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A brief history of German automotive engineering

22/07/2020
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Germany’s reputation for automotive engineering is unparalleled. The country is synonymous with quality, efficiency and innovation in world-leading car brands, and with good reason. The nation’s heritage goes back over 100 years and has nested within the German culture. Precision engineering is valued above all else which opens the door to bold new ideas.

On average ten new auto patents are registered each day. A third of Germany’s expenditure goes on research and development. Over 89,000 people are employed in R&D roles across the industry. It’s not just German brands that benefit from this any more - other firms across the world are seeking to take advantage of Germany’s innovation clusters by opening their own development facilities in the country. Take Geely for example, China’s leading privately-owned automotive company who last year opened their first research and development facility outside their home country - in Raunheim, near Frankfurt. With space for 300 engineers, Geely hope to combine Germany’s automotive engineering with China’s growing marketplace and increase their presence in electrification and new energy vehicles. 

And they’re far from the only ones seeking to use the high standards and technical capabilities of German engineering for their own brands. As the industry moves towards the next phase of automotive engineering, it’s important for brands to understand what came before so they can push that sense of culture and heritage towards new technologies, new trends and new necessities in the automotive marketplace.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look back at how Germany built their reputation for quality automotive engineering over the years.

1864 - the birth of the petrol-powered car

Automobiles had been envisioned and designed in some form or another for centuries - with steam powered variations existing as early as the 17th century. But when we think of a car we normally envision one powered by an internal combustion engine, which brings us to 1864 when the first petrol-powered propulsive vehicle was invented by German inventor Siegfried Marcus.

Born in the town of Malchin in what was then the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, but is today part of Germany, Marcus worked as a technician and engineer in Vienna making mechanical and electrical equipment. His first car followed the design of a simple handcart, with wheels powered by an internal combustion engine using petrol as the fuel. The wheels had to be lifted off the ground to start them. Marcus went on to develop several more petrol-powered vehicles, each an improvement on the last. An 1888 model designed by Marcus and built by Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz was far closer to the kind of early cars that would soon fill the world’s streets, complete with a driver’s seat, steering wheel, clutch and brake. The car was named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and can still be seen today in Vienna’s Technical Museum.

1885 - Benz goes into production

Despite Marcus’ being the first to propel a vehicle with a petrol-powered internal combustion engine, his early designs were not very practical. The first successful automobile to go into full production was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, designed in Mannheim in 1885 by Karl Benz.

Benz had previously worked on the development of a four-stroke internal combustion engine in the late 1870s, ultimately finding a way to fit it to a three-wheel coach in the 1880s.

1887 - Daimler sets up a rival to Benz

At a similar time to Benz’s original engine design, another inventor, Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler was also working independently on a four-stroke internal combustion engine. Gottlieb would similarly build a car and set up his own motor company: Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in 1887. 

1888 - Benz proves the value of a car with the first long-distance drive

Benz patented his invention in 1886 but struggled to find investors to begin production. That is until one morning in August 1888 when his wife, Bertha Benz, took his Motorwagen on what would be the world’s first long distance trip - driving 104km (65 miles) from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back to visit her mother. 

The concept was proved: the horseless carriage was capable of long-distance travel. Benz began production of his car. 

In 2008 the “Bertha Benz Memorial Route” was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind.

1899 - Sales growth births the automotive market

Demand for the car and for the static engines grew and Benz & Cie. had to expand their factory. By 1899 they were the largest automobile in the country, with 430 employees. That year they produced 572 units.

1900 - Global market growth

By 1900 the car had caught on and mass production had begun in France and the United States. Automotive companies were developing in Belgium (which was home to Vincke - a company who copied their design from Benz), Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Australia. Back in Germany, the industry was producing 900 cars per year.

