Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler introduce individual motorized transport to Britain
Presumably the oldest petrol-engined automobile in England: a Benz patent motor car of 1888
After early setbacks the British embrace the motor car
As the land that invented the steam engine in the eighteenth century, Britain can with justification be seen as the birthplace of the modern technological age. When the invention spread swiftly across western and central Europe and the USA during the nineteenth century it gave rise to an industrial revolution in Europe that ushered in new labour structures and a new social order. From the outset, then, the people of Britain showed themselves eager to embrace this new technology.
By the late eighteenth century Britain had also become a highly attractive nation from the commercial point of view, since successful businessmen could expect to exploit lucrative trade links with the colonial markets of the British Empire. England was therefore an ideal platform from which to market the revolutionary new means of transport invented by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler independently of one another in 1886. At least it ought to have been. But even though the two Germans had no qualms about laying the foundations for individual motorized transport in Britain, the British authorities were less happy with the idea and did much to delay the introduction of the motor car into the country.
Part of the blame for this can be laid squarely at the door of the influential lobby of railway shareholders. Investors naturally feared the car would create competition for the railway and bring about a crash in share value. To compound matters, there was also at this time a general feeling of scepticism in Britain towards German inventions. First and foremost, the British public considered goods from Germany as being of inferior quality – indeed the “Made in Germany” label was originally intended as a warning to consumers. Secondly, the British had become suspicious of Germany’s economic ambitions in the latter part of the nineteenth century. And thirdly, England was a nation of horse lovers, a people for whom the animal remains one of man’s best friends even today. In the early years, then, the car met with the same scepticism that had greeted the introduction of the steam locomotive in its day and the bicycle before it.
Laws severely inhibit the introduction of the automobile
To make matters worse, nineteenth-century England was in the throes of a legislative clampdown, as Karl Benz noted in his memoirs entitled “Lebensfahrt eines deutschen Erfinders”: “Not only had the steam car been forced to struggle throughout its development with technical problems and poor road conditions; more fateful still was its battle against the anti-transport attitudes of the day. The Englishman Burney, for example, had been forced to abandon his travels in 1831, since each eight-mile stretch of road levied a toll of 22 shillings (equivalent to almost two marks per kilometre!). Other sources of conflict included jealous coach drivers, horse owners and express coach companies, short-sighted police regulations and satirical magazines, not to mention angry local residents who tore up the roads and threw stones, wood and bits of iron. But none of these had as destructive an impact on the arrival in Britain of the steam-powered newcomer as the infamous Locomotive Act of 1836.”
This act not only imposed draconian speed restrictions, it also required any steam-driven vehicle using public roads to be accompanied by a three-man crew. However, despite being portrayed by ‘automobilists’ in the late 1890s as grotesque, the regulations governing early motorized transport were not as arbitrary as they now seem from a modern perspective. As documented in the book The Dawn of Motoring. How the Car came to Britain, the steam engines for which such laws were originally created were “large, cumbersome and often dangerous”. Because the motor car was initially tarred with the same brush as other horseless carriages, however, the regulations also hampered the introduction of the automobile considerably.
From 1865 onwards the Locomotive Act, also known as the Red Flag Act, stipulated that “any self-propelled vehicle should be accompanied by a man carrying a red flag walking at least 50 metres ahead of each vehicle to warn other road users of its approach.” Should a horse rider or horse-drawn vehicle approach, the man with the red flag was required to bring the steam-powered vehicle to a standstill and regulate traffic flow. This legislation, regarded as necessary by the politicians of the day on account of the ever growing number of steam-powered towing vehicles, tractors, steamrollers and ploughs, was also applied to cars, because for the sake of simplicity they were classified as “locomotive” – i.e. “not stationary”. Although the red flag requirement was removed from the Highways and Locomotives Act of 1878, the amendment still required a pedestrian crew member to walk at an appropriate distance ahead of the horseless vehicle to give adequate warning to other road users and animals.
Brief tour: Gottlieb Daimler in England
Gottlieb Daimler was an ardent anglophile – and with good reason. In the summer of 1860 Daimler, then aged 26, left Graffenstaden Maschinenfabrik in order to work for a few months in Paris. A second travel scholarship funded by the wealthy benefactor Ferdinand Steinbeis provided him with an opportunity to spend time in Britain, then “the motherland of technology” and the ultimate goal of any young man filled with scientific curiosity and a thirst for technology.
Gottlieb Daimler first found employment at the mechanical engineering factory of Smith, Peacock and Tannet in Leeds. He then moved to Roberts & Co., a manufacturer of machinery for the textile industry in Manchester, before finally moving to Whitworth’s in Coventry, a company with an international reputation for precision tool engineering and responsible among other things for the introduction of standard thread sizes. Gottlieb Daimler also included Coventry as part of his study tour because the city was already long established as the industrial heartland of England. Some years later, when Daimler Motor Company began assembling engines there, the region would also become the cradle of automotive manufacturing in Britain.
The crowning moment of Gottlieb Daimler’s stay in England was a visit in 1862 to the International Exhibition in London. After that he returned to his native Germany and until the end of 1863 found employment in Geislingen at the metal ware factory of Straub und Sohn, the company that would later become a household name as WMF (Württembergische Metallwaren Fabrik).