Sep 15, 2008
- The Benz Patent Motor Wagon is the basis for the company‘s rise to become the world‘s largest car manufacturer at times
- Growing requirement for production space
- Mannheim-Waldhof remains an important production location for the group to this day
is celebrating a double anniversary in 2008: in 1883, i.e. 125 years ago, Carl Benz founded Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, which eventually opened a new factory in Mannheim-Waldhof in 1908 – 100 years ago. Several comprehensive modernisations later, the company continues to use the plant to this day, with production concentrated on commercial vehicles, engines and cast engine components.
Carl Benz was an energetic technician. He faced the challenges of his time and established a production facility for gas engines, which were mainly used to replace steam engines as industrial units. Solid business foundations were necessary to ensure commercial success, and these were laid on October 1, 1883, when he founded Benz & Cie., Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik with businessman Max Kaspar Rose and the commercial representative Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger. Production commenced on a 750 square metre site designated T6 in Mannheim 11. The workforce initially consisted of six people, but soon grew to 25.
Relocation to Waldhofstraße
The original site proved too small when production increased to an average of ten gas engines per month, and in 1885 Benz began to search for a new factory site. He found and purchased a 4000 square metre area in Waldhofstraße, where new construction commenced in 1886.
The expansion of Benz & Cie. was already linked to the automobile, whose development Carl Benz had already actively pursued in the old premises. On January 29, 1886 he was granted patent no. 37435 for his Patent Motor Wagon. This patent is acknowledged to be the birth certificate of the automobile, whose cradle was therefore in Mannheim. The first public outing of the Motor Wagon took place on the Ringstrasse in Mannheim on July 3, 1886.
Relocation to the new site followed in 1887, and the address of Benz & Cie. was now Waldhofstraße 24. Engine production was still very much the mainstay of the company’s business activities, but the automobile was gaining increasing attention. This process was aided by the journey undertaken by Bertha Benz, the wife of Carl Benz, in August 1888, when she embarked on the first long-distance drive in automobile history together with her two sons Eugen and Richard. In the three-wheeled Model 3 Patent Motor Wagon, she managed a route covering Mannheim – Heidelberg – Bruchsal – Durlach – Pforzheim and back to Mannheim via Bretten and Bruchsal, thereby demonstrating the reliability and usefulness of the automobile.
The Patent Motor Wagon ensures successful growth
The decade between 1890 and 1900 became a breathtaking success story for Benz & Cie., and it was led by the Motor Wagon. Meanwhile, however, the company also grew to become Germany‘s second-largest gas engine manufacturer: in 1893 the Mannheim workforce produced its 1000th industrial engine.
But thanks to continuous further development, it was the car that became the new core business. In 1893 Carl Benz introduced double-pivot steering into automobile engineering, and in 1896/97 he developed the Contra engine, the progenitor of later horizontally opposed engines. 1894 saw the debut of the Benz Velo, an attractively priced, lightweight car for two persons. The Velo ensured Benz & Cie.‘s breakthrough to higher sales figures – with around 1200 examples produced in total, it can be seen as the first large-scale production automobile. By the turn of the century Benz & Cie. had become the world’s leading automobile manufacturer.
Meanwhile a series of acquisitions of adjacent sites had expanded the plant in the Waldhofstraße to around 30 000 square metres. In 1893 Benz also established a technical laboratory for the development and testing of automobiles here, with the focus on passenger cars. By 1897 the 1000th Benz car had already been built. In the same period before 1900 there was also a harbinger of the plant’s present history, however, for in 1895 Benz & Cie. produced the world’s first motorised omnibus for regular passenger service.
Growing requirement for production space
The workforce also expanded in line with the company’s site in the Waldhofstraße: while only 50 workers were employed in vehicle production in1890, the number had increased to 430 by 1899. In that year alone, Benz produced 572 vehicles followed by 603 in 1900: Benz & Cie. was now the world’s largest automobile company. By this time the need for a new, larger site outside the city was already becoming obvious, however any relocation plans were postponed for the time being. This is because Benz & Cie. was suddenly confronted with a crisis after the turn of the century.
The beginning of the 20th Century brought financial problems for Benz & Cie., one of these being the presentation of the Mercedes model by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). Sales began to plummet because the passenger cars by Benz were not able to match the more modern technology of Daimler. Having been the international leader in automobile engineering just a few years previously, Benz was now relegated to being the largest automobile manufacturer in the state of Baden.
The shareholders wanted to regain the brand’s position with new technical features, however Carl Benz resisted these internal demands for more powerful vehicles, having already rejected any involvement in motor sports in 1901 – he wanted to build practical, day-to-day cars, and in his view these did not need to be fast. So in 1903 the automobile pioneer left the company that bore his name, but at least he returned to Benz & Cie. as a member of the supervisory board in 1904.
Innovations such as the Benz Parsifal model series, which was presented in 1902 and comprehensively revised in 1904, brought the brand back to public attention and ensured increased sales. The sales volume stabilised again, though a loss was still incurred in1903/04, and Benz & Cie. returned to profitability in 1904/05. The Mannheim-based company was now also successful in motor sports: during the 1906 Herkomer race series, Fritz Erle took 2nd place in a 40 hp Benz and won 1st place in a 50 hp the following year. Further racing successes for Benz cars were achieved in the Prinz-Heinrich series and at the Dieppe Grand Prix in 1908. The highlight of this era was the 200 hp Benz record-breaking car known as the "Blitzen-Benz", which set several new speed records.
The company returned to financial stability, and was finally able to revive its plans for a new plant. In 1906 Benz & Cie. purchased a 311 180 square metre site on the Luzenberg in Mannheim-Waldhof, and the new Benz plant was constructed here from 1907 according to plans drawn up by the architect Albert Speer. At this time Benz was producing an average of 520 engines and 400 automobiles per year, and employed around 1000 workers.
By 1908 more than 35 000 square metres of the new site had been built upon, and the new plant was officially taken into commission on October 12, 1908. The plant was widely praised, e.g. for its good general organisation which allowed rationalised and precise production processes. The acquisition and new construction work cost the company a total of 4.6 million Marks. Benz & Cie. gradually relocated its automobile production to the new plant, and the move was finally completed in 1909.
This meant that Benz & Cie. now operated three factories: the new plant in Mannheim-Waldhof was the headquarters, where mainly the passenger cars were produced. The old factory in Waldhofstraße produced industrial and marine engines, and the plant in Gaggenau originally operating as Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH and purchased in 1907 concerned itself with the design and production of commercial vehicles.
The decades to follow saw many highs and lows, not least owing to the turbulences caused by two world wars. In 1926 the plant in Mannheim-Waldhof was incorporated into Daimler-Benz AG, which was the result of the merger between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft. It still remains a major production location within Daimler AG, mainly producing commercial vehicles, engines and cast engine components.