—which was then the remnants of a Type-C race car—an even bigger surprise when it was uncovered in the middle of the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Pieces of this mysterious car were found by a friend of the current owner. In what was likely an effort to hide the car during the Soviet era, the pieces were found walled in in a building in Brandenburg.
After the acquisition of the brand by Siemens, production moved to Nonnendamm, on the outskirts of Berlin, and this machine stayed close to its birthplace for many decades. Bits of evidence show that the car was left there sometime in the 1950s, but the undercarriage and several other parts—like the wonderfully patinated wooden steering wheel—survived the decades in the dark. It’s estimated that this unique car was originally built in 1920, and since it is the only known race car from Protos, it had to be rebuilt and reimagined in the places where no references exist. Using the original frame as the basis for a special coachwork, this was the result.
Nowadays the Protos Type-C is put through its paces quite regularly, as the father and son team that race it participates in around five to six events per season. Wherever they show up, the red beast commands some reverence from the crowds, regardless of whether or not they know what it is, as was the case for me.
Last year I happened to meet the Engels at the Nürburgring Classic as well as the Schloss Dyck Classic Days, and I still remember what it was like to hear it for the first time. As soon as its seven-liter inline-six is fired up, the crowd around the car takes a few extra steps back while people further away bend their paths to find out the cause of this glorious racket.
Watching the Protos and its early race car compatriots set out on the Nürburgring after a Le Mans-style start (during the so-called Elefantenrennen—“elephant race”) is a rare sight, a downright treat, and a nice change of pace from the admittedly captivating Group 4 and 5 cars that steal most of the show.
To me and many others though, these old mammoths chasing each other around at full tilt is perhaps the pinnacle of the Nürburgring Classic weekend. But then again, comparing a pre-war car like this to something like a Porsche 935 is a pretty stark example of apples to oranges. Considering this car only has rear brakes and an engine from the 1950s that makes up to 150hp, it’s not only a cool piece of resurrected history, but a source of downright entertainment to watch navigate the Nürburgring at speed. It certainly gets a lot more exercise than most 100-year-olds.