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Car Review

Mercedes-Benz Patent Motorwagen review

Published: 24 Dec 2020
This is it: the Big Bang moment of the passenger car

Good stuff

Unique driving experience, simplicity, game-changing nature, massive rimz

Bad stuff

Limited dynamic range, literally wooden ride, you can run faster than it moves


What is it?

The start. That’s what this is. The germ, the seed, the Big Bang moment of the passenger car. The heat and light of the expanding universe of the modern vehicle can be traced back to this point. The (Karl) Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1886 is pretty much regarded as the world’s first automobile. It is therefore as retro as its possible to get without requiring a feed bag and a shovel.

There are three, really obvious, wheels, measured in feet rather than inches. There’s a 1.0-litre single-cylinder motor in the back, countered by an absolutely whopping horizontal flywheel to balance everything out and prevent the car shaking itself to pieces, a trembler coil ignition and drip-oiling system. There is a lot of brass. The carb is evaporative and operated by a sleeve valve that kinda/sorta of acts like a throttle, and the output is approximately three-quarters of one horse power to one hp at roughly 400rpm (we’re guesstimating here, because there are no dials). Which is - apropos of nothing - 720 times less than the current Mercedes-Benz GTR Black Series. The ‘suspension’ is via elliptical springs, the steering via a geared tiller, the drive delivered to both rear wheels via a pair of chain drives linked by a simple beam axle. The ‘transmission’ is a big leather strap that operates as a simple single-speed, pushed by the big lever on the left hand side of the operator’s wooden bench from an open to drive disc to engage forward motion, and reverse is engaged via the medium of shoe leather and a bit of sweat. Or parking on a slope.

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And it is beautiful - part vintage automaton, part church organ, part antique loveseat - back in the day, this was the Chiron of its age. Except it had no comparatives. Various versions made their appearances as Karl Benz improved the breed, birthing 1.5hp and 2hp variants, with some 25 Patent-Motorwagens being produced between 1886 and 1893. The world’s first production car, then, later replaced by the Benz Velo. This one is actually a faithful reproduction (nut and bolt perfect) maintained by the Mercedes-Benz museum, and it operates exactly as it did back in the late 1800s. It’s probably slightly more reliable - modern tolerances narrower than the castings of the true original - but the drive is pretty much as close to as it was as can be.

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What's the verdict?

This is it: the Big Bang moment of the passenger car

Hard to over-estimate how important this vehicle was, and is. Karl Benz’s ruthless application of his mind, his obsession, Bertha Benz’s patronage and belief, as well as her faith that the Motorwagen would actually work. It changed the face of the world, inspired the take up of personal mobility across the globe for centuries to come. Every car you see, the roads, the infrastructure - it all started here. From the Mini to the Veyron, the Lamborghini Muira to Formula One cars, they all owe a debt to this peculiar, brilliant, exceptional three wheeler. Tough to argue against a full ten out of ten.

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