Early 1920s - Global challenges

Despite the successful designs of the Germany companies, they could not mass-produce quickly enough to meet demand - opening the global marketplace up to American manufacturers including Henry Ford, whose revolutionary “assembly line” factories could mass produce vehicles much faster. American firms saw the potential in German designs, with Ford opening a successful German subsidiary Ford-Werke in 1925 and General Motors taking over German company Opel in 1929.

There would be further problems for the industry, with war having a devastating effect on the German economy. In 1920 it’s thought that Germany had around 86 auto companies. By the end of the Great Depression only 12 survived.

1926 - Mercedes-Benz

Daimler and Benz came through the economic downfall together by first agreeing to standardise their design and production and, in 1926, finally merging to be the Daimler-Benz company. Following the name of Daimler’s most successful model, all cars the company produced from then on would be known as Mercedes-Benz.

1928 - BMW enter the automotive industry

The rivalry of Benz and Daimler would continue, with another major player soon to join when a former airline engine producer would switch to making automobiles in 1928. The company was Bayerische Motoren Werke: BMW.

1948 - Porsche release their first sports car

The Porsche company had been started in the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche, initially as a motor vehicle development and consulting firm before moving into building their own cars. But it was Porsche’s son Ferry who would put the company on a path it is best known for, launching the 365, Porsche’s first sportscar. A motorsports fan, Ferry Porsche could not find a car that he wanted to buy, so he decided to design one that would fulfil all his criteria. 

The 365 used components from the Volkswagen Beetle, including the engine case, transmission and suspension, but was made with a sleek body, air-cooled engine configuration and just two seats - making it lighter. It won its class in its first race at Innsbruck in 1948 and was later re-engineered and refined with a focus on improving performance further.

Being based on the Beetle meant that the engine was in the back of the vehicle - a trend that Porsche are still known for today.

1950 - The rise of the Beetle

Compared with other countries such as France, the USA and the UK, Germany’s automotive industry would remain relatively small through the early 20th century, with most vehicles sold only domestically. A major success, however, would arise with the Volkswagen Beetle.

Though it had been originally launched in the 1940s (having been designed by Ferdinand Porsche as a “car for the people” - the literal translation of “Volkswagen”), the VW Beetle would become properly successful in the 1950s as a symbol of West German regeneration. In 1949 they were introduced to the United States, but sold only two units the entire first year. Volkswagen of America would be launched in April 1955 to standardise sales and service, and soon production would ramp up. By 1955 one million VW Beetles had been produced.

German production of the Beetle would continue until 1978, and would carry on in Mexico and Brazil until 2003.

1950 - A hippie icon

Another success for VW came in the form of the Type 2 T1 camper van, launched in 1950. Demand for the van was so great that a dedicated plant was opened in Hannover just six years later. Along with the Beetle, the VW camper van would become an iconic symbol of the 1960s.

1964 - The 911

The third generation of the Porsche family would prove instrumental in another automotive icon when Ferry Porsche’s eldest son, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, led a team to create a successor to the 365 - the Porsche 911.

Planned as another air-cooled, rear-engined sports car but this time with a six-cylinder boxer engine, the 911 was intended to continue Porsche’s motor-racing success. Originally the car was supposed to be the 901, following the sequential numbering laid out by the design office, but Peugeot had already trademarked the “x0x” naming for their cars, so 911 was selected. Despite the design phase creating several internal problems at the company, the 911 would be the company's biggest success, spawning several generations of revision.

1970s - VW reinvents itself (and Audi)

By the 1970s appetite for the Beetle was wearing out, and VW was facing difficulties. But that would turn around when the company merged its newly acquired NSU Moterenwerke AG with Auto Union (purchased off Daimler Benz in 1964) and resurrected the historic Audi brand which had originally existed since the late 1800s.

Audi engineers had the technical expertise to upgrade VW’s offerings to incorporate the then-popular front-wheel drive hatchback layout and water-cooled engines that allowed VW to launch the Passat in 1973, the Gold in ‘74 and the Polo in ‘75 would turn that around. This became a pivotal point for VW.

