If there is one vehicle that could be considered the genesis of the modern automobile, it is Karl Benz’s revolutionary Patent Motorwagen of 1886. To truly pinpoint the first automobile may be an impossible task, but it was the Benz that made the first successful and public long-distance drive and the first to successfully reach production. It stands as one of the most significant inventions of the 19th century and is included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Documentary Heritage Register.
Benz’s creation was true to form of similar early motorcars, in that it featured a small capacity engine in a buggy-style chassis. The Benz used a single cylinder, horizontally placed four-stroke engine of 954 cubic centimeters. Spinning at a rather low 400 rpm (Benz favored low-revving engines as he believed higher speeds would cause failures), the petrol powered engine produced about 0.75 horsepower and could move the 265kg machine along at about eight mph in ideal conditions. Power transmission was via a large flat belt, with final drive handled by a pair of robust chains driving the large spoked wheels. The engine was cooled via an evaporative water system, which meant regular stops to refill the reservoir. Engine speed was controlled via a sleeve valve below the seat and braking via hand lever connected to the belt-pulley system. The chassis rode on elliptic springs in the rear (as well as on the buggy-style seat), and a single front wheel was steered via tiller as Benz was not yet aware of the Ackermann geometry system that allowed for two steering wheels on a front axle.
Simple yet effective, the Patent Motorwagen had a rather quiet launch as Karl Benz was continually tinkering with the design before presenting it to the press and potential buyers. His business partners grew increasingly impatient, as did his wife, Bertha Benz, who had also supplied Karl with a significant source of funds for his project. Perhaps motivated to help her husband or probably out of sheer impatience for his perfectionism, Bertha took her two teenage sons in Patent Motorwagen #3 on the world’s first long-distance motoring journey – and without informing her husband. She traveled from their home in Mannheim to Pforzheim, a one-way distance of about 66 miles (106 km). Along the way, Bertha cleared a clogged fuel line with a hat pin and used her garter as insulation material on a frayed wire. When the brakes were found to be inadequate, she had a cobbler fashion some leather into the first ever brake pad. She stopped at a pharmacy in Wiesloch to purchase ligroin (a petroleum solvent) and thereby created the world’s first filling station! Her teenage sons often had to push the machine up steep inclines, but the journey was completed by dusk, with Bertha notifying Karl of her arrival in Pforzheim via telegram. She would make a successful return trip a few days later. The importance of Bertha’s drive in the Patent Motorwagen cannot be overstated – her experiences on the journey influenced the design of the production models and future Benz machines. She was, in essence, the world’s first development driver for a tiny firm that would eventually grow into one of the world’s premier vehicle manufacturers – Mercedes-Benz.
In 1986, to celebrate the machine’s 100th anniversary and to honor the achievements of Karl and Bertha Benz, Daimler-Benz commissioned a series of functional replicas of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, which were to be sold directly through the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Germany. Mercedes outsourced the task of producing the model to the highly capable John Bentley and Sons Engineering in England, who used Daimler-Benz’s authentic example as a pattern to build a near-perfect, running and driving recreation. Since 1986 approximately 330 have been constructed by Mr. Bentley, and his creations are considered the most desirable and authentic.
Our featured 1886 Patent Motorwagen is a brand new build direct from John Bentley, wearing unit number MH040418. It is meticulously handcrafted using original-type materials and detailed to a very high standard. The finish work and quality of the machining are impressive; from the simple, exposed mechanicals to the finely fitted wood decking and hand-stitched black leather buggy seat. It rides on lightweight metal spoke wire wheels built on beautiful brass hubs as original (Benz felt wood was far too heavy and cumbersome). The single-cylinder engine is an exquisite display in itself; a mix of highly polished copper, brass, and deep red-painted cast iron. It is correctly detailed down to the thick leather belt that transmits power from the engine to the final drive chains. It is no mere static display, as it runs and drives in the same manner as the original.
The quality and craftsmanship are impressive throughout, and this delightful piece would be a welcome addition to virtually any collection or transportation museum. While it may appear on the surface to be little more than a full-scale collectible model; it is, in fact, a fully functioning and incredibly faithful recreation. The Benz Patent Motorwagen stands proudly as the father of the internal-combustion motorcar, and we are pleased to offer this outstanding tribute in celebration of the groundbreaking original.
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