The Benz Patent Motorwagen 1886 – the first practical car

right side view of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886 in an exhibit

After the petrol engine had arrived the first practical car had to be invented by someone and it may as well have been Karl Benz, who had a formidable training but little luck in his early working life.

He was trained in mechanical engineering at the Polytechnikum Karlsruhe by Ferdinand Redtenbacher, who also taught the great engineers Franz Reuleaux and Emil Škoda (who gave his name to the cars).

Benz set up a company with a friend who proved unreliable, and so it was his fiancé Bertha Ringer who saved the day by buying the partner out with her dowry.

left side view of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886 in an exhibit

Karl Benz was lucky in his choice of wife. Not only did Bertha provide funds for the enterprise, she had a good business head, she understood machinery and she knew how to promote the product. Karl’s business prospered, and he started producing static internal combustion engines.

He also started tinkering with a combination of bicycles and engines, and eventually came up with his 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen.

front view of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886 in an exhibit

It didn’t look anything like a modern car, more like the offspring of a pram and a lawnmower. It had three, huge wire-spoked wheels which, incidentally, had been invented by Sir George Caley. The 954cc single cylinder 2/3rds horsepower engine (500W) was mounted flat at the rear, with its crankshaft open to the air, clearly visible.

left side view of the engine of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

This was vertically mounted because Benz feared gyroscopic effects might influence the steering. An enormous red flywheel hung horizontally below the crankshaft.

At the upper end of the crankshaft, a pinion gear drove a right-angled shaft, which drove a belt, which drove both wheels through a differential and chains and permitted speeds of up to 10 mph (16 km/h).  

rear view of the engine of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

There was a big spark plug and a trembler coil to provide ignition, and a basin of fuel-soaked fibres to provide the explosive mixture of petrol and air. The fuel tank was located under the rear seat bench.

The cooling system was not as we would recognize it today, depending on the evaporation of water to cool the engine, and this total-loss system meant frequent stops to replenish the water tank.

the bench seat of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

The single front wheel was steered by a lever connected to a rack-and-pinion system which would have sounded modern in 1960. A single tube ran backward from the steering head to a tubular frame chassis.

the single front wheel steered by a lever of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

The rear axle was mounted on fully elliptic springs, and the seat had additional coil springs. The brakes were rather like those found on horse-drawn carriages, with wooden blocks pressing onto the solid rubber tires. And the whole contraption was remarkably light at just 120 kg.

the carriage motor of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

Karl Benz applied for a patent on January 29, 1886, and this patent, No. 37435 is generally regarded as the birth certificate of the viable motor car. His machine was shown to the public on July 3, 1886 on the Ringstrasse in Mannheim, Germany. The first car was difficult to control and collided with a wall!  

the hand brake lever of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

Benz’s car was for sale, and it cost 600 imperial German marks, approximately £3,200 or $4,000 today. The next year Benz made an improved model, anticipating the yearly model change of future car makers. But no one knew about it so no one wanted to buy it.

But Bertha Benz was a remarkable woman, with a sharp eye for publicity. While her handsome husband slept, exhausted by his work on the strange new machine Bertha crept out of the house before dawn.

Without telling Karl she took his newly-built motor car on a 65-mile drive to visit her mother on 5 August 1888. With her were her two sons, Eugen, 15 and Richard, 14.

side view of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886 in an exhibit

It must have been a huge adventure for all three of them. It was the world’s first road trip by car, and on the way they visited the world’s first petrol filling station (a chemist’s shop), Bertha cleared a clogged fuel pipe with her hat-pin and she invented brake pads when she asked a cobbler to nail leather onto the worn-out wooden brake blocks.

The family car arrived at nightfall, with Bertha announcing their arrival to husband Karl by telegram.

Bertha Benz’s road trip in her husband’s new invention was a master stroke of publicity. In 1889 Karl’s Model 3 with wooden wheels was shown at the Paris Expo.

a vintage advertisement about the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886

The “Benz Patent Motorwagen” was the first commercially available motor car. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” Once they heard of it all the inventors of Europe raced to improve the new horseless carriage.

rear view of the engine of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen 1886