The Benz plant in Mannheim-Waldhof

May 13, 2008
  • Optimum factory design
  • Three plants with a clear division of responsibilities
  • Benz vehicles and engines known the world over
Once the economic circumstances had stabilized, the company was at last able to consider the construction of a new plant. In 1906, Benz & Cie. bought a plot of land on the slopes of the Luzenberg in Mannheim-Waldhof measuring 311,180 square meters. Here building work on the new Benz plant got under way in 1907 based on plans by the architect Albert Speer. At this time Benz was turning out an average of 520 engines and 400 cars annually, with a workforce of around 1,000 employees. The new premises were adjacent to the Mannheim-Luzenberg railway station, so it was conveniently situated for links to the rail network. The railway not only helped with material logistics, it also brought in workers living in more outlying communities.
But the Benz company underwent more than just spatial expansion. At the annual general meeting held on November 22, 1907, the decision was taken to purchase Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH (SAG). The company had mainly specialized in designing and building trucks. SAG became part of the Benz group in exchange for the company’s own shares to the value of 350,000 marks. Four years later, Benz & Cie. even went so far as to dissolve the traditional Gaggenau brand completely and from then on used the Murgtal plant for building commercial vehicles under the brand name Benz Gaggenau.
By 1908, over 35,000 square meters of the new plant premises had been built on, and the official opening of the new Benz plant followed on October 12, 1908. The acquisition and new buildings cost a total of 4.6 million marks. Gradually Benz & Cie. relocated automotive production to the new factory, a move that was successfully completed by 1909. Meanwhile, the old plant in Waldhofstraße continued to build stationary engines.
Cars for the emperor’s family
During the new plant’s inaugural year, one of the cars Benz & Cie. launched on the market was the small, inexpensive 10/18 hp model. The first unit was delivered to Prince Waldemar, a nephew of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.
Another member of the imperial family was even more important to the Mannheim company, however. The emperor’s brother, Prince Heinrich, was a committed motor sport enthusiast and lover of Benz automobiles. For the Prince Heinrich Trials, the Benz designers built five uniquely different touring car versions in 1908 alone. The three trials held from 1908 to 1910 were intended to advance touring car development. Nevertheless, the events also included certain disciplines of an overtly racing nature.
In 1908, largely unbeknown to the general public, Benz also began working with aircraft engines.
Optimum factory design
The experts from the automotive industry who visited the new Benz factory were generous with their praise. For example, a report that appeared in issue 14 of Allgemeine Automobil-Zeitung of 1909 showed genuine enthusiasm: An “ interesting example of how a factory should be laid out,” was how the author described the Benz plant in Mannheim-Waldhof. The text went on to tell readers about the size of the plant, about the presence of the company name on the outer walls and chimney and about the company’s successful move into the premises: “Without any fuss, the Benz-Werke said adieu to their old premises and acquired instead a giant complex on the outskirts of the city measuring 315,000 square meters.”
Greatest praise was reserved for the well thought-out organization of the plant complex as a whole, however: “ In this plant the principle of rational work has been realized in a way that is at once astonishing and a pleasure to behold.” At this point the report made mention of the rail connection, the central power station with generator gas facility, as well as the “ automated machinery” for processing pistons, gearshift handles and other components – which led to a considerable reduction in working time and at the same increased precision. And on the subject of racing engines, the author remarked: “This is thoroughbred breeding of the purest kind.”
During this phase of the new departure there was little time for emotion where the tender shoots of the fledgling Mannheim automotive industry was concerned: On a tour of the plant “we walk past a heap of odds and ends. These turn out to be a pile of inventory pieces from the former Benz plants, the sort of things that presumably gather dust in any old factory, car components from the first production period.”
Benz cars for gentlemen-drivers and haulers
By 1909 the order books at Benz & Cie. were full. In part, of course, this was due to the technical qualities of Benz cars; but the company also offered customers a range of services. Before the First World War, for example, the Mannheim plant had its own driving school, which trained chauffeurs from the ranks of employees. Via this route, many a young lady of Mannheim who married a Benz fitter ended up with her husband in the employ of some European court or other.
One such fitter who was working at Benz & Cie. before the outbreak of the First World War managed to make an even grander career for himself. The metal worker Josip Broz later became the Yugoslavian head of state. And Tito, as he called himself from 1934 onwards, was able to give up chauffeuring as a career – although he continued to rely on Mercedes-Benz vehicles while in office.
Benz built more than just luxury cars, however. In 1910, the Mannheim plant introduced the compact 8/18 hp model, which was to become one of the most important products manufactured by Benz & Cie. in the years to come.
The Mannheimers also expanded their commercial vehicle division. On January 1, 1911, the Benz subsidiary Süddeutsche Automobilfabrik Gaggenau GmbH was integrated completely in the company, though it continued to trade under the name Benzwerke Gaggenau GmbH. This gave the Benz brand a complete range of commercial vehicle models in its sales portfolio.
