Karl Benz

German mechanical engineer Karl Benz designed and built the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine.

Who Was Karl Benz?

Karl Benz was a German inventor and engineer. He overcame financial setbacks and unsupportive associates to design and build a car with a fully integrated internal combustion engine, which is seen as the first practical automobile. Benz’s invention was driven for the first time in 1885 and received a patent the next year.

Though his automotive goals were initially mocked and dismissed, Benz saw motor vehicles become a dominant mode of transportation before his death at age 84 in 1929. Cars and trucks still operate with many of Benz’s inventions and innovations, and his name lives on in the car company Mercedes-Benz.

Early Life

Karl (also spelled as Carl) Friedrich Benz was born on November 25, 1844, in Mühlburg (now Karlsruhe), Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany. His father died when he was 2, so his mother raised him. Benz enrolled at Karlsruhe Polytechnic when he was 15. In 1864 he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Founding Benz & Co

Benz married his wife, Bertha, in 1872. With her support, he used her dowry to buy out an unsatisfactory partner in an early business venture. His firm hit a rough patch but survived (though tools had to be pawned to stay in business). He left that company in 1883 due to disputes with his partners. That same year Benz founded Benz & Co. in Mannheim with new backers. The business initially focused on stationary engines, but Benz continued to work on his dream of creating a motorcar.

Invention of First Car

In 1885, Benz built a motorcar whose internal combustion engine was powered by gasoline. A love of bicycling had inspired his desire to create this vehicle, and his first design drew on the tricycle. Benz’s three-wheeled automobile, which he called the Motorwagen, could carry two passengers. Prior to building this car, Benz also invented several of its key components, such as the electric ignition, spark plugs, and clutch

At the time other inventors were also trying to build or had already constructed their own versions of a “horseless carriage,” but Benz’s work stood out because his car was constructed around its engine, as opposed to the approach of simply adding an engine to an existing cart or carriage. Benz was granted patent No. 37435 for his automobile on January 29, 1886.

A model of Benz’s first car was made available for purchase, with the first sale taking place in 1888. The early three-wheeled car was followed by four-wheeled vehicles, which Benz began to produce in 1893. Twelve hundred units of the four-wheeled Motor Velocipede, known as the “Velo,” were built between 1894 and 1901; it is seen as the world’s first series-produced car. 

However, in the 1900s Benz vehicles were outpaced by other manufacturers, whose offerings were less expensive and delivered more horsepower.

Around 1903, Benz left his company after clashing over new designs, though he remained on its board of directors. He started a new vehicle manufacturing business with his sons but stepped back from its management in 1912.


In 1926, Benz & Co. merged with a car company started by Gottlieb Daimler, a fellow German and automotive pioneer. Daimler-Benz went on to sell Mercedes-Benz vehicles (the name Mercedes came from the daughter of a man who’d raced and sold Daimler automobiles).

Though they lived in Germany at the same time and shared similar interests, Benz and Daimler hadn’t interacted before Daimler died in 1900. Benz later stated, “I never spoke to Daimler in all my life. Once I saw him in Berlin, from a distance. As I approached — I would have liked to have made his acquaintance — he disappeared in the crowd.”

Wife and Children

Associates sometimes derided Benz’s focus on making a motorized vehicle, which they considered an endeavor without potential. Yet Bertha provided both financial and emotional support for his work. In his memoir, Benz wrote, “Only one person stood by me during those times when I was heading towards the abyss. That was my wife. It was her courage that enabled me to find new hope.”

It was also Bertha who demonstrated the feasibility of Benz’s vehicle as a mode of transportation when she took it on a 66-mile drive in August 1888. Bertha made the eight-miles-per-hour journey, accompanied by her two older children, in Model No. 3 of her husband’s invention. Her actions garnered positive attention and publicity for the motorcar. Benz himself only learned of his wife’s plans after she had made the drive.

Benz and Bertha had five children: Eugen (b. 1873), Richard (b. 1874), Clara (b. 1877), Thilde (b. 1882), and Ellen (b. 1890).


An 84-year-old Benz died on April 4, 1929, in Ladenburg, Germany.



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