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Features of the first car are still being used today


THE BEGINNINGS: Denis Dowdall drives a re-created prototype of the first car, which was invented by Karl Benz

THE BEGINNINGS: Denis Dowdall drives a re-created prototype of the first car, which was invented by Karl Benz

THE BEGINNINGS: Denis Dowdall drives a re-created prototype of the first car, which was invented by Karl Benz

On January 29 just gone, the car's birthday cake had an incredible 125 candles on it. Mercedes-Benz understandably made a big fuss about the occasion as one of its founders, Karl Friedrich Benz, is credited with inventing the thing.

Remarkably, Gottlieb Daimler, a fellow German living less than 100 kilometres away, had similar ideas at the same time. but while Daimler bought a stagecoach and fitted an engine to it, Benz created his purpose-made car from scratch.

The year the patent was filed was 1886 and the car was actually "marketed" as the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Reportedly, about 25 examples were sold to wealthy customers. These days we'd call these buyers early adopters and they'd be driving something like the Tesla Roadster -- or maybe even the Nissan LEAF.

Indeed, seeing the Motorwagen in the car park of Motor Distributors Ltd (MDL) lined up next to the latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class is quite surreal. To call them both cars seems ludicrous.

Yet Denis Dowdall, the Motorwagen's caretaker, explains how advanced the original Benz was.

Amazingly, it featured electric coil ignition, water cooling and a four-stroke design, all of which continue to dominate modern petrol engine design today. It even had a rack-and-pinion steering system, albeit a fairly rudimentary design with a simple steering tiller mounted in the centre of the car turning the single front wheel.

As I climb up on to the car (its "floor" is about half a metre off the ground) I joke about it being left-hand drive, which in fact it turns out to be as the lever to control the drive to the wheels is on the far left of the car.

The hapless passenger sits to the right on the comfy, high-set seat with nothing to hang on to. Obviously the phrase "health and safety" had yet to be coined.

Saying that, the occupants were hardly in mortal danger due to excess speed. Estimates vary, but it's thought that the Motorwagen struggled to reach 15kmh. Although MDL's example is in fact a replica of the original car (accurately recreated) we're still surprised to learn that Denis can fire it up for us and take it outside for a brief run.

He grabs hold of the exposed horizontally mounted flywheel and gives it a good yank. Amazingly the engine chugs into life straight away and settles into its idle speed.

The large lever to the left of the seat controls the movement of the belt drive from the engine so it's either turning a freewheeling pulley or one fixed to an axle ahead of the wheels. This in turn is attached to the rear wheels by chain. With a bit of coaxing it's soon under way and 15kmh looks quite quick at close quarters. Imagine what it must have been like in 1885 when horses ruled the roads.

A few years after Benz patented the Motorwagen, his wife Bertha took it upon herself to take it on a journey to visit her mother about 100 kilometres away with her two sons.

This legendary road trip is still celebrated today and Bertha is credited with inventing brake lining and requesting that her husband add an extra gear so that the car could tackle hills without help.

That all sounds incredible enough, and then you realise that there would have been no such thing as petrol stations. Pharmacies would have been the only place to find small stocks of it for cleaning, etc. Bertha must have been a sight traipsing through the towns looking for a pharmacy, having just dismounted from this bizarre horseless carriage contraption.

So you're probably wondering how the Mercedes-Benz name came about. The Benz part comes from Karl, but the Mercedes title has a convoluted story behind it.

Gottlieb Daimler co-founded Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). On the board of directors was one Emil Jellinek, a successful racer and business man.

He initially raced DMG's models with his daughter's name, Mercedes, painted on them. His success lead to a position on the company's board and the widespread adoption of the Mercedes name.In 1926 Daimler-Benz was formed from Karl Benz's company and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, but the Daimler title could not be used on models sold in some markets, so the name Mercedes-Benz was born to be used on all cars sold.

In the 125 years since Karl Benz pioneered the car have we really moved as far forward as we like to think we have?

I wonder if they had birthday cakes and candles in 1885.


Sunday Independent Supplement