Carl Benz was born on 25 November 1844 in Mühlburg near Karlsruhe and christened Carl Friedrich Michael. He later wrote his name almost exclusively with the letter “C”, which explains why both spellings are found in relevant literature. Carl´s father, one of the first engine drivers of the Baden State Railways, died less than two years later, in July 1846. Despite her modest income, Carl's mother managed to send him to a grammar school, known as a "Lyzeum" in those days, and to finance a course of studies. However, Carl, who took a very deep interest in engineering, did not want to become a civil servant as had been planned. In 1860, when he was not yet 16 years old, he was allowed to leave grammar school for the Karlsruhe Polytechnic, today a university, to study mechanical engineering.
After completing his studies, from August 1864 to September 1866, Carl Benz worked for two years as a fitter, building locomotives at the engineering works of Maschinenbau-Gesellschaft Karlsruhe. It was here he gained his first practical experience in mechanical engineering. In autumn 1866 Benz joined Waagen- and Maschinenfabrik Schweizer, which manufactured scales and other machinery. Here he was initially employed in the workshop, before being promoted to the level of "first administrative officer" in May 1867, when he began work as a draughtsman and designer. In January 1869 he took up a new position as a foreman at the Gebrüder Benckiser engineering works in Pforzheim, before moving to the firm's technical office, where he worked on the design of iron bridges.
Keen to have a company of his own, Carl Benz joined forces with mechanical engineering specialist August Ritter to set up the firm "Carl Benz und August Ritter, Mechanische Werkstätte" in Mannheim in August 1871. It soon became clear that Ritter was not a reliable partner and Benz decided to buy him out. He was only able to do this with the help of his bride Bertha Ringer, a carpenter's daughter from Pforzheim, who did not hesitate to use her dowry for this purpose. On 20 July 1872 Bertha and Carl Benz married. In his memoirs Benz later wrote: "In marrying, I was joined by an idealist who knew what she wanted in all things, from the insignificant to the weighty." Bertha Benz was in fact crucial to the subsequent success of Carl Benz. Bold and imaginative, she repeatedly stood up for his ideas and gave her husband important backing in all his activities. In 1873, Eugen, their first child, was born. Their second son Richard (1874) was followed by three daughters: Clara (1877), Thilde (1882) and Ellen (1890).
In the early days, Carl Benz's business went very badly, even after he had parted company with Ritter. The shop equipment at his "iron foundry and engineering workshop", which Benz later also gave the name "metalworking machine factory", was even seized by bailiffs in July 1877.
It was therefore against a background of worries about his livelihood and the considerable demands of his everyday business that Carl Benz set to work on the gas engine in 1878. He saw the internal combustion engine not only as a promising drive system for machines, but also as a vital step on the way to realising his vision of a horseless vehicle.
He chose a two-stroke engine design: he was right in thinking that the possibilities for developing the atmospheric gas engine were limited, and the four-stroke engine invented by Otto was protected by patent DRP 532, held by Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz since 1877. After lengthy and very difficult tests, Benz finally succeeded: his engine ran satisfactorily for the first time on New Year's Eve 1879.
With his two-stroke engine Benz had created an important basis for the business success of his company. Aiming to establish a sound economic foundation, he set up the gas engine factory "Gasmotorenfabrik Mannheim" in October 1882 as a stock company to which he contributed his entire inventory and equipment. However, Benz held a mere 5 percent share and was allowed only limited influence even where technical matters were concerned. Moreover, the principal interest of his investors lay in the dependable business of selling stationary gas engines – and not, as Carl Benz wrote in his memoirs, in his "favourite ideal – the motor car". Accordingly, Carl Benz left the young company after just a few months in January 1883 and found himself literally on the streets, as he had committed his production facilities to the firm and had rented out his old workshop.
That same year, however, Benz found new investors. Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger, who sold bicycles, among other things, in their Mannheim trading company, became acquainted with Carl Benz through cycling. In October 1883 the three set up the firm "Benz & Cie. Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik Mannheim" as a general partnership and put the two-stroke "System Benz" engine on the market. Systematic production was started up quickly in newly equipped factory premises and the regular workforce soon numbered 25.
