Introduction: The Great German Cars


Karl Benz Has been working on small gasoline engines for years and is almost broke. His latest, bolted to the bench in the shed, obstinately refuses to start. The 35-year-old engineer and his pretty young wife Bertha are not looking forward to the coming year, 1880. This is what Karl Benz wrote about her that winter’s evening.

After supper my wife said: ‘Let’s go over the shed and try once more. Something tells me to go and will not let me be.’ So there we were back again, standing in front of the engine as it were a great mystery, impossible to solve. My heart was pounding. I turned the crank. The engine started to go put-put, and the music of the future sounded out with regular rhythm… like no magic flute in the world ever had. The longer it played the more sorrow and anxiety slipped away from my heart… Suddenly the bells began to ring-New Year’s Eve Bells. We felt that they were not only ringing in a new year, but a new era.

Prophetic words from a penniless German engineer, words that were to be confirmed the very next year when Benz trundled out his first automobile, the little three-wheeler ’motor-wagen’ that was to be the ancestor of them all.


The birth of the first great German marque, and that of Gottlieb Daimler, Benz’s contemporary down the road at Cannstatt, set, the standard for road transport for the world for many years, and through during the first half of the twentieth century Germany was buffeted by storms of the war, of politics and revolution –and drained by the madness of runaway inflation-the country’s automotive industry has returned to high quality work and high-production figure, sometimes, literally from the debris and ashes of its former success.

Today there are just six major organizations: Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Daimler-Benz, Opel and Porsche, but through the pioneering years, the years of development, setback and achievement, there have been many more. Those we briefly meet in this book had several things in common. Engineering quality, that little more than the next manufacturers, that sight edge on the competition from other countries, was perhaps the outstanding feature of a large proportion of them. Early examples may have been lumbering heavies or lightweight buzzboxes but a single strong thread can be seen woven into the fabric of German industry- a dedication to engineering competence. And when disaster struck, as it so often did then, particularly in the bankrupt 1920s when German finances went crazy, they formed life-saver groups to keep afloat, and to hold minimum quality.

Germany in the thirties. at first slow to recover from the US-sparked depression, had by the middle of the decade produced cars-particularly, sports car-that were streets ahead of the world in performance and style. BMW’s glorious 328, the Mercedes-Benz 540K, Adler’s 2 1/2 liter that could cruise at 80 on the 860 miles of the Third Reiche’s autobahen, were cars that led their various market categories in Europe, The eager adoption of advanced suspension systems, of front-wheel drive, of faster, safer travel over longer distances in mind, took German autos way ahead of competitors. War in 1939 halted this flood of engineering excellence, delaying—but not destroying—its flowering for some seven years.

From the rubble of an industry that had been 80 per cent destroyed factories were rebuilt which within a few short years were turning out vehicles which were healthy sellers-and which in the middle 1950s captured the major trophies of motor sport.

The rise of VW to the world’s biggest-selling car, the story of BMW from its motorcycle days through the Austin Seven lookalike Dixi to the superb vehicles of the present day, the Audi story of dissent, struggle, survival and merger, the great Mercedes-Benz empire, the wizardry of the company started by Ferdinand Porsche and the steady climb of Opel to Russelsheim’s reliable machines of today, were all part of the German ‘industrial miracle’of the late forties and the fifties.

We have included about twenty other German marques which, although they may have vanished from the showrooms, now still merit a place in history as pioneers, as contributors to technical advance, as innovators, or simply for their stubborn longevity in an industry that saw several thousand makes disappear during its history. Each of these marques here made a contribution, Hanomag’s first people’s car, Adler’s Ace of Trumps of the thirties, DKW’s energetic two-cycle unit, Amphicar’s plunge into the amphibian world, and so on.

A quote from a Volkswagen history says it all. ‘The secret behind Volkswagen’s success- which other manufacturers know but do not care to copy – is a painstaking integrity of design and manufacture. The customers have noticed…’

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