Few inventions have had as enduring an influence on the world's development as the invention of the automobile. The pioneers of automobile manufacture towards the end of the 19th century were Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Carl Benz (1844-1929).
They set up the predecessor companies which merged to form Daimler-Benz AG in 1926 – Daimler with his Daimler Motorengesellschaft (DMG) and Benz with his Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik.
After working at other companies, Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, who never met personally, simultaneously developed the world's first automobiles in Mannheim (Benz) and Stuttgart (Daimler) in the year 1886. However, several years lay between the invention of the automobile and its economic exploitation.
Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, who knew each other from their work at the engineering works of the Reutlingen Brotherhood, took the first step to mobile application by fitting a gas engine or one powered by kerosene/paraffin to a two-wheeler. The engine - far smaller, lighter and more powerful than all engines that had gone before - was dubbed the "grandfather clock" because of its characteristic shape.
This two-wheeled vehicle, also called "riding car", completed a successful test run in November 1885.
Benz, too, recognised the significance of the lightweight engine and set himself the goal of designing a "dwarf in terms of weight, but a titan in terms of power".
As Benz was unable to fall back on existing groundwork, and no solution for the steering of a four-wheeled vehicle had been found up until then, for the time being he concentrated on building a three-wheeled vehicle.
The "Velocipede" which originated in 1886 can be regarded as the world's first automobile, despite being limited to three wheels.
In the same year, just 100 kilometres away Daimler presented his motor carriage, considered the world's first four-wheeled automobile. Essentially, this automobile is a light coach in which a modified and more powerful version of the "grandfather clock" was installed. Having recognised other areas of application for his engines at an early stage, in 1886 Daimler already was giving thought to motorising boats, rail vehicles and aircraft.
Early on, both Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz endeavoured to market their inventions internationally.
Unlike Carl Benz, who initially only had an agent representing him in France, Gottlieb Daimler was able to make use of several foreign contacts.
He succeeded in concluding licence agreements especially in France and Britain.
At the 1876 World Exposition in Philadelphia, Wilhelm Maybach had made the acquaintance of William Steinway and introduced him to Gottlieb Daimler at the end of the 1880s. Following his visit to Cannstatt, Steinway secured himself the contractual right of exclusive representation for the entire Daimler product range in the USA and Canada.
Carl Benz did not manage to forge closer foreign contacts until the end of the 19th century. In addition to Britain, he celebrated surprising successes in the USA and South Africa.
Apart from their efforts to gain a foothold in foreign markets, both pioneers pressed ahead with the continuous technical improvement of their products. For instance, Wilhelm Maybach, working as an engineer at DMG, developed the spray-nozzle carburettor, a milestone in the success story of the automobile.
This innovation represented a major breakthrough in engine design and the principle behind it is still applied to this day. The first major long-distance tours in France and Britain demonstrated the superiority of the petrol engine over its steam counterpart. The outstanding performance of the Daimler engines marked the technical breakthrough for the automobile.
Carl Benz achieved another crucial technical breakthrough in 1893 by inventing double-pivot steering, which solved the problem of steering four-wheeled vehicles.
The Benz Velo put on the market in 1894 became a big commercial success. It was followed by an engine-powered bus and a truck.
From the beginning, motorsport was a most important means of popularising the innovations and served mainly to demonstrate the performance capabilities of the automobiles.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft laid the foundations for many more successes by constructing a racing car that was commissioned by Emil Jellinek and named after Jellinek's daughter Mercedes. In late March 1901 the new model, the Mercedes 35 hp, passed the acid test by scoring a sensational success during Nice racing week.
The sporting achievement would also pay off financially for DMG.
In the period thereafter, workaday versions of racing cars and high-performance vehicles provided the basis of the business.
The company had already had the brand name "Mercedes" patented in 1902. To satisfy the rising demand that accompanied the motor-racing successes and to ensure the necessary expansion of production, DMG decided to enlarge its factory and transferred production from Cannstatt to Untertürkheim in December 1903.
From the very outset, both company founders were committed to the highest quality standards ("the best of the good", "the best or nothing"), a characteristic of the company to this day. In the period preceding the First World War, despite increasing competition the enterprises founded by the pioneers developed into world-leading manufacturers of passenger cars and commercial vehicles.
After 1908 both DMG and Benz & Cie. increasingly built commercial vehicles, though the growth rates in commercial-vehicle manufacture lagged well behind those for car production prior to the war. But as a result, the commercial-vehicle sector developed into an important second mainstay of the companies.
From 1888 onwards the internal combustion engine was also used in aviation, initially in airships and then also in airplanes. Although the manufacture of aircraft engines only made a minor contribution to sales before the First World War, it appeared to be a promising business segment. The Mercedes star introduced as company logo in 1909 also indicates this. The three pointed star still stands today for "mobility on land, on water, and in the air".
However, the outbreak and course of the First World War changed the structure of the two companies' order intake. Private demand was supplanted by state – usually military – orders, which were one of the factors leading to the establishment of the Sindelfingen facility.
Production at the two predecessor companies was almost totally geared to the needs of a war economy and the troops at the front. As a result, he product range changed fundamentally and had little in common with the peacetime range. The two companies developed into the biggest aero engine manufacturers in Germany during this period.
For the truck, the First World War spelled the breakthrough as a means of transport, both for military use and in private enterprise. The great importance of the truck notwithstanding, the market share of the two German motor-vehicle manufacturers gradually decreased. The reason for this was the huge number of start-ups in this segment during the war.