This January 29th of Twenty-O-Six we celebrate the birth of an idea put forward 120 years ago, that man should not be limited in his ability to travel by the constraints of steel rails or the shortcomings of horse-drawn carriages. To be truly free, one must not be encumbered by schedules and routes, or the stamina of horses. Thus a young German engineer named Carl Benz took to task the idea of motorized personal transportation in the mid 1880s.
The birth of the automobile, powered by an internal combustion engine, can be traced back to 1885 when Benz opened the doors of his small Mannheim workshop and rode around the yard in a three-wheeled carriage powered by a single cylinder engine of his own design. Of course, in 1885 the gasoline engine was not a new idea. Large, stationary engines had been in use since the latter part of the century to power industrial and farm machinery, in fact, Carl Benz had pioneered their development. It was his conception of a small, single-cylinder version, however, that allowed him to create a phenomenon—the motorized carriage.
Having completed his first prototype single-cylinder three-wheeler, he went about applying for a patent, thereby making him the first to stake a claim for the design of a gasoline-powered motor carriage. German patent number 37435 was assigned to Benz on January 29, 1886. Shortly after, Gottlieb Daimler and his associate Wilhelm Maybach also applied to the patent office for their design. But Benz has been first.
Carl Benz was a graduate of the Karlsruhe Polytechnikum and began his engineering career in Mannheim designing scales for Karl Schenck. Not overly enthralled with the weighty challenges at Schenck, he moved to Pforzheim to build bridges for the firm of Benckiser Brothers, work in which the young engineer could take pride.
It was during his tenure at Benckiser that Carl met a beautiful, headstrong 20-year-old girl named Cäcilie Bertha Ringer. In 1870 she accepted a proposal of marriage from Carl Friedrich Benz, almost five years her senior, at the Harmony social club in Pforzheim. At the time, she had no idea of the epochal role she would play in her husband’s life or in the as yet non-existent automotive history. The vigor and decisiveness demonstrated by this young woman, as well as the determination with which she tackled her fiancé’s problems and concerns, proved remarkable not only for that time.
After they were engaged, Carl went into business for himself, taking in a short-lived partner named August Ritter. They opened a machine shop in Mannheim, but Ritter soon departed when additional funds were needed to keep the doors open. This prompted the spirited Bertha to borrow against her dowry so her fiancé could buy out Ritter’s interests in the new firm. From then on the business adopted the name Eisengiesserei und mechanische Werkstätte (Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop).
Owning a business and making it successful were to become two very different things for the new Mr. & Mrs. Benz, who were married in July 1872. In 1873 their son Eugen was born, followed by Richard in 1874. Their daughters Clara and Tilde were born in 1877 and 1882, respectively. Success had continued to elude the couple until 1880 when Carl introduced his first stationary engine. The “embryonic two-stroke engine”, as christened by Carl Benz, finally came into being on New Year’s Eve 1879 after many attempts, disappointment and privations, and for the first time, it continued to run smoothly. For Bertha and Carl it was a gift from heaven: “The more it hums, the more it enchants the pressing worries away from my heart,” concluded Carl on that fateful evening. The more troublesome two-stroke design had been his only choice. He had been prevented from building a four-stroke engine due to a patent granted to Nikolaus August Otto in 1877.
Around 1881 Carl took in a new partner to help finance the venture, Emil Bühler, a successful local photographer. Benz was responsible for building his stationary engines and Bühler for sales and marketing. He hired a sale’s agent named Otto Schmuck, who unfortunately spent more money promoting sales than he took in, requiring the small company to hastily apply for a loan. The first requirement of the local bankers was for Benz to form a corporation before any funds could be considered. Thus in October 1882, Gasmotorenfabrik Mannheim was established with a nine-member board of directors.
