May 13, 2008
- The background to a historic production facility
- The plant follows the growth of Benz & Cie.
- Continual expansion is on the agenda
Born the son of a locomotive driver in Karlsruhe in 1844, Carl Benz began studying at the city’s polytechnic in 1860 and made his first visit to Mannheim in 1866. Here, he was employed as a draftsman and designer by a scales manufacturer, before moving in 1868 to the firm of Gebrüder Benckiser in Pforzheim. If Benz was already forming ideas about the automobile during this period, they were unlikely to have been inspired by his work, for “Benckiser, Eisenwerke und Maschinenfabrik” was involved above all in bridge construction. But Benz had shown great interest in the bicycle even during his time in Mannheim. He bought his first “velocipede” – as the two-wheeler was known at the time – in 1867, and this precursor to individual mobility on the road would later shape many of the design details of his patent motor car. After two years at Benckiser, Benz moved from Pforzheim, where he had met his future wife Bertha Ringer, back to Mannheim. Here, in 1871, the young engineer teamed up with a talented mechanic, August Ritter, and established the small company “Carl Benz und August Ritter, Mechanische Werkstätte” on a plot of land known as T 6, 11.
But Ritter proved to be a less than reliable partner, so with some financial assistance from his fiancée, Benz managed to pay off his companion and from then on determined his company’s future development alone. Carl and Bertha Benz married in 1872. With the support of his wife, Benz now began working intensively on a project with a bright future – his two-stroke gas engine. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1879, in the workshops of “Carl Benz, Eisengießerei und Mechanische Werkstätte”, Benz succeeded in getting his engine to run reliably for the first time.
Two Mannheim gas engine factories
In 1882, he renamed his workshop Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim, with finance provided by the Mannheim court photographer Emil Bühler and his brother, a cheese merchant. Benz secured the services of the pair as financial backers and partners. With financial support from the banks the trio set up a joint stock company, in which Carl Benz owned a share of just five percent. Although he held the position of company director, he discovered that he was unable to realize his new ideas to the extent that he had hoped. So Benz decided to quit the fledgling company in 1883.
That same year, however, he found new financial backers. Benz already knew businessman Max Kaspar Rose and commercial agent Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger from his cycling days, since the two ran a business in Mannheim selling, amongst other things, bicycles. So on October 1, 1883, Benz, Rose and Eßlinger together established Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik. The company continued to use Benz’s production facilities at his 750-square-meter site at the Mannheim address T 6, 11, employing an initial workforce of six. But when demand for gas engines began to grow, the number of employees soon rose to 25. And while sales of their own engines increased, Benz & Cie. also successfully sold licenses for production of his gas engines.
Relocation to Waldhofstraße
Once production of gas engines had risen to an average of ten per month, the old premises became too limited. By 1885, Benz was already looking for new factory premises. He found and purchased a plot measuring 4,000 square meters bordering Waldhofstraße, where construction work began in 1886. To begin with, the workshops and plant office covered a floor area of around 1,400 square meters in total.
The expansion of Benz & Cie. was geared towards development of the automobile. Carl Benz had continued to push ahead with its development at his city center premises and on January 29, 1886, his patent motor car was awarded German patent number 37435. This patent is widely considered to be the birth certificate of the automobile – its cradle, therefore, in Mannheim. The patent motor car’s first official excursion took place on Mannheim’s Ringstraße on July 3, 1886.
Relocation to the new plant was completed in 1887, so the address of Benz & Cie. was now officially Waldhofstraße 24. Initially, engine assembly remained the principal business activity. But an increasing number of people were beginning to pay attention to the automobile –thanks not least to the efforts of Carl Benz’s wife Bertha, who in August 1888 set off with her two sons, Eugen and Richard, to undertake the first long-distance journey in automotive history. Driving the third version of three-wheeled patent motor car, she completed the journey from Mannheim via Heidelberg, Bruchsal, Durlach to Pforzheim, returning to Mannheim via Bretten and Bruchsal, and in so doing demonstrated the reliability and potential use of the automobile.
