Karl Benz & GottliebDaimler
pioneers of the car
In 1886, in two small towns 60 miles away from one another in Southwestern Germany, two engineers both developed new machines. These machines were the culmination of a lifetime of work and based on the small, incremental steps of previous inventors. Both of these men would soon become internationally famous, and be household names a century after their deaths.
For Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, their experiments with internal combustion engines would lead to them developing the most successful engine-powered vehicles of the day.
Benz is credited with patenting the first vehicle that can reasonably be described as a car, whereas Daimler developed an engine that powered the first motorcycle.
Both men profited greatly from their inventions, and both formed large companies that sold engines and cars throughout the world. In both cases, the commercial aspect of their work proved to be unsatisfying, with both eventually falling foul of their boards. However, the eventual merger of their two companies – the oldest automotive companies in the world – would lead to the emergence of a global brand of high renown.
After years of experimentation and innovation, Daimler and Maybach were ready to proceed with a functional engine.
Daimler utilized a fuel called ligroin – a petroleum fraction – which could provide the power needed to turn a flywheel. By 1884, Daimler’s engine had reached 900 rpm and was ready for use in motion. It was known as the ‘grandfather clock’ because of its shape.
Daimler and Maybach attached their engine to a bike frame they had modified with two additional wheels for stability. The image below shows Daimler’s drawings of the Petroleum Reitwagen, or ‘Petroleum Riding Car’.
The vehicle featured a handlebar that engaged the drive belt (and therefore moved the vehicle forward) when turned one way, and engaged the brakes when twisted the other. Despite Daimler’s fame in the car industry, he’s also regarded as the father of motorcycles as a result of his Reitwagen.
- The Reitwagen’s engine was a four-stroke engine with a horsepower of 0.5. It was capable of traveling at 7 mph. On the first ride, which was by Daimler’s son Paul, the placement of the engine underneath the rider caused problems, and the engine caught fire.
After improvements to the engine and the drive wheel, the Reitwagen was abandoned; it had demonstrated that engines could power vehicles. After that, Daimler moved his attention to vehicles with four wheels.
Karl Benz’s engine
Both Benz and Daimler were focused on the development of the engine, and it was here that they pulled ahead of their competitors.
- One of the big problems that they and their contemporaries faced was determining how to provide power without adding too much weight.
- Furthermore, there was also a debate within the engineering community as to whether a gas or a steam engine was optimal for cars. The latter had a proven record of success in locomotives, and many of the early car prototypes used steam.
Gasoline at this point was a product sold for cleaning, and available over the counter in most pharmacies.
One 19 January 1886, Karl Benz received patent number DRP 37435 for a ‘gas-powered vehicle’.
As his drawings show, Benz’s design was a three-wheeled vehicle (steering with two front wheels was a challenge too difficult at this stage). His engine was a high-speed one-cylinder four-stroke engine with a top speed of 10 mph. This was the first self-contained vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. This patent represents the birth certificate of the car.
Daimler felt that the future success of his company was in developing engines,
and he sought to demonstrate that it could be used in a variety of different vehicles.
In fact, in the 1880s and 1890s, the majority of sales of Daimler engines were for use in boats.
In the 1889 Paris Exhibition, Daimler and Maybach displayed their engine to international acclaim. In addition, rather than adding their engine to horse carriages, Daimler and Maybach developed their own vehicle, based on placing two bicycles side by side.
The period 1895-1900 saw a major expansion of the company, selling licenses for international sales, and expanding their own brand. Gottlieb Daimler died in 1900, at which point the car company that bore his name was one of the largest in the world.
After Bertha Benz’s demonstration of her husband’s car, demands for Benz-created engines soared. Over the next decade, Benz’s company grew from 50 employees to 430.
In the 1890s Benz was the largest car company in the world, producing 572 cars in 1899. As a result, Benz opened his company to outside investment, incorporating into a joint-stock company.
This proved to be more successful for Benz than it was for Daimler, and the desire to create a cheaper mass-market car proved to be a solid one.
The Benz Viktoria was released in 1892 and sold large numbers, particularly in Germany.
Benz was also successful in his move into commercial vehicles. He designed the first truck with an internal combustion engine, thus paving the way for mass transportation of goods, and, during World War One, troops.
Although Benz retired from Design Management in 1903, as a direct result of the Board’s decision to hire a raft of French designers, he remained on the board of the company (and its future incarnations) until he died in 1929.
In the 1920s, the economic situation in Germany was precarious.
The impact of World War I and the general political instability in the Weimar Republic led to a series of economic crises, most notably hyperinflation in 1934 when the average cost of a car reached 25 million marks.
What is truly remarkable about the story of Daimler and Benz is that neither man actually met one another, and for much of their careers they were unaware of the other’s work.
However, both were truly kindred spirits, and it’s interesting to imagine what they may have achieved had they worked together sooner.
Naturally, both men’s work ethic and monomania did not make them easy partners, although it seems serendipitous that their two car companies eventually merged. The role of secondary figures such as Wilhelm Maybach and Bertha Benz also play a role in their story.
For both men, however…
It was the relentless pursuit of better that led them to innovations in their engines and the development of technology that still exists today.