On January 29th, 1886 Karl Benz filed the patent for what is arguably the first automobile. It came to be referred to as the Motorwagen. It had three wheels, and a tiller for steering, but it was powered by a gasoline engine. Like many brilliant inventors, Benz was not a particularly good business man, and a somewhat unstable character. Most of his early ventures were failures. However, he married well and was able to engineer (pun intended) a few bailouts and find the means to launch new ventures. In fact, his wife Bertha Benz may have been the key to the successful launch of the Benz automobile as she is credited with being the first person to drive an automobile between two cities (65 miles). This created a great deal of publicity and made the automobile practical in the eyes of the public.
The vehicle itself looks frail and unwieldy by modern standards, and bears more than a passing resemblance to a carriage that is missing its’ team of horses. On closer inspection though, you uncover a number of good ideas that have survived to this day. A tubular frame, rack and pinion steering, the gasoline engine, water-cooling, a rear-mounted engine, leaf spring suspension, bevel gears. And it was fast. On one of the early tests, Benz himself wrote “I may well have reached a speed of 16 kilometers per hour with the car.” Doesn’t sound so fast 125 years later, but the average speed of a walking horse, which was the normal speed of transportation on roads, was and is 6kph. This is also the same speed today of LA traffic, so don’t be surprised to be passed in your new Lambo by a Motorwagen.
Benz subsequently went on to create cars with 4 wheels and then in 1895 the first truck. In 1897, Benz developed the famous “contra” engine. So named because it was a flat horizontally opposed (boxer) engine. The pistons both got to top dead center at the same time producing “contrary” forces that were therefore balanced and smooth. This motor was produced for racing, which was the principal form of advertising at the time, and doubled typical power at the time from around 5hp to around 10hp. Benz cars enjoyed good success with this motor and in 1900 a four cylinder boxer motor producing around 20 hp won the International circuit race in Frankfurt at an average speed of 47.5 kph !! Despite the great success, Benz moved away from the boxer in 1903 in favor of inline engines. However, the boxer configuration obviously went on to fame later on (BMW, Porsche, Subaru) and is in use even today. In 1923 Benz developed the first mid-engined grand prix car with an iconic teardrop shape that was imitated for decades. It was called the Benz Tropfenwagen. This almost certainly represented some of the first advanced thinking about aerodynamics as well.
In 1926, Benz merged with Daimler (headed by Gottlieb Daimler who was himself another early pioneer), and began to produce vehicles under the Mercedes Benz label. The impressive vehicles that have continuously flowed from the company are such that it has managed to not only survive for more than 100 years, but to remain one of the premier producers of automobiles for that entire period. I can’t think of another manufacturer of anything that can say the same.