The patent motor car sets seal on success
The decade from 1890 to 1900 proved a story of breathtaking success for Benz & Cie., the driving force for which was his patent motor car. The arrival of two new company partners, Friedrich von Fischer and Julius Ganß, in 1890 assisted the rise of Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik to the position of Germany’s second largest engine manufacturer. The Mannheim plant turned out its 1,000th stationary engine in 1893.
But thanks to ongoing development, the car soon became the company’s new core business. In 1893, Carl Benz introduced double-pivot steering into his vehicle design, and in 1896/97 he developed the Contra engine, the grandfather of the later horizontally-opposed piston designs. The Benz Velo – a cheap, lightweight car for two people – made its debut in 1894, at last bringing Benz & Cie. the breakthrough in sales it was looking for. With total production figures of around 1,200 units, the Velo can justifiably be regarded as the first large-volume automobile in history.
By the turn of the century, Benz & Cie. had become the leading manufacturer of automobiles worldwide. As a result of various purchases of neighboring real estate, the plant in Waldhofstraße now totaled around 30,000 square meters. In 1893, Benz also set up a technical laboratory here to develop and test automobiles. The emphasis was on passenger cars, and in 1897 the 1,000th Benz passenger car rolled off the production line. But by 1900 operations were already beginning to signal aspects of the plant’s more recent history: in 1895 Benz & Cie. built the world’s first motorized omnibus destined for regular service use. The vehicle went into service between Siegen, Netphen and Deuz.
Benz becomes a joint stock company
In May 1899, Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik in Mannheim was converted into a joint stock company. Its first supervisory board appointed as its chairman Max Rose, a businessman from Heidelberg, as vice chairman Dr. Richard Brosien, a bank director from Mannheim, and other notable figures from the local area. The new company’s directors were Julius Ganß and Carl Benz; Josef Brecht and Eugen Benz were granted general commercial power of attorney. The share capital was fixed at three million marks.
As the plant premises in Waldhofstraße expanded, so too did the workforce. In 1890, the company employed 50 workers in vehicle production; by 1899 this figure had risen to 430. That year alone 572 vehicles were built at Benz, and in 1900 the plant turned out 603 cars, making Benz & Cie. the world’s leading automotive manufacturer. Even by this stage the company was beginning to feel the need for new and larger plant premises on the city’s outskirts. But initial plans for any such relocation had to be put on ice, since the new century found Benz & Cie. suddenly facing financial crisis.
Crisis and resurgence
The early years of the twentieth century brought serious economic problems for Benz & Cie., due in part to the launch of the Mercedes model by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). Sales at Benz collapsed, since its own passenger cars were unable to match the state-of-the-art Daimler technology. Where just a few years before the company had enjoyed a reputation as the international number one in automotive production, Benz now had to content himself with being just the leading carmaker in Baden.
Julius Ganß and other company members wanted to reclaim the brand’s former position through technical innovation. But Carl Benz opposed calls from within the company to produce more powerful vehicles, having in 1901 rejected the notion of any involvement in motor sport. His vision was to build service vehicles, and these, to his way of thinking, did not have to travel at speed. As a result of this divergence of opinion, the automotive pioneer quit the company that bore his name in 1903, although he returned to Benz & Cie. in 1904 to a seat on the supervisory board.
Innovative model series such as the Benz Parsifal, introduced in 1902 and thoroughly revised in 1904, brought the brand back to public attention once again and helped ensure a healthier order book. Sales stabilized – although 1903/04 was a loss year, 1904/05 saw Benz & Cie. return to profitable ways. In 1904, Fritz Hammesfahr took over as technical director of the Benz plants.
The Mannheim company also began to achieve success in the field of motor sport. Fritz Erle drove a 40 hp Benz to finish as runner-up in the Herkomer Trials in 1906, and the following year went one place better in a 50 hp vehicle. Benz cars also notched up race victories in the Prince Heinrich Trials and the Grand Prix of Dieppe. The highlight of this era was the record-breaking 200 hp Benz, also known as the Lightning Benz, which went on to set several world speed records.