In the mid-1880s, a man called Karl Benz changed the world forever when he created his first prototype of a three-wheeled gasoline-powered motor carriage. This motor carriage was of course the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, widely considered to be the first car ever made.
In this article we are going to be covering the complete history and specifications of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. We have also included information on other attempts to make the first automobile.
The History of the Benz-Patent Motorwagen
The history of the first automobile starts with the man behind it, Karl Friedrich Benz. He was born on 25 November 1844 in Mühlburg and he originally took an interest in locksmithing. However, Benz eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and turned towards studying locomotive engineering.
Benz graduated from the Karlsruhe Polytechnikum (University of Karlsruhe) in 1864, and soon after began his engineering career in Mannheim designing scales for Karl Schenck. The work at Schenck wasn’t exactly engaging for the bright and inventive Benz, and he decided to move to Pforzheim to build bridges for the firm of Benckiser Brothers
During his period at Benckiser, Benz met his future wife, Cäcilie Bertha Ringer. At the time, both Benz and Bertha had no idea that she would play a major role in his future inventions and the future of the automotive industry.
Following their engagement, Benz teamed up with August Ritter to launch a new machine shop in Mannheim. Unfortunately, the first year of business went very badly for Benz. Ritter proved to be unreliable and the business’s tools were impounded.
This prompted Bertha to borrow against her dowry so Benz could buy out Ritter’s stake in the business. Following this, the business was given the name Eisengiesserei und mechanische Werkstätte (Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop).
Troubles continued throughout the 1870s, however, a project that Benz started in the latter part of the decade would change their lives forever. This project was of course Benz’s first two-stroke engine. After many disappointments and failures, the engine was finally finished in December 1879 and he was granted a patent for it on 28 June 1880.
Benz stated, “The more it hums, the more it enchants the pressing worries away from my heart,”. The two-stroke design had been his only choice, as he had been prevented from producing a four-stroke engine due to a patent granted to Nikolaus August Otto in 1877.
Around 1881, Benz took on new partners to help finance his company, Emil Bühler, a successful local photographer and Emil’s brother. Benz was responsible for producing his stationary engines, while Emil looked after the sales and marketing side of the business. Unfortunately, Emil hired a salesman by the name of Otto Schmuck, who wound up spending more money than he raised.
The small company then had to hastily apply for a loan from banks in Mannheim. The first requirement of the loan was that Benz had to form a corporation. Thus in October 1882, Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim was created with a nine-member board of directors.
While things did improve for the company, Benz was unhappy. He clashed with all of the investors over a number of different designs, with the most notable being his plans for a small engine to power a motor driven carriage. When he revealed his plans for the motor carriage, some of the investors even questioned his sanity!
In 1883, Benz decided to resign from the company. He wrote, “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.”
The Benz-Patent Motorwagen
Benz’s fortunes changed when his lifelong hobby of cycling brought him to a bicycle repair shop in Mannheim, where he met Max Kaspar Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger. The three decided to work together and they formed a new company known as Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik (Commonly referred to as Benz & Cie).
The new company grew quickly with its primary trade being the production and sales of Benz’s stationary engine. With strong income, Benz could work on some of his old passions and projects, with the main one being a horseless carriage design.
However, he had one small problem. His current range of engines were too big and heavy for the self-powered carriage design. A solution to this problem was provided by a local fire in Mannheim. The fire had started when a bowl of benzene that was used to clean work gloves was ignited by a spark.
Benz believed that the highly volatile fluid could be used to power an engine, as long as its explosion could be controlled. He decided to put his mind to the problem and soon came up with the trembler coil system. This advanced new coil system used a spark plug, which he designed himself.
Unbeknownst to Benz, others were working on a similar project. Daimler and Maybach had come to the same conclusions as the inventor and they were working on building a motor carriage as well. Interestingly, neither of them new of the other’s existence.
Benz gave a great deal of thought to the layout of the self-powered wagon. He considered both four and three-wheeled designs, and ultimately decided to go with a tricycle configuration as it was lighter and overall more manoeuvrable.
Steering was carried out by a toothed rack that pivoted the unsprung front wheel. Fully elliptic springs were used at the back along with a beam axle and chain drive on both sides.
Instead of manufacturing the wheels from wood like on most carriages of the time, Benz decided it would be better to use steel spoked wheels with solid rubber tyres that were inspired by those on bicycles.