For Benz, the sales success of the two-stroke engine secured the economic basis on which he could devote himself to his vision of the horseless vehicle. Despite its many merits he could not use the two-stroke engine for this. Like the four-stroke engines built by Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz it was too big and too heavy to be considered as a drive for vehicles. For the vehicle engine which he now developed, Benz relied on the four-stroke principle: the validity of the Deutz patent DRP 532 had been called into question by actions for annulment, and in 1884 the Patent Office declared a decisive point in the patent null and void.
Like Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, Carl Benz had to find ways of increasing the engine speed; and like the pioneers from Cannstatt he focused attention mainly on the ignition and valve control. Although the engine attained a speed of "only" 400 revolutions per minute and was thus less efficient than Daimler's design, it delivered the power required to drive a "horseless carriage".
Carl Benz proved his true ability not with this engine, but with the vehicle for which he had developed it. He was not satisfied simply with fitting his engine into an existing vehicle such as a carriage. Instead he designed his motor car as an integrated construction in its own right, whose central element was the engine with a horizontal cylinder and a large, horizontal flywheel. Benz designed his new vehicle as a three-wheeler, since he was dissatisfied with the single-pivot or drawbar steering common in carriages at the time. Carl Benz only switched over to four-wheeled vehicles in 1893 when he had solved this problem.
In October 1885, after months of intensive work, Benz was finally able to complete his motor car and begin testing. On 29 January 1886 he took a step which was to make history: he filed a patent application for his "vehicle with gas engine drive" at the Imperial Patent Office. The patent specification DRP 37 435 is regarded as the birth certificate of the automobile and gave rise to the name "Patent Motor Car" for the world's first automobile. The key to Carl Benz's success was the single-mindedness with which he set about turning his vision into reality: he had the idea for a motor car, designed it, had it patented, built it, tested it, put it on the market, manufactured it in series, developed it further, and so made his invention usable.
The first test of the vehicle took place in the factory yard. Trips on public roads soon followed, usually in the early morning hours and under cover of darkness. The first documented ride was undertaken by Benz in July 1886. The Neue Badische Landeszeitung reported in its morning edition of 3 July: "A velocipede running on ligroin gas, designed at the Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik of Benz & Co. – as reported previously in these pages – was tested early today on the ring road and is said to have performed satisfactorily."
From the first prototype – "Model 1" as he called it – Benz developed two variants. He sent "Model 2" in the summer of 1888 to Hofwagenfabrik Theodor Wecker in Offenbach, where it was converted into a four-wheeled vehicle. Benz was not satisfied with the result and so the vehicle was consigned to a shed without being put into service.
An important milestone, on the other hand, was "Model 3", which had sturdy wooden spoke wheels instead of delicate-looking wire spokes and was also equipped with a more powerful engine. It was with this variant that Bertha Benz undertook her legendary long-distance journey in August 1888 – the first in automotive history. Accompanied by her sons Richard and Eugen – and unbeknown to her husband – she set off from Mannheim to travel to Pforzheim, 100 kilometres away, to visit her mother.
With this journey she proved the automobile's suitability for everyday use and reinforced her husband's conviction that his plans were well founded.
In September 1888, a few weeks after the legendary journey, Benz presented his invention to a larger audience at the Munich Engineering Exhibition. The press published detailed reports about the test runs which he undertook with the Patent Motor Car between the exhibition grounds and the city several times each day. The jury of the exhibition presented the Grand Gold Medal, the highest award, to the Patent Motor Car. The "Model 3" became the world's first series-produced automobile. While the vehicle was the subject of only limited interest in Germany, it captured the imagination of the French public. Carl Benz transferred the distribution rights there to French engineer Émile Roger, who was already selling Benz stationary engines in France.
However, his business associates Rose and Esslinger were increasingly sceptical about the future prospects of the Benz invention. Carl Benz again found himself confronted with the need to find new investors. In May 1890 Julius Ganß and Friedrich von Fischer took the place of Rose and Esslinger. On parting, Rose gave Benz the well-meant piece of advice: "I'd forget about the motor car if I were you". With the arrival of the new shareholders, Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik Benz & Cie. was able to grow into the second largest engine factory in Germany, becoming at the same time a driving force for automotive development.
