Who invented the car? The story behind Karl Benz

Who invented the car? The story behind Karl Benz
Who invented the car? The answer – as you will have spotted in the title – is Karl Benz, but the story isn’t as clear cut as it might seem.

For an invention that had such an impact on society, too few people know about Benz and what he achieved.

Take the names behind other significant inventions. Mention Alexander Graham Bell, George Stephenson and John Logie Baird and you should think of the telephone, the locomotive and the television. But Benz is largely forgotten outside automotive circles.

Whether or not Karl Benz should be credited as the inventor of the car depends on your definition of an automobile. Ask Siri and you’ll be told that it was Ferdinand Verbiest, a 17th century priest, who developed a small self-propelled vehicle in the 1670s.

Other names include William Murdoch, who pioneered the steam carriage at the end of the 18th century, Richard Trevithick, Summers and Ogle, Goldsworthy Gurney and Francis Maceroni, to name but a few. But these vehicles were powered by steam, not an internal-combustion engine.

There’s no doubt that the Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir and the German Siegfried Marcus were pioneers of the internal-combustion engine, but once again we must return to the issue of the modern interpretation of a motor car in order to credit Karl Benz.

The story behind the man from his humble beginnings to one of the most influential mechanical breakthroughs in history is a blend of determination, fruition and a huge amount of natural talent.

Karl Benz: the early years

Karl Benz was born on 25 November 1844, the son of an engine driver with Baden Railways and the grandson of a blacksmith. With such ancestry, it’s little wonder that Karl would pursue a career in engineering.

Before Karl’s second birthday, his father died of pneumonia, the direct result of working in the open cab of a steam locomotive. His mother, Josephine Benz, was left to raise the family on a scant income.

At the age of nine, Benz was sent to the Karlsruhe gymnasium – the top-tier of German secondary schools and comparable to a British grammar school – where, amongst other subjects, he studied chemistry and physics. He excelled and within a few years he was appointed assistant to the master of physics.

But his progress wasn’t limited to the classroom. Having transformed a small room of his mother’s house into a laboratory, he’d spend hours upon hours of his spare time conducting chemistry experiments. But he also developed an entrepreneurial spirit that would serve to earn income for the household budget.

Money was earned taking photographs of the villages and villagers in the region of the Black Forest inhabited by his forefathers. Furthermore, like his father before him, Karl Benz developed a skill for watch and clock repairs, earning more money for his mother.

In 1860, Karl Benz passed the entrance examination for engineering studies at Karlsruhe Polytechnic, where he would meet a professor who had a profound effect on his development. His name was Ferdinand Redtenbacher, the founder of scientific mechanical engineering.

Crucially, Redtenbacher believed that the age of the steam was behind them, which only served to fuel Benz’s interest in mechanical road-traction. It’s probably no coincidence that Redtenbacher also taught Emil Skoda, the founder of Skoda Works.

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Karl Benz: early career

Later, having completed his studies, Benz began work as a mechanic joining the Engine Construction Company of Karlsruhe. The hours were long and the conditions were dismal, and yet Benz would continue his work at home, feverishly sketching designs for a horseless carriage.

In 1867, Benz moved to Johann Schweizer and Company in Mannheim, a manufacturer of cranes and wagons. Two years later, Benz was on the move again, this time to the bridge-building firm, Benckiser Ringer. It was there that he met his future wife, Bertha, who would play a major role in the development of the motor car.

They married in 1872, with Karl using his wife’s dowry to start his own engineering company. He risked everything on his vision for the internal combustion engine and the pair were virtually penniless as he pressed on, determined to fulfil his ambitions.

Benz managed to sell a number of his engines to local factories, which delivered much required income and the need to expand his workshop. Benz was working alone and the development of the horseless carriage was shrouded in secrecy. Had the bankers discovered that the financial support was being used to fund his clandestine activities, backing would have been withdrawn.

Let’s remember, there was no precedent or no primitive prototypes for Benz to use as inspiration: the car was an unknown. It’s even unclear whether or not Benz had knowledge of the experiments conducted by Lenoir and Siegfried. He would have been labelled a lunatic and a madman for following through with his crazy vision.

Everything had to be considered. How many wheels? From what materials should the wheels be made? How would they be steered? How would they be stopped? How would the engine be attached to the carriage? How would the power be transferred to the wheels? So many questions, and it was left to Benz to find the answers.

