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The car at 125

January 25, 2011

The car has been down a long and occasionally rocky road. What began 125 years ago in Germany as a humble vehicle with a top speed of 18 km/h has evolved into today's high-performance autos tearing down the autobahn.

Carl Benz (right) in his patented vehicle
Carl Benz (right in photo) in his patented vehicleImage: Daimler AG

The history of the modern automobile began on Jan. 29, 1886 when engineer Carl Benz registered a patent in the city of Mannheim for his motorcar.

It was a vehicle with three wheels – called a "tricycle" on the patent application – equipped with an internal-combustion engine. The machine could generate 0.8 horsepower (0.6 kilowatts), was started with a crank and had a top speed of 18 km/h (11.2 mph)

Another car, created separately not long afterwards by gun maker Gottfried Daimler in Stuttgart, couldn't quite reach that kind of speed. His vehicle only got up to 16 km/h (10 mph), but it did have four wheels, resembling a modified horse-drawn cab. Daimler worked with engine builder Wilhelm Maybach – a legendary partnership that still exists today.

Nikolaus August Otto
Nikolaus August Otto invented the first efficient internal-combustion engineImage: Picture-alliance/dpa

The Otto and Diesel motors

German design engineer Nikolaus August Otto patented his motor, which now carries his name, in 1876. Rudolf Diesel registered his own version of the internal-combustion engine, which stood out for its high efficiency, in 1892.

In one of history's little ironies, the first speed records were actually set with electric cars. In 1901, one vehicle exceeded 100 km/h (62 mph).

The gasoline-powered engine was not yet the standard, and around the turn of the century, different types of drives were still competing with one another. Manufacturing data from American producers in 1900 shows that 75 makers assembled a total of 4,192 automobiles during that year, including 1,688 steam-driven vehicles and 1,575 electric cars. Only 929 of the cars made had gasoline engines.

It took about another two decades for gasoline engines to establish themselves. But they eventually took the top spot thanks to their higher speeds, better motors, cheap fuel, and the much greater distances they could cover, especially compared to electric motors with their weak batteries.

Ford's assembly line

Many pioneers were developing their own motor-driven cars in these early days and the first car factories were built around 1890 in Europe and the US. For years, cars were only within reach of the wealthy, but Henry Ford soon changed that. His Ford Motor Company, based in Detroit, Michigan, focused on vehicles that even the "normal man" could afford.

Ford Model T
Ford's Model T, or "Tin Lizzy," changed the car industryImage: AP

Ford's much-loved Model T had been on the market since 1908, but when the carmaker switched over to assembly line production instead of individual hand crafting, it marked the start of a new age for the automobile.

Everyone who worked at Ford, the company's founder thought, should be able to afford one of its cars. Wages in his plants were appreciably higher than in other sectors and due to the economic success of his model, he was able to shorten the working week.

According to his philosophy, his employees should have enough leisure time to enjoy life and enough money to buy his cars. With this outlook, incidentally, Ford set the foundation of our modern consumer society.

The Model T was produced using the same design until 1927. All in all, 15 million "Tin Lizzies" rolled off the line, a production record which held for the next 45 years.

Daimler and Benz

Back in Germany two firms, Daimler and Benz, merged forces in 1926, although their founders played no role in the decision. Founder Gottfried Daimler had died in 1900, and internal disputes had convinced Carl Benz to leave the company he founded. In fact, Daimler and Benz never actually met one another.

The last known photograph of Gottlieb Daimler
The last known photograph of Gottlieb DaimlerImage: dpa

All the cars which were built by the new Daimler-Benz company were called "Mercedes," a name for which the Daimler Motor Company took out legal protection in 1901. The now-famous brand can be traced back to Emil Jellinek, one of the company's important business partners whose daughter was named Mercedes.

The distinctive Daimler-Benz symbol resulted from a combination of the Mercedes star and the laurel wreath used by Benz. Today, this brand's cars are expensive purchases, and even back then, only a fairly exclusive clientele could afford them. That was the case with any of the other 90 carmakers who were in business in Germany after World War I.

