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Karl Benz is the forefather of modern-day gasoline-powered automobiles. Learn more fascinating details about his inventions, patents, and legacy!

A Most Impactful Inventor

Karl Benz on his Motorwagen - thoughtco.com
Karl Benz on his Motorwagen - thoughtco.com

Some refer to him as Karl Benz. Others mention him as Carl Benz. No matter how you choose to spell his name, he’s known as the inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile and one-half of the namesakes of Mercedes-Benz. Obviously, that made a huge impact on the proliferation of cars. We rely on cars like the Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe, Honda Civic, and Chevrolet Malibu today, but without Karl Benz’s early work, who’s to say how delayed the first engine-powered automobile may have been.

Forget just the automobile industry, though. When talking about life-changing inventions in the past 130 years, computers, television, satellites, airplanes, and cell phones all come to mind. The gasoline-powered vehicle is right up there as one of the most important. With that one invention, alone, he changed the world.

Pulling Himself Out of Poverty

Karl Benz - mercedes-benz-publicarchive.com
Karl Benz - mercedes-benz-publicarchive.com

Karl Friedrich Benz was born in Mühlburg, Germany on November 25, 1844. After his father died when Karl was two years old, he and his mother lived in near poverty. Despite that, Karl did well throughout his years in school, which eventually led him to locksmithing. Karl decided to follow in his father’s footsteps in the world of locomotive engineering. At 19 years old, Karl completed his schooling in mechanical engineering.

From there, Karl spent more than seven years training in several companies, working at one point as a draftsman and designer in a scales factory. He worked for a bridge-building company, too. He also spent time working at an iron construction company.

Karl and Bertha Benz - mercedes-benz-publicarchive.com
Karl and Bertha Benz - mercedes-benz-publicarchive.com

By 1871, Karl Benz found a partner in August Ritter to establish a machine tool manufacturing company. Ritter changed his mind about the venture, leaving Benz in a bind. His fiancée, Bertha, used her dowry to buy out Ritter’s share and save the company. Karl married Bertha in 1872. Karl was still more than a dozen years away from eventually creating a successful gasoline-powered automobile. During that time of financial hardship, Bertha was Karl’s strongest supporter.

Plenty of Patents

Benz Patent Motor Car - mercedes-benz.com
Benz Patent Motor Car - mercedes-benz.com

If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s a motto that applies to Karl Benz. Sometime in 1878, he started working on patents for the petrol two-stroke engine. He was inspired by German engineer Nikolaus Otto’s innovations with the compressed charge internal combustion engine.

Karl Benz finally achieved a working one-cylinder two-stroke engine on December 31, 1879. It became a commercial success. Karl was granted a patent for the engine in 1880. The completion of that project granted Karl the financial freedom to devote more time to his dream of creating a lightweight car that could be powered by a gasoline engine.

Benz Patent Motor Car - mercedes-benz.com
Benz Patent Motor Car - mercedes-benz.com

During that same time, he patented a variety of other components and systems including the spark plug, the carburetor, the water radiator, the gear shift, the clutch, and the battery-sparked ignition. He still had the task of fine-tuning everything, putting every piece in place, and making a functional engine attached to a vehicle.

Putting It All Together

Karl Benz and family - britannica.com
Karl Benz and family - britannica.com

Karl Benz founded Benz & Co. in 1883 to build stationary internal-combustion engines. By 1885, Karl Benz’s vision was coming together. His three-wheeled, two-seater Patent Motorwagen had a compact high-speed single-cylinder four-stroke engine. It was installed horizontally at the rear of the vehicle.

The engine consisted of an automatic intake slide, a high-voltage electrical vibrator ignition with spark plug, and a controlled exhaust valve. It also had a thermosiphon, which circulated water for cooling in the form of evaporation. Output was just 0.75 hp, but just getting all the pieces together in working form was a major accomplishment at the time. This vehicle featured wire-spoke wheels and hard rubber tires, which we explore further in Evolution of Car Wheels. A rudimentary suspension didn’t provide much cushion for riders.

