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Car and Driver: Happy Birthday, Automobile! Karl Benz’s Wheeled Tricycle Is 130 Years Old Today

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Benz-Patent-Motorwagen, Carl Benz in München, 1925


Like many late-20th-century kids reared in the industrial orbit of Detroit, the standard line tossed about by our well-meaning but somewhat uninterested teachers was that “Henry Ford was the father of the gasoline-powered automobile.” They were wrong of course; Ford was far from first, even in the U.S. If our noble educators had removed their rust-belt blinders even for a minute, they would have made the distinction between popularizing the gasoline-powered automobile and actually being credited with creating it. Because when it comes to claiming the title of first, no other single individual has a stronger case than Karl Benz, whose three-wheeled, self-propelled, gasoline-powered “Patent-Motorwagen” vehicle first rolled under its own power in 1885.


Confident he was on to something big, Benz wisely filed for a patent on January 29th of 1886, registering the rig as a “gas-powered vehicle” with the German Imperial Patent Office in Berlin under the number DRP 37435. Although not uncontested (Gottlieb Daimler, the Duryea brothers, George Selden, and countless others were on similar timelines), the Benz patent remains the closest official date for the birth of the modern automobile. And today marks its 130th birthday.


Benz first showed the vehicle, which for obvious reasons earned the name “Patentwagen” or “Patent-Motorwagen” or even simply “patent motor car,” in public on July 3, 1886, when he took it for a spin on the Ringstrasse in Mannheim, Germany. Powered by a rear-mounted 954-cc, one-cylinder four-stroke engine producing less than 1 horsepower, the Patentwagen was capable of cruising at up to 9.9 mph with the engine turning approximately 400 rpm. Constructed of a steel tubular chassis and wooden slats with a chain drive and large spoke wheels, one wonders if Karl Benz realized his design sensibilities would, more than a century later, serve as an embryonic puff of inspiration for a burgeoning steampunk movement.




Although Benz’s short trip around Mannheim may have helped cement the vehicle’s provenance, legend has it that it was an unscheduled excursion by Benz’s wife Bertha in 1888 that established the motor vehicle’s everyday utility. Benz had continued to improve the vehicle, and by 1888 had completed the third revision, logically dubbed the Model III. In August of that same year, Bertha, accompanied by sons Eugene and Richard, gave Benz the slip and embarked on a long-distance (approximately 120-mile) journey the Model III, traveling from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back to visit her mother, in the process proving the motorcar’s practical application in day-to-day life. (Interested parties can trace their travels via the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in Baden-Wurttemberg.)


Eventually, Benz would connect with Gottlieb Daimler—who also had a motorized carriage in 1886, but alas, not the first patent—and the two would go on to raise some serious hell in the automotive world, setting records, pioneering safety advances, and generally making names for themselves in the nascent auto industry. Today, Carl Benz’s patent motor car and Gottlieb Daimler’s motorized carriage make up the first exhibit on view to visitors  of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.


And what became of the original patent filing number DRP 37435? It’s still around, currently in the Untied Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations, “Memory of the World Program,” sharing space with such esteemed documents as the Magna Carta, Gutenberg Bible, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Like my schoolteachers always said, “Save your paperwork–you might need it in the future.”




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