The harmony among the board was short-lived and within three months Benz had come to words with all of the investors over designs, most notably his plans for a small engine to power a motor driven carriage, at which point several of the board’s more outspoken members questioned Benz’s sanity! In the fall of 1883 he resigned from the company. Wrote Carl, “During those days when disaster struck on the sea of life, only one person was waiting by my side. That was my wife. Fearless and courageous, she hoisted up new sails of hope.”
Still resolute in his plan to build a motorized wagon, and with Bertha’s encouragement, Benz caught the ear and pocketbook of not one but two very successful businessmen, Max Kaspar Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger, who jointly financed the creation of Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik on October 1, 1883. Less than a month after leaving Gasmotorenfabrik Mannheim, Carl Benz was back in business.
The new company’s primary trade would be the production and sales of the Benz stationary engine, which quickly brought riches to both Benz and his backers, leaving him the time to experiment and develop a motor suitable to power a “horseless carriage.”
Benz had used coal gas to power his now very successful stationary engines and was wondering how to fuel his small, motorwagen engine, when the solution was provided by a local fire in Mannheim. It began when a bowl of benzene being used to clean work gloves was ignited by a spark. Benz reasoned that this highly volatile fluid could work in an engine, if the explosion could be controlled, and a proper spark provided to ignite it. His solution was a battery and trembler coil system with a spark plug which he designed himself. Unknown to Benz, Daimler and Maybach had come to this same conclusion. There was a race on to build a motor carriage, and neither entrant in this race knew of the other’s existence!
Benz, as well as his partners, Rose and Esslinger, was an avid bicyclist and though he had given the idea a great deal of thought, considering both four and three-wheeled designs for his motorwagen, he never considered the horse-drawn carriage as a basis for his design. A tricycle configuration with power transferred to the rear wheels by a chain, appeared more logical, less complicated, lighter and easier to steer. This was the direction he chose when his concept for the motorwagen began to take shape in 1885.
A two-stroke engine developing approximately two-thirds of a horsepower at 250rpm, was placed on its side at the rear of the three-wheeler, with the immense flywheel running horizontally. The initial trial was in the fall, whereupon the very first motorized wagon built by Carl Benz stalled and when restarted proceeded to snap the drive chain!
After making some minor improvements he was ready for another test run a few weeks later. Sitting proudly at the tiller, and with Bertha at his side this time, the engine was started by one of his assistants spinning the flywheel, and after engaging the chain drive Carl Benz proceeded to drive the Motorwagen straight into the brick wall of his shop, making this not only the first but shortest road test in history.
His next tests were conducted with his son Eugene running alongside the motorwagen carrying a can of gasoline. It seemed the inventor had yet to create the first gas tank. That done, and the patent received in January, Benz set out in July 1886 to make the motorwagen a household word. He had a long road ahead of him.
Still in the developmental stages, Benz was hesitant to begin production of his new Patent Motorwagen. His testing had been confined to the road and yard surrounding his workshop. And while most would assume that the inventor of the motor carriage would be the first to actually take it out for a long distance trial, it was, in fact, Carl’s wife Bertha who would go down in history as the first motorist. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the world’s first driver was a woman.
In the summer of 1888 Bertha decided to “test drive” the second prototype Motorwagen on a journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a distance of more than 50 miles. With her two sons, Eugen and Richard, she set out at dawn and made the trip in a single day. Wiring her husband, who had been informed of her plans by the note she left for him on the kitchen table, “We’re traveling to Pforzheim to visit Grandma,” she wrote that they had arrived without any significant incidents. Even Bertha’s father was extremely pleased about the first trip. “Father was so happy, we had finally achieved our goal,” she wrote.
Bertha’s trip had been almost uneventful, except for the fact that no one had ever seen a motor carriage, and the three-wheeler drew considerable crowds at every village along the route. They stopped in Heidelberg for a snack and then in Wiesloch at an apothecary to fill the radiator and purchase benzene for the fuel tank. The town pharmacy, which still exists today, prides itself as having been “the world’s first filling station.”
