The origins of Mercedes-Benz (the world’s oldest continually running automotive brand) go back to 1886, to the very invention of the automobile. That was the year Karl Benz patented his Benz Patent Motorwagen, the first vehicle designed to be an automobile form the ground up. Patented January 29, 1886, it was described as an automobile fueled by gas. Predictably, it was also the first car to crash, when it ran into a wall during a demonstration run.
But we digress.
Karl Benz was actually bor5n Karl Vailant in November of 1844 in the German city now known as Karlsruhe, Baden. His mother and father were married a few months after his birth. At the age of two, his father, a locomotive operator, was killed in an accident and his mother changed his last name to Benz out of respect for his dad. Following his father’s interest lead him to a career in engineering. After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, Benz graduated at the age of 19.
It was during this period he got the idea for a car.
Before he got there though, worked as a designer and a draftsman at Mannheim, the German scale company. He also worked for a bridge building company and an iron construction company. Benz’s first business enterprise was the called the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop in Mannheim, although it was later renamed Factory for Machines for Sheet-metal. Benz’s original collaborator was August Ritter, but the partnership failed and the existence of the business was jeopardized, largely because Ritter was an unreliable sort. The company was saved when Bertha Roger, Benz’s fiancée, bought Ritter out of the company using her dowry.
Among Benz’s patented inventions are the spark plug, carburetor, clutch, gearshift and the water radiator. His company was forced to go public in 1882, which led to the enterprise getting yet another new name; Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim. However, the new management structure that was imposed left Benz in a marginal position within the company. He soon left to found Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, to build industrial equipment and static gasoline engines. Enjoying success, Benz was then freed to pursue the development of his automobile idea.
The result was the Benz Patentwagen, based largely on ideas Benz got from working on bicycles. Using wire wheels like a bicycle, as well as chain drive, the engine was a four-stroke design created by Karl Benz. The car went on sale in 1888. Bertha, without the knowledge of Karl, took one of the Patentwagens on a 66-mile drive with two of their children to visit her mother. Along the way, from her experiences climbing and descending hills, she realized several innovations that live on in cars to this day; the multispeed transmission and brake linings being two such concepts.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb Daimler and his assistant Wilhelm Maybach were converting a stagecoach into an automobile. Daimler was born in March of 1834 in the German city of Schorndorf, Württemberg. Daimler’s parents owned a bakery. At the age of 14 he began apprenticing with a gunsmith, completing his training at the age of 18, Daimler went to the School for Advanced Training in the Industrial Arts. The school had a practical work program, which Daimler joined and soon went to work building railway locomotives.
In 1872, Daimler, along with his protégé Wilhelm Maybach went to work at Deutz-AG-Gasmotorenfabrik. Nikolaus Otto, the individual credited with inventing the Otto cycle engine, (a four-stroke gas internal combustion engine with intake, compression, power, and exhaust strokes) was a partner there. Daimler and Maybach were assigned to perfect the engine and ready it for production. The two patented a number of engineering firsts in the process. However, eight years later Otto and Daimler had a falling out—with the result being Daimler leaving to found his own company—Daimler Motors.
The first Daimler engine design was called the Standuhr (German for “grandfather clock”) engine, because, well, it kind of looked like one. This design is held out as being the template for all contemporary gasoline engines. Air-cooled, it featured a flywheel, a camshaft, and a carburetor. The first application of it was to a bicycle—in effect creating the first known motorcycle—in 1885. In 1886, they applied the Standuhr to a stagecoach, using a belt to drive the wheels.
Next, Daimler and Maybach proceeded to put it in boats, attached it to a hot-air balloon (creating the first motorized airship), and streetcars. The largest market for the engine ultimately proved to be boats, which would become their mainstay. Daimler and Maybach also did good business licensing their designs. Their first car built from the ground up was done in 1889.
The first car to be called a Mercedes was offered in 1901 by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. Mercedes was the daughter of Emil Jellinek, one of Daimler’s best customers. Jellinek was also a successful racer of Daimler’s cars, which attracted a great deal of attention to the products.
Ironically, Daimler and Benz never worked together. By the time Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, and Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, were merged to form Daimler-Benz in 1926, Daimler was dead, Maybach had left to found his own company, and Benz was 81 years old. Karl Benz died three years later in 1929, at the age of 84. The three-pointed star Mercedes-Benz logo refers to the fact the company’s engines are used on land, water and in the sky.
The name Mercedes-Benz was applied to the first Daimler-Benz car—built in 1926. One of the hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz automobiles has always been the pursuit of engineering excellence. The first passenger car to use an independent suspension system was a 1931 Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes-Benz is also credited with the creation of the modern supercar, with the introduction of the 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing automobiles.
Also during the 1950s, Mercedes-Benz introduced the first car with crumple zones designed to absorb impact energy in a crash, rather than transmitting it into the passenger compartment. Four-wheel brakes, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, airbags, stability control, and traction control all first appeared on Mercedes-Benz vehicles as well. And while Google gets a lot of press for its driverless car, the first driverless car was built by Mercedes-Benz in the 1980s. In fact, in 1995 a driverless Mercedes-Benz S-Class ran at speeds of over 100 miles per hour on the autobahn.