How Germany became the country of cars

How Germany became the country of cars

In 1888, Bertha Benz set out to prove that her husband Carl’s Motorwagen was safe and ready to sell. Fast forward, and Germany is still the country of premium cars and car culture.

At the edge of the Black Forest in south-western Germany, Edgar Meyer turned onto a medieval road barely the width of an ATV. Vines curled overhead and drooped down over discreet garden gates, while birdsong and the hum of Meyer’s vintage BMW were the only sounds. We were driving through the busy town of Dossenheim, yet we were completely alone on this peaceful little lane.

Technically, the lane is a slight detour off the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, a themed drive conceived by Meyer. But according to the retired sales executive, it’s the closest thing to experiencing the primitive carriageways that Bertha and her teenage sons encountered in August 1888 as they set out on the world’s first road trip in the world’s first petrol-powered car.

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of The Bertha Benz Memorial Route follows the course Bertha Benz took in 1888 when she set out on the world’s first road trip (Credit: Credit: Sarah Staples)

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So much of Bertha’s 194km round-trip drive between the Benz family home in the city of Mannheim and her mother’s place in Pforzheim, typifies the fearlessness of automotive pioneers. Her ride – taken without husband Carl Benz’s knowledge – was the Benz Motorwagen No 3, a slightly tweaked version of Carl’s original Motorwagen, which had been patented in 1886, the year generally agreed as the debut of the automobile.

Bertha had invested her wedding dowry to help finance her husband’s work, but the Motorwagen was struggling, barred from Mannheim’s roads by skeptical government officials (one disastrous early test drive had even ended with horses and dogs, terrified at the motor noise, bolting into the crowds). So taking the prototype out for a highly illegal spin was both a radical declaration that it was safe and ready to sell, and a private message to Carl, willing him the courage to carry on.

It wasn’t only Carl who invented the automobile; it was the team of Carl and Bertha

“It wasn’t only Carl who invented the automobile; it was the team of Carl and Bertha. They both believed in the Motorwagen and were constantly working on it together,” said Meyer, who researched and mapped the route – which loops through the various cities, towns and villages that Bertha visited – in 2008 as a passion project. “I wanted to give her the place in history that she deserves.”

In an era before road maps and GPS, Bertha had only rivers and railroad tracks to guide her to her mother’s home. Imagining her jostling over blackened cobblestones in a buggy with wooden wheels and a 2-hp, four-stroke engine, I realised how brave she was. Maybe a little crazy, too. And maybe that’s the reason her plan succeeded.

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of Bertha’s 194km round-trip drive jumpstarted the era of the automobile (Credit: Credit: Hi-Story/Alamy)

Exploring Germany’s place in automotive history was what brought me to the industrial heartland of the south. I was road-tripping through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria – the states where Germany’s luxury carmakers are based – visiting an extraordinary concentration of car-culture attractions and museums. “When you dissect a country from a completely different perspective, like automotive history, you’re really discovering it anew,” Meyer said as we navigated the countryside. “That’s the adventure.”

Bertha’s road trip jumpstarted the era of the automobile. Instead of ending up in history’s dustbin, by the end of 1888, the Motorwagen No 3 had gone into production, and by 1900, Benz & Cie had become the world’s largest automaker.

Fast forward to today, and Germany is still the country of premium cars and car culture. According to a study published by German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in 2018, over half of passenger vehicles destined for Europe and almost two-thirds of all luxury cars sold worldwide were German-designed in 2016. The question is: why?

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of Today, Germany is known as the country of premium cars and car culture (Credit: Credit: Sarah Staples)

“You could say ‘something was in the air’ across Europe,” said Gerhard Heidbrink of the Mercedes-Benz Corporate Archives, referring to mechanisation taking hold of 19th-Century early-industrialised Britain, France and Germany. Meanwhile in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, complex inheritance laws were splitting family farms into ever-shrinking parcels, making agriculture unprofitable. Successive generations had to get creative in earning a living. So when Carl Benz graduated and began working as a mechanical engineer, he found himself surrounded by fellow inventors within a region that was, by his time, a hot-bed of entrepreneurship and heavy industry.

Certain classic German traits may have influenced the automakers’ success, too – qualities such as Leidenschaft (passionate fervour) and Detailverliebtheit (attention to detail). For instance, at the Technoseum in Mannheim, an authentic Porsche factory car-assembly line from 1990 has been reassembled piece by piece as a life-sized diorama – right down to the bottles of beer that workers received during shifts. If that isn’t Detailverliebtheit, what is? And not for nothing did Gottlieb Daimler – founder of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), today Daimler AG, creator of the Mercedes-Benz brand – and his lifelong business associate Wilhelm Maybach coin the corporate motto Das Beste oder nichts (‘The best, or nothing’).