A four-stroke 954 cc single cylinder engine was placed horizontally at the rear of the three-wheeler with an enormous flywheel just underneath it. The engine produced just 2/3 of a horsepower (500 watts) at 250 rpm, however, later tests by the University of Mannheim showed it to be capable of 0.9 horsepower (670 watts) at 400 rpm.
The Motorwagen also featured a simple belt drive system that acted as a single-speed transmission and evaporative cooling was used rather than a radiator. Body panels were manufactured from wood, while the frame was crafted out of steel tubing.
The initial trial of the Motorwagen was in the autumn (fall), however, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. On the initial start the Motorwagen stalled and then when it was restarted the drive chain snapped.
Undeterred, Benz made several improvements to his creation and he was ready for another test a couple of weeks later. This time he had Bertha by his side and the engine was started by one of his assistants.
After engaging the chain drive, Benz proceeded to drive the Motorwagen straight into the brick wall of his workshop, making this not only the first but also the shortest road test in history.
For his next tests, Benz found a bit more space. At this point he still had not created a fuel tank for his Motorwagen. To solve this problem, he enlisted the help of his son Eugene who ran alongside the Motorwagen with a can of fuel during the tests.
With the initial tests out of the way, Benz applied for a patent for his Motorwagen, which he received on 29 January 1886 (Patent DRP-37435: “automobile fuelled by gas”). Benz was granted the patent as his design was regarded as the first automobile entirely designed in a way to produce its own power.
While the patent for his Motorwagen was approved, Benz was still hesitant to begin production of his invention. His testing had been limited to the road and area surrounding his workshop, and he was unsure how the Motorwagen would deal with longer distance trips. The answer to this question was not answered by Karl Benz himself, but his wife Bertha.
Bertha Benz’s Historic Long-Distance Drive
In August 1888 Bertha decided that it would be a good idea to “test drive” the second Motorwagen prototype on a long-distance journey from Mannheim to her hometown of Pforzheim, a distance of more than 80 km (50 miles).
Bertha took her two sons, Eugene and Richard with her and she left a note for her husband informing him of her plans. The three left at dawn passing through Heidelberg and Wiesloch before arriving at their destination. When Bertha and her sons arrived, her farther was extremely happy. She wrote, “Father was so happy, we had finally achieved our goal,”.
The trip was a mostly uneventful affair apart from the fact that nobody had seen a motor-powered carriage before, which meant that large crowds formed wherever they went. The also made a quick stop at Heidelberg for lunch and then at Wiesloch to fill the radiator and purchase some fuel (benzene). This would make the Weisloch pharmacy the first filling station in the world, a fact that they still pride themselves on today.
While the whole trip went surprisingly smoothly, Bertha did encounter a couple of problems with the Motorwagen along the way. The first problem was a clogged fuel line, which she tackled with her hairpin. The ignition wire then short-circuited, so she had to make an insulator out of one of her garters. The third and final problem was the brake block, which she had fitted with a new piece of leather in Bauschlott.
Bertha and her two sons arrived in Pforzheim just as the sun was setting. In doing so, they had completed the very first long-distance trip in a motor car. The trip not only proved to Karl Benz that his invention was usable, but also to his sceptics and those who believed that the automobile had no future.
Without Bertha and her sons daring drive, Messrs. Benz & Cie (what the company would later become known as) would not have grown into the largest automobile manufacturer of the time. The drive changed the way the world viewed automobiles and it is arguable one of the most important historical moments in the history of the car.
Following Bertha’s historic drive, Benz produced a third improved version of the Motorwagen. As per his wife’s suggestion, he added a low gear for hills as during their journey they had to push the automobile up every steep incline.
This new model also came with a slightly more powerful 2 hp (1.5kW) engine that could reach a maximum speed of 16 km/h (10 mph). In comparison, the Model 2 Motorwagen had a 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) engine.
By the end of 1888, Benz’s third generation Motorwagen was ready and on the road. However, competition from the traditional horse and buggy proved to be higher than Benz expected.
Part of the problem with the Motorwagen was that it needed fuel. The benzene fuel for the car was not readily available in most places and at this point fuel stations had not yet been conceived. Horses on the other hand required hay and other forms of food/water, which were plentiful.
To try and ramp up sales, Benz displayed the Model 3 Patent Motorwagen at the Munich Engineering Exposition in 1888. He offered test drives to anyone interested in the car. This strategy caught the attention of the press. One newspaper wrote, “Seldom, if ever, have passersby in the streets of our city seen a more starting sight.”
Another publication stated “…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.”