In February 1893 Carl Benz patented his double-pivot steering, with which he had solved the steering problem. It was used in his first-four-wheeled motor cars, the Victoria and the Vis-à-Vis. The vehicle with which the breakthrough to higher sales figures was achieved was the four-wheeled Motor Velocipede, called "Velo" for short, built from 1894 to 1901. This was an attractively priced light car for two persons. Given that a total of 1200 units were built, it can be regarded as the first volume-manufactured automobile. In 1897 Benz developed the "Contra engine", the ancestor of today's horizontally opposed engines. With it the company succeeded in satisfying the growing demand for higher-powered vehicles. In the same year, the first German automobile club (Mitteleuropäischer Motorwagen-Verein) was established in Berlin. The founding members included both Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. The constitutive meeting on 30 September 1897 is perhaps the only occasion on which the two automotive pioneers were in the same place at the same time. Benz recalled: "I never spoke to Daimler in all my life. Once I saw him in Berlin, from a distance. As I approached – I would have liked to have made his acquaintance – he disappeared in the crowd."
Benz & Cie. developed into the world's leading automobile manufacturer by the turn of the century. In May 1899 the company was transformed into a stock corporation. Julius Ganß, a partner since 1890, was appointed to the Board of Management along with Carl Benz and took over the commercial management. The workforce in vehicle production grew from 50 workers in 1890 to 430 in 1899. The company built 572 vehicles in the 1899 financial year and went on to produce 603 the year after.
Shortly after the turn of the century a difficult period began for Benz & Cie.: cheaper and more powerful vehicles – notably from France – enjoyed considerably greater commercial success than the Benz cars, which were designed mainly for long-distance operation and rather leisurely speeds. Moreover, the 35 hp Mercedes had completely redefined the automobile in early 1901 and had become the example for many other manufacturers. Compared to the Mercedes models from Cannstatt, the Benz motor cars suddenly looked antiquated. The unit sales of Benz & Cie. declined to 385 vehicles in the 1901 financial year, falling even further the following year to 226 units.
Since Carl Benz clung to his previous designs, especially the belt drive, Julius Ganß seized the initiative. He hired a team formed around the French design engineer Marius Barbarou to develop a new model range. A "German engineering office" headed by chief design engineer Georg Diehl competed with this "French engineering office" to see who had the better designs for future Benz models. This discord – in particular in his very own sphere, the design of automobiles – was too much for Carl Benz: in January 1903, the 58-year-old Benz terminated his active work for the company. His sons Eugen and Richard left with him. In 1904, however, Carl Benz had himself appointed to the Supervisory Board of the company he had founded, and Richard Benz returned to Mannheim as head of passenger car production. The new model policy bore fruit, and after posting losses in the 1903 financial year, the business was back on the road to success again in 1904.
In 1906 Carl Benz set up the firm "Carl Benz Söhne" in Ladenburg, the town between Heidelberg and Weinheim which had been home to the Benz family since 1905. Owned by Carl Benz and his son Eugen, the new company was originally intended to produce gas-fired naturally aspirated engines based on a design by Eugen Benz. However, growing competition from electricity and stationary diesel engines meant that the market for such engines had all but disappeared. The company therefore switched to vehicle manufacturing in 1908. In the same year, Richard Benz finally left Benz & Cie. for good and joined his father and his brother Eugen Benz in managing the business in Ladenburg.
In 1912 Carl Benz retired as shareholder and left the management solely in the hands of his sons. Production continued until 1923, but in all only about 350 "Carl Benz Söhne" cars were ever built.
Carl Benz lived to see the blossoming of motorised road transport and the final breakthrough of his idea. On his 80th birthday the "once mocked and unrecognised inventor" – as he saw himself in retrospect – enjoyed the honours conferred on him from all over the world. Ten years earlier the Karlsruhe Technical University had awarded him an honorary doctorate, and in 1926 he was the first person to be given the freedom of the town of Ladenburg. The Baden State Ministry awarded Carl Benz the Baden State Medal in Gold in 1928.
In the last years of his life, 1926 to 1929, Carl Benz was even a member of the Supervisory Board of the new Daimler-Benz AG. On 4 April 1929 the automotive pioneer passed away at his home in Ladenburg. Bertha Benz – also highly esteemed – lived on until 5 May 1944. Today the home of the Benz family is a museum and the seat of the "Daimler and Benz Foundation" established in 1986.