On January 29, 1886, Karl Benz applied for a patent. In patent number 37435, Benz described his invention as a “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” Newspapers from July 1986 had information about the first public outing of the Benz Patent Motor Car, known as model no. 1. There was still a lot of work to be done before this vehicle could be produced in a big way, though.

Rolling It Out

1894 Benz Velo - group-media.mercedes-benz.com
1894 Benz Velo - group-media.mercedes-benz.com

Two years after Karl Benz received a patent for his motor vehicle, it was still in a testing phase. Bertha Benz was convinced that the vehicle was ready for more. In August 1988, Bertha really put the vehicle to the test. Without Karl’s knowledge, Bertha took their two sons on the first-ever documented long-distance journey using an improved version of the vehicle. The 111-mile round trip included passing through her hometown of Pforzheim.

With his confidence boosted by the successful trip, Karl entered the Patent Motorwagen in the Munich Engineering Exposition in 1888. He won a gold medal, the highest honor at the expo. From there, Karl Benz took to the streets of Munich, offering test rides to interested and awestruck crowds. Harley Earl, the ‘Father of Automotive design,’ wasn’t far behind Benz. Earl began his own automotive designs in his father’s shop in 1889.

Back across the pond, in Germany, Karl still had work to do even though his automobile was a reality. He patented the double-pivot steering system patented in 1893. The Benz Velo, the world’s first production car, was built in 1894. It was a lightweight, durable, inexpensive car for the time. An estimated 1200 units were built.

(L to R) Benz "Phaeton" and Benz Velo - group-media.mercedes-benz.com
(L to R) Benz "Phaeton" and Benz Velo - group-media.mercedes-benz.com

In 1897, Benz developed the twin-engine with two horizontal single-cylinder units in parallel. That didn’t provide the results he was hoping for, so a contra engine was developed, using cylinders that were arranged opposite each other. It was installed in the rear of the vehicle, generating up to 16 horsepower.

Benz didn’t stop there. He produced the first of a series of racing cars in 1899. Benz & Company had become the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles in 1900, but Karl Benz left his active role in the company in 1906 to form a private car business with his sons. Together, the Benz family continued making automobiles.

Benz & Company reached a deal with Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Emil Jellinek in 1926 to merge with Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, forming Daimler-Benz. That company is now known as Mercedes-Benz automobiles. ‘Mercedes’ comes from the name of Emil Jellinek’s daughter. ‘Benz,’ of course, comes from Karl Benz. Karl Benz died on April 4, 1929, three years after Daimler-Benz was formed.

A Long-lasting Legacy

Dr. Carl Benz Car Museum - automuseum-ladenburg.de
Dr. Carl Benz Car Museum - automuseum-ladenburg.de

Karl Benz’s name has been well-preserved now almost 100 years after his death. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1984. The Dr. Carl Benz Car Museum, located in Ladenburg, Germany, was established the same year. His wife hasn’t been left out either. A Bertha Benz Memorial Route has been put in place near Baden-Württemberg, Germany so tourists can make the same trip she did. A monument of Benz’s famed three-wheeled car has been constructed in Pforzheim, Germany.

Maybe more of a testament to Karl Benz’s name is that Mercedes-Benz is still one of the biggest carmakers in the world today. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class are just some of the strong performers across their lineup. Several Mercedes-Benz success stories have been written about here like in pieces like Mercedes-Benz G-Class Through the Years, Retro Review: Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, and New vs Used: Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Mercedes-Benz SL Exhibition - mercedes-benz.com
Mercedes-Benz SL Exhibition - mercedes-benz.com

Advancements have been made with electric vehicles, but gasoline-powered cars with spark-ignited internal combustion engines are still the norm. With his experiments, patents, and finished product, Karl Benz allowed people the freedom to travel long distances on a regular basis. No matter where we go from here, gas-powered cars changed the way people around the world travel.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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