125 years ago: Automobiles exported for the first time

125 years ago: Automobiles exported for the first time
February 2013
  • 1888: the automobile began to conquer the world just two years after it was invented
  • France was the key market for Benz and Daimler
Exports of automobiles began in 1888: as Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler expanded into foreign markets, which accounted for the lion’s share of sales of their products, they laid the foundation for a global success story. At the time, they were still competitors: they both invented the motor car independently of each other in 1886. It was only in 1926 that the firms Benz & Cie. and the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft merged to form Daimler-Benz AG.
There were two key markets in 1888. Both Benz and Daimler marketed their products in France while Daimler also pursued sales in the US. Both countries were very receptive to this new technical product. These were pioneering days – the automobile was a new, technically sophisticated product which called for a completely new marketing approach. Initially, the products were sold directly from the factory, but it did not take long for sales agencies – some run by the manufacturers, others by private commercial agents – to be established both in Germany and abroad. By the beginning of the 20th century, the automobile was to be found in every part of the world. In many countries, the very first motor vehicles ever seen were Benz and Daimler products.
As production increased to keep pace with growing sales, the vehicles underwent further development and the model ranges were expanded. These early days saw the emergence of the very same factors which characterise the automotive sector today – and which have made it a major branch of industry around the world.
International breakthrough for the automobile
The Benz Patent Motor Car is considered to be the world’s first automobile. On 29 January 1886, Carl Benz filed a patent for his “vehicle with gas-engine drive”. While the local newspapers in Mannheim reported on the new mode of transport and prophesied a great future for it, Benz was initially cautious. He believed motor cars could not and should not be sold while experts such as himself had anything less than complete confidence in their ability to operate them successfully.
But his view changed two years later, in August 1888, when Bertha Benz completed the first long-distance drive in the Patent Motor Car. Accompanied by her sons, she drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back. This was enough to convince the inventor himself that his product had the reliability and maturity required for the market. In September 1888, he demonstrated it at the “Munich Power and Work Machine Exhibition” which introduced it to a wider audience.
It was France that then brought the breakthrough that resulted in series production: in 1888 Carl Benz sent the first enhanced version of the Benz Patent Motor Car, known as the Model 3, to French engineer Émile Roger, who had a workshop in Paris, and who had been selling the stationary Benz two-stroke engines for a number of years. “He came, he saw and he bought first one car and then several and finally many,” wrote Benz in his memoirs. In all, some 25 units of the Model 3 were produced.
It was this success in France that paved the way for further production. In Germany, by contrast, Benz automobiles were attracting few buyers at the time, as the inventor wrote in 1914 in a letter to the South Kensington Museum in London. The director had asked him for authoritative information about an 1888 Benz Patent Motor Car which the museum had just acquired. “It was only after [Émile] Roger had made this innovation known in Paris and imported and sold several cars there […] that we were able to start production, and from then on, we had a lot of work,” wrote Benz.
The vehicle in question today belongs to the Science Museum in London and has been on temporary loan to the Dr Carl Benz automotive museum in Ladenburg since 2009. It is the oldest original automobile in the world.
In addition to running the Benz agency in Paris, Émile Roger took charge of international sales, having obtained exclusive distribution rights for France and all other foreign markets. As well as becoming the first agent for Benz motor cars, Roger had the distinction of selling the largest number of vehicles during these early days – including the vehicle that is today owned by the Science Museum. By 1893, the Benz firm had produced only 69 vehicles, but more than 60 per cent of them went to the French agent. By the beginning of the 20th century, Benz & Cie. was supplying about one third of its total production of 2,300 automobiles to France. Benz vehicles could be ordered all over the world. For example, in addition to its dealers in Vienna, Brussels, Basel, Milan, Moscow, and London, the brand had representatives in Barcelona, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Bucharest, Geneva, Cairo, Cape Town, Madrid, Melbourne, Mexico-City, Nijmegen, