Germany Celebrates 125 Years of the Automobile



By Pia Reutter



What was invented in the small workshops of inventors would revolutionize the world in the next 125 years: the automobile. The patent application filed by Carl Benz on January 29, 1886, marks the hour of its birth. Germany is celebrating his triumph.

The pharmacist in Wiesloch was quite astonished when, in 1888, a woman asked for the stain remover Ligroin and then poured it into a vehicle of the like he had never before seen. Bertha Benz had borrowed her husband’s Benz motor vehicle number 3 without his knowledge to travel from Mannheim to Pforzheim. During the trip she had run out of fuel. The goal of the bold venture: to prove the sustainability of the vehicle. Skepticism over this curious invention was great at this time in which the horse had proven to be a reliable means of transportation.


James Watt, Jean-Joseph Etinne Lenoir, Nikolaus August Otto, the list of those linked to the invention of the automobile is long. In fact, many inventors participated in its development, but history has recorded Carl Benz’s motor vehicle as the first automobile, and thus his wife’s test drive must also be regarded as the first long-distance drive in the world.


A year before Benz his rival Gottlieb Daimler applied for a patent that is today considered to be the predecessor to the motorcycle: the “Reitwagen” (riding wagon). Unlike Benz, who wanted to construct a distinct vehicle, Daimler focused specifically on the development of an engine and successfully sold it to France, where the pivotal impetus in the development of the automobile would soon come. The engine was mounted in the front, the drive train in the back – still the customary design today. Peugot purchased his engines from Panhard & Levasser, one of the first companies to secure a Daimler license, and sold 300 vehicles within five years.


But the automobile was not to remain merely a means of transportation. The Paris-Rouen Race of 1894 is considered to be the first car race in the world. Its premiere was followed by many others at the beginning of the 20th century: the London-to-Brighton Run, the Gordon Bennet Cup, the Herkomer Competition, and many others.

Around the turn of the century Wilhelm Maybach also began developing a race car. Emil Jellinek, a successful Austrian businessman who had been selling Daimler automobiles since 1898, ordered a sports car from Maybach, although his boss Gottlieb Daimler disapproved of race cars until his death. Driving under the pseudonym of his daughter Mercedes he outclassed the competition at the Nice racing contests in 1901. From then on the Daimler cars were linked with the name Mercedes and later officially bore the name Mercedes.

In 1899 August Horch founded with businessman Salli Herz the company A. Horch & Cie. At first he repaired a Benz motor car in his workshop, a former horse stable. Then in 1901 he presented his own automobile. Ten years later he left the company and founded the Audi Automobilwerke GmbH Zwickau. The first Audi left the workshop in 1910.


A few manufacturers soon recognized that the automobile in the future should not be limited to the upper echelons of society as a luxury item but should be made accessible to the middle class. Among them was Henry Ford, who then perfected the assembly line in the automobile industry. More than 15 million of his Tin-Lizzys, known as the Model T, were built from 1908 to 1927. Until 1972, when it was surpassed by the VW Beetle, the Model T held the record as the most sold car in the world.


The first affordable small car was also developed in Europe. For instance, there was Peugeot’s “Bébé” from 1913 or the Wanderer 5/12P and the Opel 5/14PS, both known by the name “Puppchen.” Taking place in America in 1911 for the first time was the Indy 500, the 500-mile race in Indianapolis. Five years later Rae Lents won the first Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in the Rocky Mountains.

With the outbreak of the First World War industry, especially in Europe, shifted its production to munitions. From now on vehicles were to be first and foremost sturdy and have a far cruising range. Electric cars did not fulfill the latter criteria, which is why the internal combustion engine prevailed.

The postwar period came along with a cleansing of the automobile market. Of the former 86 manufacturers only 17 survived until 1929. The Daimler-Motor-Gesellschaft merged in 1926 with the Benz & Cie to become Daimler-Benz AG. After the mid-1920s Opel expanded to become the most successful German car.

The Golden Twenties saw the emergence of new models. This era gave birth to luxury limousines in particular. The most impressive was the Bugatti Royale, of which only six models were built. Another automobile legend was the Mercedes-Benz Type S. In America cars made by Cadillac, Duesenberg, Packard and Co. were popular.

On December 1, 1930, Ferdinand Porsche, a former member of the board of management at Daimler, started up his own engineering office in Stuttgart. In 1934, by order of the German Reichverbandes der Automobilindustrie the office started designing the German Volkswagen, later called the VW Beetle. In the early 1950s Ferdinand Porsche took over the company his father had built and expanded it to today’s world renowned sports car company. Starting in 1936 the most famous Porsche was produced: the 911. In 1932 Audi, DKW, Horch and the automobile division of Wanderer merged to become the Auto Union. Today the four overlapping rings symbolize Audi.


While the USA was experiencing a real auto boom, all the steel in Germany, starting in the mid-1930s, went to the armaments industry. In the 1950s, during the worldwide economic boom, most Germans saved their money for a Beetle, which at that time cost about 4,000 German marks, and by 1955 Germany was in second place, only behind the USA, in automobile production.


Nowadays we can hardly imagine life without the car. Technical developments have improved the automobile in every aspect: faster, safer, more environmentally friendly, larger, more comfortable, and so on. Every clientele wants their wants and needs met, and they are.

If Bertha Benz made history 100 years ago with her long-distance drive, in 2011 it is Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt. She is the first woman to be appointed to the Board of Management of a German car manufacturer. Since February she has been a member of the leadership elite at Daimler AG.



The federal state Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany is considered to be the car’s place of origin and will be celebrating the 125 anniversary of its birth from May 7 through September 10For 125 days events will be held throughout the federal state. An exciting highlight is the revival of the legendary Solitude Ring in Stuttgart. We take a look at the history of the automobile.