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The Boom of Motorization: How Karl and Bertha Benz Transformed the Automotive Industry Forever

Let’s roll back in time to Germany in the 1800s. If you aren’t walking on foot then a horse-driven carriage is your best bet. There’s no paved roads, just bumpy, dusty paths to traverse the countryside on. The German Emperor has a special liking for horses, so much that he thinks replacing horses with machines is not only foolish, but unpatriotic. Oh, and the Catholic Church sees the horseless carriage as the work of the devil. But Karl Benz? He wants to replace the horse with the automobile anyway.

 

 

Benz Has a Vision

Karl was born into a poor and mis-fortuned family. His father died when Benz was two years old and he spent the rest of his years raised by his mother. Thankfully she prioritized education and saw Benz through university at the age of 15. He later went on to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering.

 

Following his graduation from university, Karl rolled through a series of engineering and construction jobs searching for his calling. He ended up settling in Mannheim, Germany, where he partnered with August Ritter to open an iron foundry and sheet-metal workshop.

 

A monument stands today in Mannheim commemorating Benz’s legacy.

 

Benz’s first work focused on a two-stroke engine to fuel his business. However, finances took a turn for the worse thanks to his less than reliable business partner. Karl’s wife, Bertha Benz, would have to invest her own money to buy out Ritter’s shares of the company and keep Benz in business. Why even bother? She believed in Benz’s vision to replace the horse-driven carriage with motorized machines. This vision would transform the automotive industry forever.

 

Bertha and Karl Benz

 

The Benz Motorwagen Arrives

With financial backing from his wife, Karl shifted the focus of his workshop toward the development of improved engines and a host of new patents. During this time he invented the throttle system, battery-powered ignition system, spark plug, carburetor, gear shifters, clutch, and the water radiator. The success of these patents and improved engine designs finally gave Benz breathing room to focus on his true passion – designing a replacement of the horseless carriage.

 

 

 

Benz’s primary competitor, Gottlieb Daimler, thought that people wanted an automobile that resembled a horse carriage. More of the same. Benz desired a completely different reality. He didn’t want to ease people into automobiles with a familiar horse carriage. He wanted to create a self-contained vehicle that would push the automotive industry forward, so he did.

 

After years of tireless work, he finished his first automobile creation in 1885, the Benz Patent Motorwagen. This three-wheeled machine included a ton of innovative features, including:

 

  • A four-stroke engine
  • Electric coil ignition
  • Rack and pinion steering
  • Evaporative cooling system
  • Differential rear-end gears

All of this was packed into an elegant looking steel frame with three wire-spoke wheels. The engine topped out at a whopping 8 mph.

 

A replica Benzt patent Motorwagen.

 

The world’s first automobile was complete, but there was a major problem. This was the first automobile of its time powered by an internal combustion engine. How in the world was Benz going to market this to the masses? There were no car commercials. And gasoline? Only sold at drug stores. Don’t forget the roads, a heaping mess of dusty narrow tracks that were scattered across the countryside.

 

All of these problems were coupled by the fact that Karl Benz was an absolutely genius engineer but a terrible marketer. In the first Motorwagen demonstration the driver lost control and smashed into a wall. Needless to say, people were terrified of his machine. How did Benz respond? By burrowing away in his workshop, intent on perfecting his automobile.

 

Bertha Benz Enters the Picture

Bertha had already kept the Benz business afloat during troubling times, and she also happened to be a marketing genius. Seeing Karl floundering away in his workshop, she decided to take control of the situation. Money was wearing thin, and the Daimler competition had just invented a four-wheeled, motor-driven horse carriage of their own. Karl Benz had to act, and fast.

 

So Bertha hatched a plan. On August 5, 1888 she took the Benz Motorwagen out for a drive without telling Karl. Were not talking down the street. She took her two sons over fifty miles away to visit her mother in Pforzheim. This was the world’s first long-distance trip ever attempted and it changed automobile history forever.

 

Recreation of Bertha and her two sons with their Motorwagen.

 

The Benz’s hit the road, traveling along rocky and dusty trails. They had to stock up on fuel at pharmacies along the way, and her boys had to push the car up hills. Bertha also had to tackle some technical challenges during her journey. For example, the wood breaks finally gave out, so she had a shoemaker replace them with slabs of leather.

 

The result of this marathon-like journey was an instant publicity craze. By the time shetelegrammed Karl with her safe arrival 12 hours later people were talking all over town about this buzzing machine. Bertha’s trip also led to the inspiration for several Motorwagen improvements, including extra gears for climbing hills and better brake linings. All of these improvements manifested in the Model 3, the world’s first production automobile introduced at the 1889 World Fair in Paris.

 

 

The Benz duo riding their success.

 

Benz Skyrockets to Success

As sales of the Model 3 took off, Karl turned his sights to additional improvements including a patent for the double-pivot steering system in 1893. This steering system went on to drive Benz’s new Victoria model in 1893, and later the Benz Velo in 1894.

 

The Benz Velo

 

In 1896 Benz was granted a patent for the first contra engine with horizontally-opposed pistons. This patent along with the skyrocketing demand for internal combustion engines pushed Benz’s profits to the top of the charts. By 1899 Benz & Cie was the world’s largest automobile company, employing 430 workers and producing 572 automobiles per year.

 

 

Throughout the early 1900s Benz & Cie dominated Europe’s automobile market. Under Karl Benz’s leadership, the company went on to develop a variety of innovations in racing car design, mass production techniques, and engine designs. Benz would later leave his company after battle with its board of directors. After making a brief reappearance in 1904 he retired in Ladenburg where he passed away in April 1929.

 

Ben’z passing symbolized the end of Benz & Cie as we knew it. As the 1920s Great Depression pushed the world’s economy to a standstill, Daimler and Benz decided to pool their resources together in a merger. In 1926 the two companies officially became Daimler-Benz, with all new automobiles produced as Mercedes-Benz.

 

 

The End of an Era

Even as the world’s economy slowly transitions away from internal combustion engines, all automobiles of the future with stand on the shoulders of Karl Benz’s achievements.  Karl and Bertha single-handedly transformed the automotive industry into what it is today by radically changing public perception. Would our world still look the same without Karl’s engineering genius and Bertha’s flair for publicity? Who knows, we might all still be rolling around in horseless carriages.

 

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