The Benz Patent Motor Car is regarded as the world’s first automobile. It completed its maiden journey in public on Mannheim’s Ringstraße on 3 July 1886. The event represented for designer Carl Benz the fulfilment of his dream to build a motorised road-going vehicle. His design, which included chassis and engine, was a fundamentally new innovation. Just a few weeks later, a second automotive pioneer, Gottlieb Daimler, installed an internal combustion engine in a carriage and in so doing marked the beginning of his dream to motorise all vehicles and appliances with his high-speed engine.
The vehicle frame of the Benz Patent Motor Car was shaped and welded together from tubular steel. The conventional drawbar steering system used with carriages was not an option since this was a rear-wheel drive vehicle. So for the sake of simplicity, Benz initially opted for a single steered front wheel, thus creating a three-wheeled vehicle. The front wheel was mounted in an unsprung fork and was turned using a lever attached to a toothed rack. Not until several years later, in 1893, did Benz invent axle-pivot steering for two steered front wheels, one of the most significant milestones in automotive design.
Benz produced the three wire spoke wheels with solid rubber tyres himself, buying in only the rims. As was typical of bicycle designs of the day, the front wheel was mounted on a ball bearing, the rear wheels in white alloy bushings. The car was driven at the rear wheels by two chains to the right and left of the throughdrive countershaft; the rear wheels were attached to the frame via a rigid axle and fully elliptic springs. It was not by chance that the Patent Motor Car bore certain similarities to the bicycle. Not only was the bicycle considered state-of-the-art, it also gave Benz inspiration for a vehicle that was both stable and lightweight.
The world’s first car had just one speed on the countershaft in the form of a fixed drive disc with integrated differential and adjacent idler disc; no transmission therefore with two or more speeds and no reverse gear. Thanks to the idler disc, the flat belt linking the engine and the countershaft simultaneously served as a clutch. To slip the vehicle into gear in preparation for moving off, the belt was simply shifted from the idler disc to the fixed drive disc. Driving speed was regulated by means of the sleeve valve located beneath the driver’s seat. The reservoir for cooling water was located above the engine. The vehicle was braked using a hand lever that acted on the countershaft belt disc. The foot brake had not yet been invented. The leather-upholstered seat bench was attached directly to the frame and mounted on elegantly contoured springs. A low, leather-bound rail at the back and sides provided additional support.
Benz Patent Motor Car was powered by a single-cylinder, four-stroke engine with a displacement of 0.954 litres. The unit developed a peak output of 0.55 kW at 400/min. Preparation of the fuel-air mixture was handled by the surface or evaporative carburettor, which also doubled as a 4.5 litre fuel reservoir. The vehicle required around 10 litres of petrol for every 100 kilometres travelled. The fact that fuel capacity was inadequate for longer distances was not initially a major concern. First and foremost, the purpose of the Benz Patent Motor Car was to demonstrate that the overall design was fit for purpose. The engine was started with a hearty swing of the flywheel.
For reasons of secrecy, preliminary short test drives were held at the factory premises in 1885. The first outing on the open road was staged at night and lasted only a few minutes, since the car came to a standstill after a hundred metres. But before long, one hundred metres turned into one thousand, and with each test the distance got bigger. In his memoirs Benz recalled: “I probably reached a speed of 16 kilometres per hour with the car. My confidence grew with each outing, but on each occasion I also grew to recognise new characteristics of the engine; on the other hand, every journey showed me new improvement possibilities, so that by January 1886 I was ready to apply for a patent for the car.”
Carl Benz applied for a patent for his Motor Car on 29 January 1886. The German Patent No. 37435 is considered the birth certificate of the automobile. The Benz Patent Motor Car No. I model demonstrated that Carl Benz’s idea was viable. Benz used this experience to build a number of other models in quick succession; although these did not differ fundamentally from the original, they featured a number of minor improvements.
The No. II model, the engine of which developed 1.1 kW, was also designed originally as a three-wheeler and subsequently converted experimentally to a four-wheeled vehicle. This car, which also featured a prototype axle pivot steering system, represented a further step towards the modern car. It is thought only one example was ever built. The No. III model was improved sufficiently to be sold in small numbers – around 25 units in total. Depending on the variant, each was equipped with an engine with an output of up to 2.21 kW. In addition, the No. III model featured wooden spoke wheels, a small petrol reservoir and a leather-clad, hand-operated block brake that acted directly on the rear wheels. There were also two forward gears, achieved by means of an idler disc and a two-stage fixed drive disc.
Benz Patent Motor Car No. I model, 1886 Technical Specifications
- mounted at the rear
- 0.55 kW at 400/min
- approx. 10 litres per 100 kilometres
- 1 speed
- engaged by shifting the drive belt from the idler disc to the fixed drive disc
- 16 km/h
- tubular steel frame
- front wheel suspension on unsprung steering fork
- real wheel suspension on rigid axle with fully-elliptic springs
- no footbrake
- hand brake acting on countershaft belt disc
- three wire spoke wheels
- diameter front 730 mm
- diameter rear 1125 mm
- solid rubber tyres
- 1450 mm
- 1190 mm
- 2700 mm
- 1400 mm
- 1450 mm
- 265 kg