Three locations and a new business unit
Effectively the Benz plants were now divided into three factories: The new plant at Mannheim-Waldhof was the company’s headquarters and mainly looked after passenger car production. The old plant in Waldhofstraße produced industrial and marine engines. And the Gaggenau plant was responsible for the design and construction of commercial vehicles.
As of August, 1911, the company changed its name to Benz & Cie., Rheinische Automobil- und Motorenfabrik, thereby emphasizing the importance of the car over the engine.
In 1911, after three years of development work, the Mannheim plant also began production of aircraft engines. In January 1912, the plant produced a four-cylinder aircraft engine with an output of 80 hp (59 kW), which was awarded first prize in the 1912 “Competition for the Best German Aircraft Engine”, an event initiated by the emperor and which attracted 76 entries from 25 applicants. The following year, the in-line four-cylinder unit was named best German aircraft engine of its day. As a result of this success, Benz also went on to develop six-cylinder aircraft engines. In 1912, the Mannheim plant underwent further significant expansion, with the addition of a new repair workshop in a state-of-the-art reinforced concrete design.
First World War
In March 1914 Benz shares were launched on the Mannheim stock exchange. This meant a successful product could return to the place of its birth, as the shares had long since become highly desirable commodities in other commercial markets – Benz & Cie. was regarded all over Germany as a prime industrial advertisement for the city of Mannheim. In July 1914, for example, Hamburger Fremdenblatt wrote: “Along with the firm of Heinrich Lanz, one company that well represents Mannheim – principally as a result of its colossal and very rapid growth –< is Benz & Cie., Rheinische Automobil- und Motorenfabrik.” The report also paid tribute to details such as the consistent use of internal combustion engines as a power source for machinery, electric power generators and water plants.
During the first year of the war, from 1914 to 1915, the plant underwent considerable expansion. In 1915, Benz also employed 15 women at the Mannheim plant for the first time. By way of comparison, the Waldhof plant was at this time Benz’s largest production facility, with 4,000 workers and 450 salaried employees, whereas at Gaggenau the total workforce numbered 1,700, and the old plant in Waldhofstraße employed 1,000 workers and 159 salaried employees. As the war progressed, the number of female employees rose to 1,122; at the end of the war, only 99 women remained at the plant.
A second significant innovation was the establishment of the training department in 1916. From its opening that year until 1975, the training facility turned out 3,424 skilled workers. In 1953, Daimler-Benz AG also introduced vocational school education.
Mannheim diesels
One of the most important innovations of the post-war era at Benz & Cie. was its work on vehicle diesel engines. The fundamental principles of this new technology were developed by the diesel pioneer Prosper L’Orange, who joined Benz as head of engine testing in 1908. He discovered the principle of pre-chamber combustion in 1909, followed by the invention of the needle injection nozzle in 1919 and in 1921 by the variable injection pump. The first land-going vehicle to be equipped with a diesel engine was also developed in Mannheim: in 1922 Benz & Cie. presented a three-wheeled tractor, developed jointly with Sendling, the Munich manufacturers of agricultural machinery. The two-cylinder Benz diesel engine gave the tractor a power output of 25 hp (18 kW).
On April 14, 1923, following the successful introduction of the diesel pre-chamber principle, Benz & Cie. decided to launch series production of a four-cylinder diesel engine. That same month, production was started on an initial series of ten units; by late August the engines were ready to be fitted to the chassis of the Benz five-ton truck. The OB 2 model initially developed 45 hp (33 kW) at 1000/min. The world’s first diesel trucks were used, among other things, as experimental vehicles for transportation at the Mannheim plant. The truck went into series production in 1924 with an increased output of 50 hp (37 kW).
On the road to merger
The possibility of a merger between Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) with a view to creating synergies had been considered as early as 1919. Economic circumstances in Germany at the time were anything but straightforward, with a large number of car manufacturers chasing the same customers. A joint venture remained an option initially, but after the war Benz & Cie. decided instead to carry out an internal reorganization of its operational units. The Mannheim plant took over responsibility for the production of motorized ploughs and tractors, and in 1921 the company sold off the production of stationary engines at the old plant as an independent entity trading under its own name, Motoren-Werke Mannheim (MWM).
But on May 1, 1924, the two companies DMG and Benz & Cie. finally signed an agreement that set the seal on a joint venture. In the difficult circumstances affecting the German market, both companies were keen to realize synergy effects instead of competing against one another in identical market segments. This was the platform for the merger two years later that would give rise to the company Daimler-Benz AG.
In 1925, it became clear just how much Benz & Cie. meant to Mannheim: The city renamed two streets adjacent to the old plant “Carl-Benz-Straße” – the name that remains to this day. Not even the merger with DMG in 1926 could change that.
In 1926, the Academic Group for Motor Vehicle Design at the Technical University of Hanover also paid tribute to the city of Mannheim. Some of their engineers set out in a Benz Comfortable of 1895 on a tribute journey from Hanover to Carl Benz’s home in Ladenburg. En route, the historic vehicle toured the streets of Mannheim, where the story of the automotive brand Benz & Cie. all began.