One hundred years ago: Georg Wiß established the Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik (SAG)

Stuttgart, Jan 10, 2005
  • Specialization in commercial vehicles
  • Pioneering achievements with fire service vehicles
  • Cradle of diesel technology for commercial vehicle design at Daimler-Benz AG
The Gaggenau plant is a symbol not only of numerous engineering specialties, but also of ongoing specialization. Around 1900, for instance, a complete range of motor vehicles – from passenger cars through to trucks and buses – was manufactured in Gaggenau. Today, the plant is DaimlerChrysler’s center of competence for manual and automated transmissions. Similarly, Gaggenau was also the place of origin of the planetary axles for heavy-duty trucks – famed for their robustness. For many years these were used in all heavy-duty Mercedes-Benz trucks, and although they are restricted to vehicles for the construction industry today, total unit production has long since passed the 1.5 million mark.
In 2005 the first significant step in specialization – concentration on commercial vehicles – will celebrate its hundredth anniversary. For on February 8, 1905, Georg Wiß founded “Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik G.m.b.H. (SAG)” – a company which rapidly made a name for itself with trucks, buses and even fire service vehicles. Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik, for example, became the first German plant to receive a major truck order from the Japanese government. Another vehicle produced by SAG in Gaggenau was the expedition truck with which a certain Paul Graetz set out in August 1907 on a 630-day expedition to cross Southern Africa. Many at the time considered the enterprise impossible, but the vehicle from Gaggenau endured the punishing 9,500 kilometer journey with barely a complaint.
From Liliputs to juggernauts
Admittedly Wiß did not have to build up the business from scratch when he established SAG 100 years ago. Ten years earlier an industrialist by the name of Bergmann had set up in Gaggenau, building cars with evocative names such as the “Orient Express” or “Liliput”. With the diminutive Liliput – available on the road for 2,500 Marks – Bergmann aimed to launch a sort of “ people’s car”. The plant in Gaggenau also produced a range of household goods, dispensers and weapons, which meant, however, that Bergmann’s energies were somewhat dissipated. The business eventually became mired in the need for continuous technical development of products and ongoing factory expansion, and Bergmann was brought to the verge of financial ruin. On occasions the workforce even accepted wage concessions in order to keep their patron in business.
Finally in 1905 his partner Georg Wiß, the son-in-law of a Mannheim industrialist, stepped into the breach. With the financial backing of his wife’s inherited wealth, he purchased sole ownership of the automotive company in February 1905. The company agreement of February 22, 1905 states the purpose of the company as being “for the manufacture and sale of automobiles.” The Liliput, however, failed to achieve the desired breakthrough as a vehicle affordable by all. Despite its simple construction, it remained too expensive. As a result, Wiß sought salvation principally in the manufacture of commercial vehicles. His design engineer Franz Knecht was to set things right: he drew up a new production program in which trucks and buses were to play leading roles.
Influential customers from Berlin
There was no shortage of takers. The bus service from Gernsbach to Baden-Baden, for example, dates from 1905 – a route promptly served by buses from the Gaggenau plant. And SAG buses also increasingly found customers outside the Baden region. That same year, 1905, the Baden company succeeded in landing an important order from Berlin: the city’s department of works commissioned the Gaggenau plant to build the first large-capacity bus capable of accommodating 52 passengers. Furthermore, in 1906 the Imperial postal service also became a regular purchaser of SAG buses.
The Gaggenau workforce was just as busy with truck production. By 1907 they were already offering two so-called “ goods delivery vehicles” in the light-duty segment with a choice of 800/1,000-kg and 1,500/2,000-kg payloads. In the heavy-duty segment SAG also offered two variants – one with a payload capacity of two to three metric tons, the other with one of four to six. With these vehicles SAG enjoyed great success. The Royal Prussian War Ministry commissioned a 5-tonner in 1908, and the test department of the Transport Corps in Berlin could not resist the purchase of a “ Doppelphaeton” motor car for the General Staff as well as a fully-motorized fire engine.
World’s first gasoline-powered fire engine
And there was more to come. In the field of fire-fighting vehicles SAG also undertook pioneering work. The company’s “Grunewald” model entered the history books as the world’s first gasoline-powered fire engine to see action with a German fire service. The volunteer fire service serving the well-to-do Berlin suburb of Grunewald took delivery of its Gaggenau-built gasoline fire engine on December 1, 1906. Thereafter the Gaggenau company happily launched a whole range of special fire service vehicles, including crew and backup vehicles.
SAG, it seems, began to acquire a taste for specializing, developing also special-purpose equipment vehicles such as a freight truck destined for transporting long items of freight such as telegraph poles or rails for railway construction in German Southeast Africa. And Franz Knecht’s team of engineers was also soon busy drawing up plans for a special meat transporter for the garrison abattoir in Metz.
Soon at the top of the tree
Just two years after establishing SAG, however, founder Georg Wiß found himself in much the same situation that Theodor Bergmann had faced two years previously when he was forced to sell his automotive business. Commercial success meant that capital increases were inevitable, but Wiß was not in a position to meet these from his own pocket. By comparison with Benz and Daimler, moreover, SAG also lacked the necessary large unit numbers to keep pace with quality and innovation.