Karl Benz was given a gold medal for his Motorwagen at the exposition, however, the recognition did not translate into sales. One year later, Benz’s first sales agent, French importer Emile Roger, displayed the Motorwagen at the Paris version of the Exposition. Despite this, sales continued to be little more than a trickle.
By 1892 things were starting to look up for Benz. He had sold almost a dozen Motorwagens and several more were on order. The models produced from 1886 to 1889 were powered by a single-cylinder engine with capacities ranging from 1045 cc to 1990 cc. With an increase in displacement came an increase in power, with later models producing as much as 3 hp at 500 rpm.
In 1893 Karl Benz developed and patented the double-pivot steering system. This was a massive leap forward for the inventor and solved one of the automobile’s most serious issues. The steering system was first used on the 3 horsepower, four-wheeled Victoria that was introduced in 1893. The model was a big hit when it launched with 85 units being sold in 1893 alone.
Another model known as the Velo was introduced for the next year and it became known as the world’s first true production car. Benz’s company produced around 1,200 units of the Velo during its production run and it would be entered in the world’s first automobile race, the 1894 Paris to Rouen.
Benz & Cie would go on to become the biggest automobile manufacturer in the world. By 1889 they were producing over 572 cars and had as many as 430 staff. Tough times came during the 1920s when rapid inflation hit the German economy hard.
The company had to merge with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG), becoming known as Daimler Benz. Follow this, the first Mercedes-Benz brand name vehicle was produced, and the rest is history as they say.
Karl Benz’s Main Competitors
Benz’s main competitor in Germany was Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG). Founded by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, it was first based in Cannstatt and then later in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, and then finally in Berlin (although other factories were scattered around Germany).
DMG was developing their own version of the automobile around the same time as Benz. However, while they would beat Karl Benz in creating the world’s first four-stroke engine, they would not sell a vehicle until August 1892.
In 1890, Émile Levassor and Armand Peugeot of France began producing vehicles with Daimler engines. This would make them one of the first companies/groups to produce a vehicle.
One year after the launch of their first car Auguste Doriot and his Peugeot colleague Louis Rigoulot completed the longest trip by a gasoline-powered vehicle when their self-designed and built Daimler powered Peugeot Type 3 completed 2,100 km (1,300 miles) from Valentigney to Paris and Brest and back again.
While the first automobile design in the United States would be created in 1877 by George Seldon, it would take until 1893 for the first running car to be produced. The first public run of the Duryea Motor Wagon took place on 21 September 1893, on Taylor Street in Metro Center Springfield.
In Britain, there had been a number of attempts during the 19th century to build steam automobiles with Thomas Rickett even attempting a production run in 1860. The first gasoline-powered motor vehicle was produced in 1894 by Santler from Malvern, however, this was just a one off.
The first production vehicles in Britain came from the Daimler Company, a company founded by Harry J. Lawson in 1896, after he purchased the rights to use the name of the engines.
Other Attempts at Self-Powered Vehicles
Below you can find some of the other self-powered vehicle attempts that came before the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.
Ferdinand Verbiest’s Steam-Powered Vehicle (1672)
The first recorded steam-powered vehicle was designed and possibly built by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish member of a Jesuit mission in China around 1672. It was created as a toy for the Chinese Emperor at the time and was just 65 cm in length. Due to its small size it was not intended to carry a driver or passengers. It is not known if the model was successfully built or run.
Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot’s Steam Powered Tricycle (1769)
This steam-powered tricycle was built in about 1769 and is widely regarded as the first full-scale, self-propelled mechanical vehicle. Cugnot also produced two steam tractors for the French Army, however, his inventions were plagued by water supply and steam pressure problems.
Richard Trevithick’s Puffing Devil (1801)
In 1801, Richard Trevithick created and displayed his Puffing Devil road locomotive. The Puffing Devil is believed to be the first true steam-powered road vehicle. Unfortunately, despite his ingenuity, Trevithick’s vehicle was unable to maintain steam pressure for long periods of time and was essentially useless for getting from A to B.
Gustave Trouvé’s Electric Powered Car (1881)
In November 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé displayed the first working car powered by electricity at the International Exposition of Electricity in Paris. To create his three-wheeled electric car, Trouvé improved the efficiency of a small electric motor from Siemens and combined it with the recently developed rechargeable battery.
While the electric tricycle was successfully patented on April 19, Trouvé failed to get a patent for the design. Following this he decided to apply his knowledge to marine propulsion.