A German invention is celebrating its birthday. Carl Benz’s first automobile was a revolution in 1886. 2011 is all about mobility.
By Dominik Rech
THE KAISER WAS SCEPTICAL. “I regard the automobile as a temporary phenomenon. I prefer to bet on the horse,” said a critical Wilhelm II about the engine of progress. A great mistake as it turned out: the revolution on wheels was unstoppable. A German invention changed the world on 29 January 1886. A new era of transport began. With a single cylinder, about 0.9 horsepower and a top speed of 12 km/h, the “Motor Wagen” the engineer Carl Benz patented in Mann heim 125 years ago under the number 37435 is considered the world’s very first automobile. This gasoline-powered vehicle, which the boffin put on the road for the first time a few months later, looked more like a carriage without a horse. The strange tricycle provoked suspicious glances whenever Benz came round the corner in his new invention. But he and his wife Bertha remained undeterred. They believed in the future of the automobile: Bertha became the mother of all motorists and in 1888 undertook the first cross-country trip in a motor car with her two sons – the 100 kilometres from Mannheim to Pforzheim.
The new era rapidly gained momentum. Unconventional thinkers like Carl Benz and Henry Ford, who made cars affordable for many using the assembly line, became the driving force behind a development that has produced more than 2.4 billion automobiles worldwide to date. The car became the companion of modernism and an integral part of everyday life. Some 42 million cars are registered today in Germany alone. And not only that: people have learnt to love the automobile. In the space of 125 years models like the VW Beetle and the Porsche 911 have turned the car into a cult object and a cultural asset. Station wagon or convertible, sedan or SUV – sporty or elegant, luxurious or functional: in the 21st century the car is far more than a means of transport. Often enough it stands for a certain attitude to life or personality.
Cars convey feelings, and emotions often determine sales. Germany’s leading automakers present the driving experience and impressively showcase their brands in magnificent museums. At Autostadt Wolfsburg, BMW World, the Porsche Museum and the Mercedes-Benz Museum, architecture and design interact with the history and future of the respective brand and the issue of mobility in general, showing off the high technology and ingenuity of the auto industry.
In 2011 Germany is celebrating the 125th birthday of the invention of the first automobile. The mobile events will focus on the state of Baden-Württemberg. The birthplace of the automobile has developed into a nationally and internationally significant centre of the automotive industry. The renowned manufacturers Daimler and Porsche – as well as Bosch, a leading component supplier – have their headquarters in and around Stuttgart. With an “Automobile Summer” from 7 May to 10 September 2011, Baden-Württemberg is organizing a huge, 125-day birthday party with over 300 events on all aspects of cars and transport. Also in the summer, motor-racing fans can experience a Formula 1 weekend at the Nürburgring in the Eifel region: the German Grand Prix on 24 July will also feature world champion Sebastian Vettel.
The German automotive industry will also be among the exhibitors showing off their latest models and developments at the world’s biggest automobile fair, the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt am Main from 15 to 25 September 2011. Alongside Japan, China and the USA, Germany is one of the leading car producers with its six manufacturers – VW, Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche and GM subsidiary Opel. Roughly 63 million cars were produced for the global automotive market in 2010 – and approx. 12 million of these vehicles were made by German manufacturers. That corresponds to a share of over 18% of total production.
The German automotive industry is an important economic factor with more than 700,000 employees within Germany and great innovative potential. The Volkswagen Group, Germany’s top-selling company, is currently even on the way to becoming the world’s biggest automaker. The Wolfsburg-based company currently owns the following brands: Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Škoda as well as the luxury brands Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini. Europe’s largest carmaker is also planning to complete the integration of the sports-car maker Porsche before the end of 2011.
Now that the economic crisis is over, the prospects for German manufacturers in 2011 are looking bright again and seem to point to a recovery. According to its annual forecast, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) expects to break several records. Car exports are expected to reach 4.4 million units (up 5%); domestic production also looks likely to grow by 5% to nearly 5.8 million vehicles. Manufacturers are presenting their latest ideas for the green future of the car at the IAA: alternative propulsion systems are a priority that has been keeping the development engineers occupied for some time. Will hybrid technology become the new standard, or only be a bridging technology en route to the pure electric car? If VW’s CEO Martin Winterkorn has his way, the future will belong to zero-emission electric motors – refuelled at the power socket.
However, experts agree that several years of development and close cooperation between industry, research and politics are still needed before this can happen. But even so, Germany wants to be among the innovators in the automotive field again and to establish a lead market for electric vehicles. The ambitious target is to have one million electric vehicles on Germany’s roads by 2020. In order to push electromobility forward, the Federal Government is investing primarily in research and development over the next few years, one priority being to produce efficient battery systems for this propulsion technology. The example of BMW shows that German automakers are taking electromobility seriously. The group is expanding its plant in Leipzig to make it the first centre for the mass-production of zero-emission electric cars in Germany. Auto-pioneer Carl Benz would surely have been delighted at such a prospect for the future of the automobile.