Overseas sales of both Volkswagen and Audi would grow throughout the ‘70s, for the latter seeing particular success with the Audi 100 and the Audi 80.

1980 - The Quattro

Further success would follow for Audi as it entered the ‘80s with a move towards the sports car market, launching the front-wheel drive Coupe and the four-wheel drive, high-performance version, the Quattro.

A realisation from Audi’s chassis engineer Jörg Bensinger that VW’s military vehicles could outperform smaller cars in tough conditions led to the idea for a high-performance four-wheel drive car. He proposed the idea in 1977 and it would soon become the Audi Quattro, which made headlines with consecutive rally competition wins.

1985 - Ford relies on German engineering for its flagship model

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s Ford significantly altered the designs of its vehicles to fit the consumer preference for front-wheel drive hatchbacks and family saloons. By 1985 it was time to replace the company’s European flagship - the Granada - with a new model, the Ford Scorpio.

Having been relying heavily on its German plants for its European line, Ford opted to solely produce the Scorpio at its factory in Cologne. Originally only available as a hatchback, the Scorpio would prove to be massively popular throughout Europe, resulting in an expanded range including a saloon and estate models in the 1990s.

1990s - Acquisitions and expansion across the globe

The ‘80s and ‘90s were a period of exceptional growth for the German automotive industry, leading to a series of major acquisitions and international expansion across the world. German manufacturers bought plants across Europe, Asia and the Americas, increasing their market share and bringing German brands to the likes of Mexico, Brazil, Turkey and China.

In 1990 VW established FAW-Volkswagen to produce cars for both the VW and Audi brands in China. They followed this with the purchase of SEAT and Skoda - increasing the model ranges for both brands.

By the end of the 1990s Volkswagen had also acquired Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini - bringing luxury names in to their family of historic German engineering.

BMW would also make a high profile acquisition by taking on the British Rover Group in 1994 - they would later sell the group in 2000, keeping only one name - the Mini.

Meanwhile Daimler-Benz would enter a “merger of equals” with the American Chrysler Corporation in 1998.

1998 - A smart look for the new millennium

In the spirit of their pioneering automotive heritage, Daimler Benz launched a revolutionary design in 1998 with the Smart car. Following a design concept that went back to the early-’70s, the Smart car was designed to be a small, stylish vehicle for city-life. The result was the Smart Fortwo, a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive 2- passenger hatchback with a length of just 2.5 metres.

The Smart brand was intended to have a futuristic aspiration as the industry considered how it would change in the 21st century. Future models would include an all-electric version. In 2019 Chinese automotive giants Geely would purchase a 50% stake in the brand.

2000s - 21st Century acquisitions

The dawn of the 21st century would see a continuation of the trend of high profile acquisitions, beginning with BMW’s purchase of the Rolls-Royce name in 2003.

In 2012 Volkswagen would take full ownership of Porsche.

Present day

By the late 2010s Germany produced nearly six million vehicles each year, while German brands delivered 5.5 million cars overseas. Germany stands with the US, China and Japan as one of the four biggest automotive manufacturers in the world, with seven of the biggest, best known brands: Volkswagen (with Audi and Porsche as subsidiaries), BMW AG, Daimler AG, Adam Open AG and Ford-Werke GmbH.

Building on over a century of heritage, dating back to the first ever automotive vehicle, German engineers are continuing to deliver modern styles, revolutionary technology and impressive performance capabilities for the future of the automotive industry. With brands like Tesla and Geely opening new plants in Germany, it’s clear that the reputation for high-quality, ambitious machines is globally recognised and anticipated to continue long into the future.

Find your next job in Germany’s automotive industry

Fircroft is seeking automotive professionals for a range of OEM jobs based in Frankfurt with a major global brand. View all our open opportunities or register your CV with us for free to keep up with all our latest job vacancies in the global automotive industry.

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A brief history of German automotive engineering - Time to read 12 min
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