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The Benz Patent Motor Car from 1888 – The world’s oldest original car

Jun 27, 2008
  • A Benz Patent Motor Car from the year 1888, retained in its original condition, is temporary exhibit in the Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart
  • Owned by the Science Museum in London since 1913
  • A car that competed in rallies until the 1950s
The Benz Patent Motor Car is considered to be the world’s first automobile. One specimen of 1888 which is retained in its original condition is hosted until November 2008 at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
Carl Benz introduced the Patent Motor Car in 1886 and subsequently built several units of this three-wheeler, about 25 vehicles in total. The Model I was the original Patent Motor Car. It featured wire wheels and a number of design details adopted from advanced contemporary bicycle manufacture.
The modified Model II also was a three-wheeler originally but was converted to four wheels for test purposes. The car featured axle pivot steering which was also tested on this car – another significant step towards the modern automobile. It is assumed that just one unit was built of this model.
But Model III turns out to be the first automobile, of which a small series with varying bodywork versions is sold. The customer was, for instance, able to opt for a folding roof or for an additional vis-à-vis seat bench and thus for a total of four seats. The car had wheels with wooden spokes; the two driven rear wheels (diameter: approx. 125 centimeters/49.2 inches) had steel linings while the steered front wheel (diameter: 80 centimeters/31.5 inches) was lined with solid rubber. The wheelbase was some 1.58 meters (62.2 inches) long and the track width was 1.25 meters (49.2 inches).
Benz had difficulties in marketing his cars – until Frenchman Emile Roger from Paris set up the first foreign sales office. The Patent Motor Car Model III, which is today owned by the London Science Museum, was supplied to Roger before being sold to England, as proved by a badge on the vehicle. It is assumed that it was built by Benz in 1888 and displayed at an exhibition of prime movers and working machines at the Isartor city gate in Munich in the same year. This unit is the oldest Benz Patent Motor Car that has been retained in its original condition, and it is thus the oldest original automobile. What’s more, it is most likely the first gasoline-engined vehicle that was operated in England. It is fitted with the vis-à-vis seat bench and originally also featured a folding leather roof. Remarkable is a most innovative design feature which makes this type different to the original from 1886: The body is mounted on a separate frame which sits on the chassis. That construction simplified the work of the body maker.
The person to whom Roger sold the car is unknown. It can, however, safely be assumed that Roger displayed the Model III at the 1889 World Fair in Paris. Quite likely, the English buyer saw the car in Paris and took the technical miracle with him to the island. The Science Museum acquired the car in 1913 at a price of five pounds from a Miss E. B. Bath in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Miss Bath had received the Benz from her brother who had been working in the motor industry. The acquisition was handled by Mr. E. A. Forward from the Science Museum. In a letter written in April 1913, he advised the museum board to buy the car: “This car is a valuable historical relic, and I regard it as a great find. […] I should not have thought it possible to obtain one anywhere, and am very much surprised to find one in this country.” Forward very accurately identified the car’s position in Benz and automotive history and arrived at the following conclusion: The work of Carl Benz, in the development of the modern motor car, was so important, equal in fact to that of Daimler himself, that we should be fully justified in acquiring an example of this first type of vehicle.”
Forward looked after the vehicle in subsequent years and retained it in ready-to-drive condition most of the time. In 1936, Forward even paraded the car outside the museum once a week to demonstrate the properties of the Patent Motor Car. To this end, the car obtained permanent registration and the number plate “A 250”.
In 1957, the car was completely overhauled – including its mechanical parts, bodywork, soft-top and finish in the original color – in the museum’s own workshop. It was subsequently run in and tested again and registered by the museum for the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run organized by the Royal Automobile Club in 1957 – a rally for which only vehicles up until production year 1905 were eligible. It had been expected that the car would have to be pushed on steep inclines but this was not the case, at least not before the incline outside Purley. There, the brakes failed in a rainstorm, and the front-wheel fork was damaged in a collision with another vehicle, with the result that the Benz had to be withdrawn. As disappointing as this may have been, the car had until then covered some 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) at an average speed of 12 km/h (7.4 mph) without a hitch. This raised hopes with respect to more successful participation in the event one year later. The damage was repaired in the museum’s workshop, and the Paten Motor Car was equipped with a band brake just for this rally.
“At 7 a.m. on 2nd November, 1958, the Benz set out from Hyde Park for Brighton in traditionally filthy weather. By 8.20 a.m. the top of Purley Hill was reached without pause; this initial 13.5 miles was thus covered at an average speed of 10 mph.” The Benz mastered other inclines without problem – on several occasions, the passenger had to alight before uphill stretches; on others, the car had to be pushed carefully on downhill stretches. The car had to stop four times for refueling and topping up water, and once for replacing the main drive belt. A report by a Mr. Caunter had this to say: “The finish at Madeira Drive [in Brighton] was reached at 2.40 p.m. – without a single problem. The Benz Patent Motor Car had covered the distance of some 90 kilometers (56 miles) in a driving time of six hours and 25 minutes, at an average speed of 14 km/h (8.6 mph) – the remaining time had been taken up by service stops. In his report, Mr. Caunter complained about the steering and the brakes, especially on downhill stretches. By contrast, he assessed the clutch and the two-speed gearbox as highly effective and considered the car to be reliable overall. After this rally, the Patent Motor Car became an exhibit in the Science Museum’s permanent exhibition.
