Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Karl Benz

The Early Years

Karl Benz was born the son of an engineer on November 25, 1844 in Karlsruhe. His father died when Karl was barely two years old. Despite being relatively poor, his mother ensured he had a good education. Karl Benz attended high school before going on to study at a technical college in Karlsruhe under the tutorship of Ferdinand Redtenbacher. This course of study was followed by a two-year traineeship at a mechanical engineering company in Karlsruhe. Whilst he was there, Benz gained basic experience in all areas of work. His first employment followed, as a draftsman and designer at a scales manufacturing factory in Mannheim. When he lost his job in 1868 he moved to the "Gebrüder Benckiser Eisenwerke und Maschinenfabrik" company which was concerned mostly with bridge construction. His interest in motor vehicles was sparked, as so often is the case, by the bicycle. His employment at Benckiser was followed by a short period spent working in Vienna, also at an iron construction firm.

The Beginnings

In 1871, the technically-minded Benz founded his first company in Mannheim with a mechanic by the name of August Ritter. The workshop had a typical Mannheim address: T 6, 11. It was, however, soon to become clear that Ritter was not a very reliable partner. It was only with the help of his fiancée, Bertha Ringer, that Benz was able to overcome this obstacle. Without further hesitation she paid in her dowry to buy Ritter out of the business. In 1872 Bertha Ringer and Karl Benz were married. Bertha Benz emerged as a crucial player in the future success of the fledgling company and undertook the world's first long-distance journey in an automobile. Karl and Bertha Benz had five children: Eugen (*1873), Richard (*1874), Clara (*1877), Thilde (*1882) and Ellen (*1890).

Karl Benz's business did not enjoy the best of fortunes at first. For example, his "Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop", which Benz later renamed "Factory for the Production of Metal-working Machinery" had its tools confiscated by the bailiffs. During this period Karl Benz concentrated on developing the two-stroke engine, in order to find another way of earning a living. After two years of development his first stationary engine finally spluttered into life on New Year's Eve 1879. It was a two-stroke model as the company Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz had already been awarded a German patent for the four-stroke version in 1877, thanks largely to the work of Nikolaus August Otto. Benz received several original patents for perfecting his two-stroke engine, which he worked on until he achieved series production standards. For example, one of these patents was awarded for the engine speed regulation system. He used his newly developed battery ignition system to induce combustion in the engine.

With new investors and partners in the Mannheim court photographer Emil Bühler and his brother, a cheese merchant, together with the financial support of the banks, Benz converted the company into a joint-stock company in 1882 and called the company "Gasmotoren-Fabrik Mannheim". Karl Benz had a mere 5% stake in the company, was "only" classed as director and was not the main supplier of ideas. His partners in the firm were also trying to exert increasing influence on his designs and a combination of these factors led Benz to leave the new company in 1883.

Benz & Co.

Later that year Benz found a different source of financial support in Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßinger who ran a shop in Mannheim which sold, among other things, bicycles and who Benz met through his interest in cycling. In October the three men founded the company "Benz & Co. Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik". The workforce soon expanded to 25 men and the company grew to the point where it was even able to grant licenses for the production of gas engines. Benz could now devote himself one hundred percent to the development of his car engine. Financially secure, he took a different route from Daimler, who installed his engine into a carriage, by first designing a complete vehicle in which he could house his four-stroke gasoline engine. In 1886 he was granted Patent 37 435 for the vehicle and unveiled his first "Benz Patent Motor Car" to the public.

Between 1885 and 1887, three versions of the three-wheeler were designed: the Model 1 which Benz donated to the Deutsches Museum in 1906, the Model 2 which was probably altered and rebuilt several times, and lastly the Model 3 with wood-spoked wheels which Bertha Benz took on the first long-distance journey in 1888.

By 1886 the existing production facilities could no longer cope with the insatiable demand for stationary engines and "Benz & Co. Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik" moved to a larger factory building in Waldhofstrasse in which motor vehicle engines were manufactured until 1908. The appearance in 1890 of new partners, Friedrich von Fischer and Julius Ganß, marked the growth of "Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik" into Germany's second-largest engine factory. In 1893 Karl Benz introduced the axle-pivot steering system into automobile construction and in 1896 he developed the "contra" engine which was to become the precursor to today's horizontally opposed piston engine.

The World's Largest Automotive Manufacturer

Between 1894 and 1901 the Benz "Velo" was built at Benz & Co. It was a reasonably priced, light automobile for two people which signaled the breakthrough to higher sales and, with total production of some 1200 units, can be legitimately described as the first series production car. As the turn of the century approached, Benz & Co. had grown into the world's leading automotive manufacturer. In 1899 the firm was converted into a joint-stock company.

Julius Ganß joined Karl Benz on the Board of Management becoming the member responsible for commercial matters. The vehicle production workforce grew from 50 in 1890 to 430 by 1899. In this year alone, Benz built 572 vehicles.

The Final Years

On January 24, 1903 Karl Benz announced his retirement from active work within the company, taking a seat on the Supervisory Board. His departure was the result of internal wrangling in the company caused by the management's decision to employ a group of French designers in the Mannheim plant, with the aim of facing up to the competition from Mercedes. Karl Benz's two sons Eugen and Richard also left with him, although Richard returned to Mannheim in 1904 as passenger car production manager. By the end of the year sales of Benz motor cars had reached 3480.

In 1906 Karl Benz founded the company "Carl Benz Sohne" in Ladenburg, which was jointly owned by himself and his son Eugen. At first, they planned to build naturally aspirated gas engines. However, times were changing quickly and demand for this type of engine dwindled. This necessitated a change of tack to vehicle production and by 1923 some 350 "Carl Benz Sohne" vehicles had been produced. In the meantime, the Benz family had relocated to Ladenburg. In 1912 Karl Benz left the company as a partner, leaving his sons Eugen and Richard to run the business alone.

The company expanded further and branched out into other markets, for example into England where the "Carl Benz Sohne" vehicles were often employed as taxis and where their reliability earned them great popularity. In 1923 the last vehicle was built, followed only by two 8/25 hp vehicles a year later which Karl Benz kept for his own business and personal use. He enjoyed using both cars and never sold them. They have been preserved right up to the present day.

In contrast to Gottlieb Daimler, who died in 1900, Karl Benz was there to witness the blossoming of motorization and to see the products of his inspiration. He died on April 4, 1929 in his home in Ladenburg. Today this house is used by the "Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler Foundation" as their headquarters and as a location for a range of events.