“Typically, good isn’t good enough,” mused a tour guide from Audi’s heritage museum in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. “Not to say all 82 million of us are like this,” said another from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, “but to be fleissig (industrious) is a very German quality and something we strive for.”

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of Classic German traits like ‘‘Detailverliebtheit’ (attention to detail) may have influenced automakers’ success (Credit: Credit: Sarah Staples)

As the German auto industry progressed, it was shaped by the ebb and flow of companies starting up and winding down, merging and demerging, always fighting for top engineering talent. Corporate rivalries have alternated between fierce and forgotten – such as when arch-competitors Benz, based in Mannheim, and Daimler in Stuttgart, finally merged their companies in 1926. However, allegiances are as well-entrenched as ever. “If you don’t want trouble here, just don’t say Daimler invented the automobile,” quipped a tour guide in Mannheim, only somewhat in jest.

Shifting rivalries that shook up the status quo weren’t necessarily a bad thing; often they had the effect of spurring the innovators on. The typical automotive pioneer in southern Germany was a Tüftler (tinkerer), doggedly improving through trial and error, explained Frank Jung, Porsche AG’s head archivist. “After all, if you aren’t striving for perfection, there’s no need to tinker.”

If you aren’t striving for perfection, there’s no need to tinker

At Germany’s automotive heritage museums, you begin to understand how these inventors followed up the Motorwagen with an even longer list of automotive firsts. Among them were Daimler and Maybach’s carburetor, which made it possible to use gasoline as fuel; the Daimler company’s first Mercedes 35 PS, which, in 1900, introduced the shape and concept of the modern car; Porsche AG’s iconic 1948 Porsche 356 inspired by the simplicity of German Bauhaus design; BMW’s first electric concept car, the 1972 BMW 1602e; the 2019 Audi A8’s advanced AI-assisted self-driving. And on, and on.

Apart from a burst of French inventiveness in the 1890s, German manufacturers have remained at the industry’s forefront. They’ve done it through ingenuity, shaping car development with each successive era, said Heidbrink: “Innovation and luxury have always gone hand in hand.” 

For instance, each year Audi AG workers around the world volunteer thousands of ideas for improvement. Many of those suggestions end up implemented at Audi Forum Ingolstadt, the global headquarters and main assembly plant an hour north of Munich.

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of Germany’s automotive heritage museums showcase how German inventors came up with with a long list of automotive firsts (Credit: Credit: Sarah Staples)

People here clearly share a visceral passion for cars – making them, improving them, but also enjoying them and enjoying the drive. “Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful,” author Mark Twain wrote about his extensive travels in the country’s south-west. The view out my windshield was of precision-edged farmland, yellow fields of rapeseed in full bloom, low mountain ridges and occasional patches of thick forest interspersed with castles, and medieval villages brimming with wood-beamed Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered houses). Compact, scenic, well-traversed by the Autobahn and secondary carriageways, it’s a landscape tailor-made for road tripping – and for Germans, an excuse to appreciate their inventions.

Cars are rooted far deeper in German culture than as a mere means of transport, confirmed Winfried A Seidel, who used proceeds from creating Veterama, a classic car and auto-parts marketplace, to open the Automuseum Dr Carl Benz in the village of Ladenburg, where the Benzes eventually settled. “We are a nation of collectors, and I see a lot of very valuable cars on the road,” he said.

How Germany became the country of cars
View image of Germans share a visceral passion for cars – making them, improving them, but also enjoying them and enjoying the drive (Credit: Credit: JEAN/Alamy)

En route from Ladenburg to Munich and the headquarters of BMW Group, I followed a short section of the Romantische Straße (Romantic Road), Germany’s classic, roughly 350km-long scenic drive through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.

And after a visit to the showrooms of BMW Welt and its attached BMW Museum in Munich, the thrill of being able to wring every last RPM out of my rented Volkswagen Tiguan on the mighty Autobahn was the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel in years. To my surprise, speed limits did kick in at times on the national road system, and it was fascinating to watch a new legal limit appear, not on any road sign, but directly on the Tiguan’s dashboard – technology that’s surely years ahead of what I’d find in any rental fleet back home in Canada.

More than a century after Bertha Benz invented road tripping, it seems Germans are still finding ways to perfect the drive.

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