And yet Benz was engaged in a race to deliver the first motor car. Fellow German, Gottlieb Daimler, shared a vision to deliver the world’s first automobile, powered by an efficient internal combustion engine. Indeed, Daimler, working alongside Wilhelm Maybach, built the world’s first high-speed four-stroke engine which, when mounted to a bicycle, created the world’s first motorcycle.

Like Benz, Daimler and Maybach were working in secrecy, using a converted greenhouse in Daimler’s back garden. But Benz and Daimler differed in two distinct ways. Firstly, Benz worked alone. Secondly, Benz had a steely determination to build a car, while Daimler saw it as a stepping stone to greater things.

In 1883, the development of the first Benz car gathered pace. With financial support from Max Rose and Friedrich Esslinger, owners of a bicycle shop in Mannheim, he founded a new company: Benz & Co. Now, Benz had the financial means – not to mention the experience – to launch the world’s first motor car.

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The world’s first motor car

Benz had previously built the world’s first stationary petrol engine back in 1879, but creating a car in which the chassis and engine formed a single unit was unknown territory. But, in 1885, Benz built the first automobile entirely designed as such to generate its own power.

The three-wheeled, two-seater vehicle featured a high-speed single-cylinder four-stroke engine installed horizontally at the year, a tubular steel frame and a differential. Other features included a controlled exhaust valve, high-voltage electrical vibrator ignition with spark plug and water/thermosiphon evaporation cooling.

Indeed, Benz successfully applied for a number of patents, including: speed regulation system, ignition using sparks with a battery, the spark plug, the carburettor, clutch, gear shift and water radiator.

In 1886, Karl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” The patent – number 37435 – is effectively the genesis of the modern motor car. Benz used three wheels, because he wasn’t satisfied with the steering systems available for four-wheeled vehicles at the time.


The single-cylinder Benz Patent Motorwagen developed an output of 0.75hp, enough to deliver a top speed of 10mph. The car was born, but the infrastructure we take for granted today – roads, petrol stations, breakdown support – was missing. It was left to Bertha Benz to embark on the world’s first long distance journey.

The world’s first long distance journey

Without her husband’s knowledge, and using an improved version of the Benz Patent Motorwagen, Bertha set off from Mannheim to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Joining her on this 180km round trip were their two sons, Eugen (15) and Richard (14). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the journey wasn’t completed without incident.

After 30km, the car ran out of gas, forcing Bertha Benz to scrounge for fuel at a local pharmacy. The Benz Patent Motorwagen used a detergent designed for removing stains and, once refuelled, the journey continued.

Other problems included a blocked air filter and a brake block worn out as a result of no engine braking when descending a hill. Bertha used a shoemaker, who attached a leather strap to the wooden brake block – problem solved.

When the fan belt failed, Bertha removed her garter and created an improvised belt. Another problem, which couldn’t be solved on the journey, was the need for a smaller gear when climbing hills. Pushing was the order of the day.

Bertha Benz arrived at her mother’s house at nightfall, at which point she sent a telegram to her husband announcing their safe arrival. The practicality of the motor car had been demonstrated to the entire world, and it was all thanks to Bertha’s determination and ingenuity. She had always believed in Karl and his invention.

It was a much needed tonic for Karl Benz. Early tests of the motor car in Mannheim had proved troublesome and he was even banned from driving because the church did not approve of the car, labelling it the “devil’s carriage”.

But, thanks in part to Bertha’s road trip, business picked up. A syndicate was opened in France to sell Benz cars and orders started to flood in. By 1890, Benz vehicles were rolling out of Germany’s second-largest engine factory, with further innovations credited to the company.

Benz patented the double-pivot steering steering system in 1893, with the 3hp Victoria the first car to benefit from this major development. He also developed the world’s first horizontally-opposed ‘boxer’ piston engine.

And yet, with the world playing catch-up, Benz cars began to feel outdated and outmoded. Karl Benz resisted change and left the company in 1903. He died in 1929, but not before several thousand motor cars embarked on Ladenburg to pay homage to the godfather of the modern motor car.

Inventing never dies

Karl Benz said: “the love of inventing never dies,” and it’s fair to say that his endeavours helped to shape the future of the motor car. But contrary to popular belief, alternative-fueled cars can trace their roots back to the same era.

For example, English inventor, Thomas Parker, built the first production electric car in London in 1884, just as Karl Benz was about to test his own motor car for the first time. Later, in 1900, Ferdinand Porsche was responsible for the earliest development of a hybrid vehicle.

So, while the likes of the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf can be credited as popularising the concept of hybrid and electric vehicles, the concept of ‘alternative’ fuel vehicles dates back over 100 years, to a time when petrol was considered to be the alternative and not the norm.

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