February 5, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Carl Benz

Carl Benz received a patent for the world’s first gas-powered velocipede in 1886. In 1888 he won a gold medal for his automobile at the Munich Engine Exposition but generated no sales. Experts opined that the use of petroleum held no more promise for road travel than did steam. Benz did attract one prospect, however, but he was literally carted off to a lunatic asylum before any money could change hands. The world’s first new car buyer was certifiably insane.

Carl Benz’s road to his first automobile was no less rocky than his drive fore his first sale. Benz was born in Germany in 1844 and completed an education at Karlsruhe Polytechnikum before launching an immodest early career. In rapid succession he worked on locomotives, designed scales and built bridges. In 1871 he set up a machine shop in a shed with a partner who turned out not to like anything about the business beyond setting it up. Benz floundered and his business was kept from the auctioneer’s gavel only by the value of its property.

Gottleib Daimler had just built a four-stroke internal combustion stationary engine which convinced Benz he could develop a two-stroke engine he could mount on a movable vehicle. On New Years Eve 1879 a nearly destitute Benz hit upon a workable model with enough promise to land local financing. At first Benz built stationary engines but in 1883 he set out to build a road vehicle.

But what was he going to build? No one had ever built anything that resembled a car. How would it ignite? How would it steer? How many wheels should it have? Late in 1885 the first Benz car rolled around the courtyard in his hometown of Mannheim. It stopped when an ignition wire snapped. Then a chain drive broke. After weeks of repair, benz tried again. This time he drove his 550-pound into a brick wall. The first automobile accident.

By early 1886 Benz was back on the streets with a three-wheeled contraption. He test drove at night to avoid any embarrassment and his son ran down the road with him to refuel the car. Fearing an explosion Benz was careful to only put one-and-a-half liters into the tank at a time. But his tests were successful. Meanwhile Daimler had taken his faster engine and situated it in between the two wheels of a bicycle to make the world’s first motorcycle. Soon he had driven a horseless carriage of his design 18 kilometers an hour.

Germans ignored these new cars but the French were wildly enthusiastic about motor transportation. Benz contracted with a Parisien agent to sell his cars as more and more inventors introduced their own strange and wonderful contraptions. What better way to determine the merit of these new cars than to stage a race. On July 22, 1894 in Paris twenty-one vehicles - 8 steam-driven and 13 gasoline powered - rolled to the starting line in the first-ever automobile race. It was more horseless carriages gathered together in one place than ever before.

Carl Benz was not enthusiastic about this sort of competition. He knew others were working with more powerful engines and thought a car should be judged on its reliability, not its ability to reach a high speed for a short time. Indeed, the Benz car reached the finish line in the 78-mile race well behind the Daimler-powered engines in the field. But Benz instead pointed with pride to another motoring achievement - a 1,000-mile, three-country tour undertaken by a Benz Viktoria car.

By the end of the 19th century Benz had sold 2,000 cars, making him the leading automobile maker in the world. Benz thought 30 miles per hour was as fast as a car ever needed to go and he became increasingly disenchanted with his company’s , Benz et Cie., growing infatuation with racing. On April 21, 1903 he resigned his position as board member and advisor.

Gottleib Daimler died in 1900 at the age of 66, never having met Carl Benz, even though the two lived only 60 miles apart. The following year his company was commissioned by Emile Jellinik, a wealthy Austrian banker, to build a car. He wanted the engine in front , an unusual placement at the time, because “that was where the horse used to be.” The car was named for Jellinik’s 11-year old daughter, Mercedes Adrienne Manuela Ramona Jellinik. Emile Jellinik would die in prison in World War I, accused of being an Austrian spy.

World War I decimated the German automobile industry. Eighty-six car makers vied for sales in the war-ravaged country in the 1920s causing Benz et Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesselschaft to enter into a loose association where the firms shared technology and market information. In 1926 the merger became official with the melding of the three-pointed Daimler star and the Benz laurel branches onto the new Mercedes-Benz. Carl Benz died three years later, at 85, a recognized pioneer of the automobile industry. Mercedes Jellinik also died in 1929, impoverished after two failed marriages to Austrian barons.

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