Porsche and VW

But Austrian design engineer Ferdinand Porsche wanted to change all that. The talented tinkerer, who was employed by several car firms in the early part of his career, had already built the world's first autos featuring all-wheel and even hybrid drives. These were innovations that were soon abandoned due to their high cost.

When Porsche decided to go out on his own, he had already been head of construction and a member of the board at Daimler.

The last traditional VW Beetle rolls off the Mexican assembly line
The last traditional VW Beetle rolls off the Mexican assembly lineImage: AP

Shortly after he founded the Dr. Ing. h.c.F. Porsche GmbH company in Stuttgart in 1930, plans for a car that would be within reach of the masses got underway.

In 1934, Porsche signed a contract with the German government that stipulated the construction of a "people's car," or Volkswagen. A prototype was eventually built and its final form decided upon in 1937.

One year later, a new town was founded in northern Germany for the car's production. It originally had the rather unwieldy name of "City of the KdF-car at Fallersleben." (KdF, the German initials for "strength through joy," was a Nazi leisure-time organization and a state tool to promote the advantages of National Socialism to the German population.") Today, the town is called Wolfsburg.

Workers who were to build the Volkswagen lived in the town, right next to the new factory. In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, armament production began there.

Although the factory buildings were largely destroyed during the war, car production got underway again just a few weeks after the war ended. Four years later, Volkswagen car number 50,000 rolled off the assembly line.

The 'Beetle'

The four-meter-long car with the memorable chassis and an air-cooled, four-cylinder engine under the hood was soon christened the "Beetle" by an enthusiastic public (later, the name became official). In the 50s, it developed into a symbol of Germany's post-war "economic miracle." On August 5, 1955, the millionth Beetle came off the assembly line to much jubilation.

Ferdinand Porsche
Ferdinand Porsche was the man behind the BeetleImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In 1972, the 15 million mark was reached and Beetle production knocked Ford's Model T out of its first-place position. On July 30, 2003, the last Beetle was produced in Mexico, where production had been moved more than 30 years previously. The last of the 21,529,464 Beetles built is on display in Wolfsburg.

Globalization and concentration

Since its early days the auto industry has had a global outlook regarding mass production. Germany has always seemed like a lucrative market for American executives.

At the end of the 1920s, seven American auto concerns had a presence in Germany. Henry Ford founded a German subsidiary back in 1925 in Berlin. That factory was closed in 1931 and production moved to Cologne, where it still is today.

Family-owned enterprise Opel was Germany's biggest auto manufacturer at the end of the 1920s. Under pressure from the growing global economic crisis of the time, the descendents of Adam Opel turned the firm into a publicly held company.

General Motors acquired a majority stake in Opel, and in 1931 it fully took over the concern. However, a German management team was put in place, the name Opel kept, and its own model line continued.

The big five

While they don't exactly fit the criteria, Ford-Germany and GM subsidiary Opel are among the few remaining German car manufacturers.

Henry Ford lays the cornerstone for his new factory in Cologne
Henry Ford lays the cornerstone for his new factory in CologneImage: picture-alliance / akg-images

Of the several dozen carmakers in business after both World Wars, only three have survived as independent companies: Volkswagen with its subsidiaries Audi and, recently, Porsche; Daimler with its renowned Mercedes brand; and BMW.

On the list of the globe's biggest car manufacturers, VW comes in third place behind Toyota and General Motors. Daimler and BMW make it into the top 15 according to sales.

"The global demand for automobiles will not surpass one million – if for nothing else due to a lack of chauffeurs," was a prediction ascribed to car pioneer Gottfried Daimler. Despite his accomplishments, on this question he couldn't have been more mistaken.

In 2010, around 60 million new cars were sold worldwide. In 2011, around 67 million in sales are expected. The total number of cars around the world is estimated at someone around one billion.

Author: Klaus Ulrich (jam)
Editor: Kristin Zeier