On the road they encountered two mechanical problems, which Bertha tackled with feminine ingenuity. A clogged fuel line was cleared with her hatpin, and when an ignition wire short-circuited she made an insulator out of one of her garters! The only other problem was the brake block, which she had fitted with a new piece of leather by a farrier in Bauschlott. They arrived in Pforzheim just as the sun was setting. So the first step had been taken. In completing the very first long-distance journey in automotive history, Bertha Benz was not only able to prove to her husband, as was her original intention, but also to the many skeptics that a great future awaited the automobile. With her 50 mile journey, she was able to demonstrate the practicality of the motorcar. Without the daring courage of Bertha and that of her sons, as well as the decisive impulses it provided, the subsequent rise of Messrs. Benz & Cie., as the Mannheim-based company was called at a later stage, to become the world’s largest automobile manufacturer for a time would have been inconceivable.
While an improved Model 3 was being readied for exhibit in Munich, Bertha suggested one additional improvement to her husband’s design, a low gear for hills, as Bertha and the boys had had to push the car up every steep grade on their first trip. By year’s end the improved Benz third version motorwagen was on the road, though not necessarily the road to success.
The horse and buggy was not so easily pushed aside as one’s personal livery. First of all, just like a horse, a motorwagen needed fuel. Hay was plentiful, gasoline (benzene), on the other hand, was not. In the late 19th century no on had yet conceived of a gas station. Benzene had to be purchased at an apothecary and usually in small quantities, rarely more than five liters. The world was not quite ready for the Benz Patent Motorwagen, and it took until 1892 before any significant sales were recorded. But Carl and Bertha Benz were determined to succeed.
Back in September 1888, Benz had displayed the Model 3 Patent Motorwagen at the Munich Engineering Exposition and offered test drives to anyone interested. Wrote one newspaper of the Benz’s appearance in Munich; “Seldom, if ever, have passersby in the streets of our city seen a more starting sight.” Another publication noted that “…without any sign of steam or other visible means of propulsion, human or otherwise, the vehicle proceeded on its way without difficulty…It was followed by a great crowd of breathless pedestrians.”
The year 1888 went down in German history as the Year of the Three Emperors. Heinrich Hertz succeeded in generating and proving the existence of electromagnetic waves, Fridtjof Nansen crossed Greenland on skis, European railroad connections finally reached Constantinople and world exhibitions were staged in Barcelona, Melbourne, Moscow and Sydney. Carl Benz came home from Munich with a Gold medal from the Exposition, but not with a book full of orders. A year later Benz’s first sales agent, French importer Emile Roger, displayed the Patent Motorwagen at the Paris Exposition. By the end of 1892 he had sold almost a dozen and more were on order. The “production” models built from 1886 to 1889 were powered by a single-cylinder engine with a swept volume ranging from 1045cc to 1660cc and finally 1990cc. Power also improved from 1.5 to 2.5 and then 3 horsepower at 500rpm. A total of 25 were built.
In 1892 Benz & Cie. introduced the more advanced four-wheel Viktoria model, and in 1894 a third design known as the Velo (short for velocipede), the latter produced through 1900.
If there was indeed a race to see who would build the first production motorcar in Germany, it was Benz who would cross the sales finish line with the Velo, the first successfully marketed horseless carriage in Europe. It was followed by the Benz Ideal and a succession of new models on an almost yearly basis making Benz & Cie. one of the largest automakers in the world by 1900 with more than 1,250 motorcars sold since 1887. Of course by then Carl Benz had some serious competition from his neighbors some 60 miles away in Cannstatt—Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Maybach, as well as other emerging motorcar builders throughout Europe and in the United States.
Thanks to Carl Benz and an idea that his first business associates thought was insane, man has traveled the world on wheels of rubber for 120 years.
By Dennis Adler
© Car Collector Magazine, LLC.
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Originally appeared in the January 2006 Issue
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