Historic Car Brands
On 25 November 1844 Karl Benz was born as the son of a locomotive driver in Karlsruhe. His father died only two years after his birth, but despite limited financial resources, his mother made sure that he received a good education.
Benz attended grammar school and later the Polytechnic University in Karlsruhe. He then completed a two-year period of practical training at the mechanical engineering company Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft in Karlsruhe.
His employment began as a draughtsman and designer at a weighing machine factory in Mannheim. He lost his position in 1868 and joined a construction company specialising in bridge-building. After this he went to Vienna for a brief period to work for an iron construction company.
In 1871 Karl Benz joined forces with ‘mechanician’ August Ritter to found his first company in Mannheim. When Ritter emerged as an unreliable partner, Karl Benz paid him off using the dowry of his wife-to-be, Bertha Ringer, before the two of them were married and ran the company alone.
Bertha Benz was to play a key role in the subsequent success of his new company. She was the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance and is therefore the first female motorist in history. Karl and Bertha Benz had five children.
Business was not good for Karl Benz in the early days. In his ‘Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop’ (later renamed ‘Factory for Sheet-Metal Working Machines’), things got so bad that tools were impounded.
In search of a new source of revenue, Karl Benz focused his attention on two-stroke engines.
Following a two-year development period, the first engine operated satisfactorily in 1879.
Since the patent for a four-stroke engine had already been issued to Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik in 1877, Benz’s engine was based on a two-stroke cycle. In developing his two-stroke engine, Benz also obtained a number of fundamental patents, including engine speed control. He employed his own new battery ignition system to start his vehicles.
Aided by new financial backers and partners and the support of banks, Karl and Bertha Benz converted the company into a public limited company, renaming it Gasmotoren-Fabrik Mannheim AG. Karl Benz’s share in the company amounted to a mere five percent and when his partners attempted to exert influence on his designs, Benz left the fledgling company in 1883.
In the same year Benz obtained financial support from two businessmen – Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger – who founded Benz & Co Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik together with Benz in October 1883.
The number of company employees grew rapidly to 25 and licences for building gas engines were issued. Financially secure, Benz could focus all his energy on car engine development and he began with a purpose-designed vehicle, powered by his four-stroke petrol engine. His competitor Daimler installed his first engine in a converted carriage.
In 1886, Karl Benz was granted a patent for his vehicle and presented the first ‘Benz Patent-Motorwagen’ (Benz Patent Motor Car) to the public.
Three versions of the three-wheeled vehicle were produced between 1885 and 1887: model No 1 was presented by Benz to the German Museum in 1906; model No 2 is assumed to have been modified and reconstructed several times and model No 3, which featured wooden-spoke wheels, was driven by Bertha Benz on the first long-distance automobile trip in 1888.
Growing demand for stationary engines enabled Benz & Co Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik to move to a larger production facility. Following the arrival of new partners, Friedrich von Fischer and Julius Ganß, in 1890, Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik advanced to the status of second-largest engine manufacturer in Germany.
In 1893, Karl Benz introduced axle-pivot steering to the automotive industry. He also developed the ‘contra’ engine – the forerunner of today’s boxer engine, in 1896.
Benz & Co achieved a breakthrough in sales terms with the Velo – a light, low-priced vehicle – and about 1200 models were built during the period 1894 to 1901. It is considered by many to be the first production vehicle.
By the end of the 19th century, Benz & Co. had grown into the world’s leading automotive manufacturer and was converted into a public limited company in 1899, continuing on as Benz & Cie.
Alongside Karl Benz on the Board of Management, Julius Ganß became Commercial Director. Between 1890 and 1899, the vehicle construction workforce expanded from 50 to 430. 572 vehicles were built at Benz in 1899.
On 24 January 1903, Karl Benz announced his retirement from active work within the company and took a seat on the Supervisory Board.
When management decided to employ a group of French designers at the Mannheim plant, with the aim of meeting competition from Mercedes, Benz disagreed with the new head designer, Marius Barbarou, and left the company. His sons, Eugen and Richard, also left with him, although Richard returned to Mannheim in 1904 as production manager for passenger cars. By the end of the year, sales of Benz motor cars had reached 3480.
In 1906, Karl Benz founded the company – Karl Benz Söhne – in Ladenburg, which was jointly owned by himself and his son, Eugen. Having failed in their attempts to manufacture naturally aspirated gas engines, they directed their attention to vehicle construction.
Approximately 350 Karl Benz Söhne vehicles were produced during the first quarter of the 20th century.
When Germany imposed a motor vehicle tax in 1906, Benz reacted with a smaller 2.4-litre 10/18hp car in 1908. The tax impacted the large-displacement and elite-level vehicles the most. With the 10/18hp falling just below the stipulated 10hp taxation threshold, it appealed to a larger and growing new market.
With the success of the 10/18, Benz created an even smaller car, the 1570cc 6/14 of 1910 and an intermediate-level car, the 8/20, produced from 1912 until 1921. The tax-friendly 8/20 – nicknamed ‘Quiet Benz’ had a nickel-steel frame by Krupp and a top speed of 62km/h.
1908 Benz 75/105hp Prinz Heinrich Raceabout – Bonhams
In 1908, Benz released a colossal 12-litre, 120hp Grand Prix car that was beaten by a Mercedes, so in 1909 Benz countered with the 200hp, 21-litre ‘Blitzen Benz’.
It was a good thing that the first race track, the famous Brooklands Oval, was finished in England that year. With two steep curves, this was just the right terrain for the fireball from Baden.
On the 8th of November 1909, the car went to England and effortlessly set an absolutely new speed record flying along kilometres at 202.7km/h. It should be noted that, at that time in England, the speed limit on public streets was 32km/h!
Further records followed. In 1911, Bob Burman raced along the sand at Daytona Beach in a Blitzen-Benz at a speed of 228.1km/h. This record for the fastest land vehicle remained unbroken until 1919.
Benz catered to a wide variety of clients, and prior to World War I, offered over two dozen sizes of four-cylinder engines. The 18/45 was one of the more powerful and exclusive offerings. It was powered by a T-head engine that had cylinders cast-in-pairs.
In 1912, Karl Benz left the company, leaving his sons Eugen and Richard to run the business alone. The company expanded and branched out into other markets: for example, England where Karl Benz Söhne vehicles were often employed as taxis and where their reliability earned them great popularity.
After WWI, Benz launched the sporting 6/18, powered by an overhead-camshaft 1.6-litre engine and a more pedestrian side-valve, two-litre 8/20.
The last Karl Benz Söhne vehicle was built in 1923. Two 8/25 hp vehicles were assembled a year later, which Karl Benz kept for his own business and personal use.
The first Mercedes-Benz brand name vehicles were produced in 1926, following the merger of Karl Benz’s and Gottlieb Daimler’s companies into the Daimler-Benz company on 28 June of the same year.
Karl Benz was able to follow the motorisation boom and the ultimate breakthrough of his inspiration. He died on April 4th, 1929 in his house in Ladenburg. Today this house is used by the Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler Foundation as their headquarters and as a location for a range of events.
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