Incidentally, in September 1958, shortly before the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, the car returned to Munich at the invitation of the German Museum, where it formed part of the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of Daimler-Benz AG, which included a parade of veteran and vintage cars through the city. A Carl Benz Memorial was unveiled on Oskar-von-Miller-Ring, and the German Museum admitted Carl Benz to its Hall of Fame. After the celebrations, the Science Museum’s Patent Motor Car was displayed in the German Museum for two weeks. The German Museum itself owns the very first Patent Motor Car from Carl Benz. However, this car was reconstructed from original parts by Benz & Cie around 1900. After testing, the car, built in 1886, had partly been disassembled, and the engine had been used for driving a machine for several years. In 1906, the restored motor car arrived in Munich to become the first automobile to be displayed in the first German engineering museum.
The engineering of the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III
The single-cylinder four-stroke engine is fitted in a horizontal position above the rear axle (displacement: 2.0 liters). In its original specification, it developed an output of 2 hp (1.5 kW) at 250 rpm. On the Science Museum’s vehicle, slightly different values were measured. At the time of its restoration in 1957, the experts found out that the engine’s compression ratio was 3:1, and engine speed was as high as 450 rpm. This suggested an engine output of some 3 hp (2.2 kW).
The crankshaft is installed vertically because in designing the car, Carl Benz had assumed that the rotary movement of a vertically arranged flywheel would adversely affect the vehicle’s steerability – a design that was abandoned in 1890. The flywheel is fitted at the lower end of the crankshaft and mounted on a transverse chassis member. At the upper end of the crankshaft, a helically geared pinion drives a shaft via an identical, vertically arranged pinion.
This shaft is fitted with a belt pulley at its end, which in turn is connected to the gear selection mechanism. The car has two gears which are engaged by means of chains and permit speeds of 8 and 16 km/h (5 and 10 mph), respectively. From the same shaft, the camshaft operating the valves and the ignition is driven via a parallel mechanism at half the speed. A surface carburetor produces the explosive gas/air mixture, and the fuel tank is located under the rear seat bench. A spark plug generates the ignition spark which derives its electric energy from an ignition coil and a battery. The single-cylinder engine is water-cooled: the water is channeled from a reservoir (equally located under the rear seat bench) into the cylinder housing where it evaporates – a conventional principle before the advent of recirculation cooling in automotive engineering.
The single front wheel is steered by means of a vertically mounted rotary crank. Two steel tubes connect the control head with the rear axle and thus form a sub-frame on which three fully elliptic leaf springs (the front spring being mounted transversely to the direction of travel) decouple the wooden bodywork from the wheels. The chassis is made of iron tubing, and on cars with a vis-à-vis seat bench it is drawn upwards at the front end. The engine is mounted on a transverse T-type beam. The brakes act on the rear wheels and are lined with wood; they are activated via a crank mechanism whose linkage runs parallel to the gearshift lever. The car is steered from the rear seat bench.
Made in Mannheim – the world’s first car: The Benz Patent Motor Car, Model 3. It was built in a total of three variants from 1886 to 1894.
Made in Mannheim – the world’s first car: The Benz Patent Motor Car, Model 3. It was built in a total of three variants from 1886 to 1894.
Contemporary photo of the Benz patent motor car, model no. 3: Such a car from the year 1888 was sold by Emile Roger to Great Britain, as evidenced by the badge. Today, this is the oldest patent motor car in original condition that is known to exist.
Contemporary photo of the Benz patent motor car, model no. 3: Such a car from the year 1888 was sold by Emile Roger to Great Britain, as evidenced by the badge. Today, this is the oldest patent motor car in original condition that is known to exist.
The inventor and his creation: Carl Benz (in front) at the wheel of his patent motor car model III, together with Friedrich von Fischer, equally a member of the Board of Management of Benz & Cie.
Encounter: The original Benz patent motor car of 1888 (left) and a replica of the world’s first automobile from the year 1886.
In memory of her great-grandmother: Jutta Benz standing next to the Benz patent motor car of 1888. In a similar car, Bertha Benz set out on the first long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back in that year.
Confrontation: The Benz patent motor car from the year 1888 (left) was based on the world’s first automobile of 1886 but is slightly larger.
Cordial welcome: Jutta Benz, great-granddaughter of Carl Benz, standing next to the Benz patent motor car of 1888. The car is owned by the Science Museum in London.
Benz patent motor car, 1888: Among other things, spoked wooden wheels were a feature of the third evolutionary version of this car.