Driven by a genius for mechanical engineering and a fascination with the budding notion of ‘horseless carriages’, Karl Friedrich Benz designed and developed the world’s first internal combustion engine-powered automobile in 1885.
It’s hard to imagine a more profound contribution to the history of transport, but Benz continued to play a leading role in the motor industry throughout his restlessly innovative career.
1. Benz grew up in near poverty but developed a precocious interest in engineering
Born in Karlsruhe, Germany on 25 November 1844, Karl Benz was brought up in challenging circumstances. His father, a railway engineer, died of pneumonia when he was just two years old, and his mother struggled for money throughout his childhood.
But Benz’s intelligence was clear from a young age, in particular his aptitude for mechanics and engineering stood out. These precocious talents allowed him to help out financially by fixing watches and clocks. He even built a darkroom where he developed photos for tourists in the Black Forest.
2. Despite financial difficulties Benz developed innovative engine technologies
After graduating from the University of Karlsruhe with a degree in mechanical engineering, Benz flitted between engineering jobs before settling in Mannheim where he established an iron foundry and sheet metal workshop with a partner, August Ritter.
The business faltered, but Benz’s fiancé (soon to be wife) Bertha Ringer used her dowry to buy out Ritter, who was proving to be an unreliable partner, and save the company.
Despite the challenges of running a company, Benz found time to work on the development of the ‘horseless carriage’ he had long envisioned and invented several innovative components.
3. His breakthrough two-stroke engine followed a succession of important inventions
Benz patented several components that would complement the production of his two-stroke engine and ultimately feature in his first automobile. They included the throttle, ignition, spark plugs, gear, carburettor, water radiator and clutch. He completed the engine in 1879 and received a patent for it the following year.
4. He founded a new company, Benz & Cie., in 1883
Despite his engineering breakthroughs in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Benz was frustrated by a lack of opportunities to develop his ideas. His investors were reluctant to allow him the time and resources he needed, so he founded a new company, Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, or Benz & Cie, in 1883. The early success of this new company allowed Benz to further the development of his horseless carriage.
5. The pioneering Benz Patent-Motorwagen became the first commercially available automobile in 1888
With the freedom and resources to work on his ‘horseless carriage’, Benz quickly realised his vision and in 1885 he unveiled a ground-breaking motorised tricycle. Featuring wire wheels and rubber tyres – in contrast to the wooden wheels that were typical of carriages – and a rear-mounted engine, Benz’s automobile design was crammed with novel design features.
But its most significant innovation was the use of a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Previous self-propelled carriages had depended on heavy, inefficient steam engines. Benz’s revolutionary automobile represented the advent of a more practical and realistic consumer vehicle.
6. Bertha Benz demonstrated her husband’s invention with a long-distance drive
Sensing the need to publicise her husband’s invention, Bertha Benz who, lest we forget, financed the development of the horseless carriage with her dowry, decided to take the Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 on a long-distance road trip. On 5 August 1888, she embarked on a cross-country drive between Mannheim and Pforzheim.
It was the first time an internal combustion engine automobile had been driven over a significant distance. As a result it attracted plenty of attention. Bertha’s historic journey, which she undertook without telling Karl or seeking permission from the authorities, proved to be an ingenious marketing ploy.
7. As Benz & Cie. grew it began to develop more affordable mass-production automobiles
Towards the end of the 19th century, automobile sales began to take off and Benz was well-positioned to lead the burgeoning market. The company responded to increased demand by producing cheaper models that could be mass-produced. The four wheel, two seat Velocipede automobile, sold by Benz between 1894 and 1902, is often cited as the world’s first mass-produced car.
8. Benz’s innovations were rivalled by the work of another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler
Benz’s pioneering work in the development of the internal combustion engine powered automobile was mirrored by a fellow German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler. In fact, Daimler’s engine was patented five months earlier and is generally regarded as superior. But, while Benz mounted his engine in a tricycle, Daimler attached his to a bicycle. Consequently, Benz tends to be more widely credited as the inventor of the internal combustion engine-powered automobile.
The rivalry between Benz and Daimler was fierce, and both men strove to outdo each other. In 1889, Daimler unveiled his Daimler Motor Carriage, which was faster and more powerful than anything Benz had created. Benz responded by creating a four-wheeled vehicle in 1892.
9. The famous Mercedes-Benz brand was established in 1926
Despite their intertwined careers and great rivalry, Benz and Daimler never met. Daimler died in 1900 but his company Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft continued to trade and remained Benz’s principal rival throughout the first two decades of the 20th century.
Just as they were linked by their early success, both Benz and Daimler began to struggle in the post-World War One economic depression. The two companies decided that they would stand a better chance of survival by teaming up. They consequently signed an “Agreement of Mutual Interest” in 1924.
Then, on 8 June 1926, Benz & Cie. and DMG finally merged as the Daimler-Benz company. The new company’s automobiles would be branded Mercedes-Benz in reference to DMG’s most successful model, the Mercedes 35 hp, which was named after the designer’s 11 year-old daughter, Mercédès Jelinek.
10. The iconic Mercedes-Benz SSK was released a year before Benz passed away
The Mercedes-Benz brand, featuring a striking new three pointed star logo (representing Daimler’s motto: “engines for land, air, and water”), quickly established itself and sales rocketed. Arguably, no car represents the new brand’s impressive emergence better the Mercedes-Benz SSK.
Released in 1928, the SSK was the last car Ferdinand Porsche designed for Mercedes-Benz before leaving to start his own company. It heralded the dawn of an exciting new breed of sports car. Just 31 SSKs were made, but it was fast, stylish and desirable enough to become one of the era’s most iconic vehicles. It was also a powerful emblem of the progress the automobile industry had made in the 40 years since Karl Benz first unveiled his Patent-Motorwagen.