Karl Benz and the Birth of the Car as We Know It

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s easy for us in the automotive sphere to focus on the machines. They are, after all, the things that rev our engines (pun very much intended). But as I research for the articles on here, I’ve been reminded about the other side of the equation: The men and women who have helped to shape our automotive world and who have brought these incredible machines to life. Without their creativity, tenacity, and passion, we wouldn’t have these glorious machines that make the world so accessible. So in a new column, I’m going to highlight some of these pioneers to give context to what they accomplished.

It seems appropriate to start with Karl Benz. Benz, after all, is considered by many to have created automotive genesis with the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Born in 1844, Karl was an excellent student as a child. Despite his family’s challenging financial situation – largely due to his father’s death from a locomotive accident when Karl was two – his education was shown to be a priority and he did a wonderful job taking advantage of the opportunities he had. He was trained as a mechanical engineer at the University of Karlsruhe, where he was admitted at age 15.

After completing his education, Karl tried hard to find a passion that truly inspired him. After traveling around the region in a variety of roles, he settled in Mannheim, where he settled and founded an iron-foundry and sheet-metal workshop with August Ritter. Their business wasn’t terribly successful, and it was eventually supported by the financial contributions of Karl’s new bride, Bertha, who came from a wealthy family. Karl continued to tinker and invent, producing many of the automotive systems on which we rely to this day, including throttling systems, battery-powered ignition systems, carburetors, and clutches. All of these were developed with one goal in mind: To fulfill his dream of a fully-mechanized vehicle, similar to the bicycles that he so enjoyed.

Francois Durand/Getty Images News

Francois Durand/Getty Images News

The resulting vehicle was three-wheeled, rear-engined, and RWD with a power output of less than 1 horsepower. Benz produced it in 1885 under the Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik brand, often referred to as Benz & Cie. It may look very foreign to modern eyes, especially given the crankshaft that is open to the air and the massive horizontal flywheel, but it was a “car” by almost every definition. Later models would feature folding canopies to protect the occupants and various other refinements, but the fact remains that it met Karl’s goal of mechanizing travel using an internal combustion, gasoline-powered engine. He was granted a patent for the Motorwagen in 1886.

Source: Facebook/Mercedes Benz

Source: Facebook/Mercedes Benz

Karl’s wife, Bertha Benz, played a large part in the success of the Motorwagen. The old adage “seeing is believing” is especially true when it comes to advertising and Bertha knew this. Without the knowledge of her husband, she took Motorwagen Model 3 (2 horsepower and a top speed of 10 miles per hour) on a 66 mile journey to visit her mother. This doesn’t seem like much to the modern driver, but keep in mind that there weren’t modern roads, fueling stations, mechanics, or any spare parts for these vehicles. Karl was one of the only people who had any idea how they worked or would have even a hope of fixing a breakdown. That being said, the trip was successful, and interest in the Motorwagen skyrocketed. This courage and ambition is one of the reasons that we highlighted Bertha Benz as one of our 10 Women Who Shook the Auto Industry.

The following few decades saw Karl become an icon of the automotive world. He continued to innovate and to produce vehicles that set records and drew crowds. In 1896, he was granted a patent for the first Boxer-style engine. This, among his other innovations, allowed for the production of large, powerful engines, which were appealing to consumers (even 120 years ago people liked to go fast). Benz & Cie was one of the foremost producers of cars (and trucks) in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. During this period, Benz & Cie produced the Blitzen Benz, a 21.5 liter, 200 horsepower speed machine that was built to exceed 200 kilometers per hour. It later did that and set a land speed record of 228.1 kilometers/hour (141.7 miles per hour) in 1911.

Source: Mercedes-Benz

Source: Mercedes-Benz

Following WWI, the economy in Germany struggled. This led to severe challenges for industrial production, especially in those sectors that faced competition from overseas, such as from the Ford Motor Company. In an effort to achieve economies of scale and to make production more efficient, Benz & Cie. merged with Daimler Motorengesellschaft in 1926 to form Daimler-Benz Automotive Group. Daimler had produced a car called the Mercedes 35HP and the naming scheme for all future cars, Mercedes-Benz, was born. Karl served on the board of of Daimler-Benz AG until he passed away in 1929.

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