The Rheinische Kreditbank in Mannheim first brokered an agreement of interests with Benz & Cie., and this later led to a merger with its great commercial rival. The two parties agreed to divide up the work as follows: Benz would relocate its entire commercial vehicle production from the Mannheim parent plant to Gaggenau, and the Gaggenau car plant – with its brand symbols “S.A.F.”, “S.A.G.” and “Gaggenau” would cease passenger car production by the end of 1908. In fact, the plant continued to manufacture passenger cars until 1911.
Under new management
To begin with Georg Wiß retained control of the Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik. However, now corporate policy was decided by the men from Mannheim, who had taken over the capital valued at 350,000 Mark for new Benz shares at par. And it was only a matter of time before they also occupied management positions at Gaggenau. In a decision adopted by shareholders dated December 31, 1910, not only was the plant renamed “Benz-Werke Gaggenau G.m.b.H.”, but there was also a change of management and the familiar brand symbols in the radiator grille were replaced with the “Benz” badge. The founder Georg Wiß retired from the company and two years later the merger between parent and subsidiary was complete. Gaggenau would henceforth operate as a regional branch of Benz & Cie.
In the 1920s the Gaggenau plant enjoyed great success above all with supplies on a large-scale to both German and foreign military authorities. It also continued its pioneering engineering work, however. At Murgtal, for example, the first Benz diesel truck set off on its first test run on September 10, 1923. As the engineers noted contentedly, the vehicle immediately returned “25 percent better fuel consumption than gasoline engines.”
Concentration of truck production at Gaggenau
After the merger between Benz & Cie. and the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in 1926, Gaggenau took over the absolutely key role of commercial vehicle construction at the newly-created Daimler-Benz AG: From now on Gaggenau was to supply all truck and bus chassis. But no sooner had the company weathered the global economic crisis of 1929 and the deep slump that accompanied it, than Daimler-Benz AG found itself once again forced to divide up commercial vehicle production among several plants during the boom years from 1933 onwards. Smaller trucks with a payload of up to 3 metric tons relocated to Mannheim, Mannheim and Sindelfingen handled bus bodies, and commercial vehicle production was begun at Berlin-Marienfelde (military special-purpose vehicles).
Towards the end of the Second World War production at Gaggenau came almost to a standstill, although it took off again relatively quickly after the capitulation. By 1949 the scene was dominated by the now standard L 4500 war model with its wooden-framed driver’s cab. Unit numbers remained modest during this rather austere period, but things started to liven up again in 1949, when the L 4500 was replaced with the much better equipped L 5000 with its all-steel cab. As the first new design since the war, this classic truck was subsequently joined by the mighty L 6600, which quickly made a name for itself in the newly-flourishing long-distance haulage market.
The first cab-over-engine trucks appeared in 1954 in the form of the LP 315, and the 8.5-t L 326 – built specifically for foreign markets from 1956 onwards – was a considerable export hit. With the so-called “Millipede”, the LP 333 cab-over-engine truck, the Gaggenau plant went down a completely new route. Built from 1958, the LP 333 with two steerable front axles was a tailor-made solution to the restrictive new Seebohm regulations on weights and measurements. But it was not yet time for the plant to wave goodbye to the classic cab-behind-engine (CBH) truck. Far from it. In 1959 Daimler-Benz introduced the new “ rounded CBH”, for which medium-duty models were produced in Mannheim and the heavy-duty versions (extremely successful as export models until the end of the 1980s) at the Gaggenau plant. And in 1951 Gaggenau also began production of the versatile Unimog, turning out 1005 units during the first year of production alone.
Components given priority
Increasingly Gaggenau and Mannheim were reaching the limits of production capacity, and so in 1964 the decision was taken to concentrate future production of all medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks at the new plant in Wörth on the river Rhine. This facility was opened in 1965 and allowed Gaggenau to specialize in Unimog production, as well as axles and transmissions for trucks. After some 50 years of Unimog production, the Gaggenau plant finally handed over this branch of its work to Wörth in mid-2002 and successfully developed into the center of competence for manual and automated transmissions. In addition, the plant produces other major assemblies, notably all planetary axles and passenger-car torque converters. Last year, annual production of torque converters exceeded the one-million mark for the first time.
In addition, the Gaggenau plant also accommodates a department with expertise of a very particular kind. Here, at the point where the flat Rhine valley plains disappear into the steep hills of the Black Forest, this department finds the ideal environment for its work – even though much of this is shrouded in secrecy. But that is in the nature of things. For this department’s business is testing heavy-duty trucks with a view to optimally matching individual assemblies and components within the complete vehicle.


  • 2003DIG77
    Mercedes-Benz LP 333
  • G212
    Opening of the Gernsbach – Baden-Baden bus line, Whitsun 1905.
  • G172
    Georg Wiß outside his company’s administrative headquarters, abt. 1905.
  • INVALID_556771/90730
    The Gaggenau plant (Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik) around 1907.
  • 2002GIG64
    Commercial vehicle advertisement on the occasion of the German Motor Show in Berlin, 1926.
  • G9826
    Mercedes-Benz L 6600.
  • 807591
    May 1, 1909 in Swakopmund: Paul Graetz crosses Afrika in his 35 hp special vehicle produced by Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH.
  • 2003DIG115
    Mercedes-Benz LP 333
  • 802343
    Mercedes-Benz LP 333, 1958.