Karl Benz & GottliebDaimler

pioneers of the car

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.

first car

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.

What were their backgrounds?

Both Daimler and Benz experienced relatively similar educations and benefitted from working at a time when engine technology seemed to be expanding. There was a real sense that an internal combustion engine was not only possible, but its invention was imminent. This gave both men the experience and drive that they needed to continue with their work.

Who was Gottlieb Daimler?

Gottlieb Daimler received his initial training as a gunsmith, before moving into mechanical engineering.
His first job post-qualification was in a factory that made locomotive engines, a topic that fascinated Daimler.

He soon realized that steam engines were not the engine of the future, and that, instead, small, cheap engines, sellable on the mass-market would be where the industry was heading.

After training in France and Britain, Daimler worked at a factory making engines, where he hired Wilhelm Maybach. After differences with the company, Daimler and Maybach left to start their own enterprise in 1882.

Who was Karl Benz?

Karl Benz grew up in relative poverty but his aptitude at school resulted in him gaining acceptance to university, where he studied mechanical engineering.

After graduating, he spent the next seven years working in a variety of companies, although his often difficult and obsessive nature led to him moving on with regularity.

Throughout this period, he was constantly employed in mechanical engineering positions, although in a variety of different fields. This led to Benz gaining a varied education in engineering, from which he was able to draw a number of his later innovations.

In 1871 Benz and August Ritter founded their own factory. Ritter was a poor businessman, and the factory soon experienced financial difficulties. Ritter was bought out by Benz’s fiance, Bertha, who used her dowry to become Benz’s business partner.

Bertha Benz’s grasp of engineering – as well as marketing – proved to be crucial in the financial success of Benz’s enterprise.

What was Daimler’s engine?

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 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.

What was 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 modern gas engine 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.

When was the patent received?

  • 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.

What was Bertha Benz’s ride?

In 1888, Bertha Benz was frustrated by Karl’s ongoing perfectionism. She knew that there was a market for his design, but that if he kept working on it in his workshop, it would never become a commercial success.

Bertha took Karl’s invention and, along with their sons Eugen and Richard, decided to make the 65-mile drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit her mother.

This was a major logistical challenge, especially because Bertha would be reliant on pharmacies in towns along the route to provide her with gasoline, and the roads were not designed for cars. Furthermore, any mechanical problems along the route would be hers to solve.

  • In the morning, Bertha, Eugen, and Richard took Benz’s car and wheeled it down the road away from the home. They realized they couldn’t start it nearby without waking Karl up. She left a note on the kitchen table and set off on her way.

  • Despite the route being well beyond what had been tested before, Benz’s machine performed remarkably well. Bertha was able to clear a blocked fuel line with a hatpin; she stopped in one town and asked a cobbler to repair the leather on a brake shoe.

  • Because of the lack of power (2.5 hp) she needed help from two farm boys to push her up a hill.

  • When she arrived in Pforzheim, she sent a telegram back to Karl that her journey had been a success. Bertha had proved that the car worked and was a feasible method of transport. Karl added a low gear for hills on future models.

Was commercial success achieved?

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.

1880s & 1890s

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.

  • 1890s

    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.

When was the merger?

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.

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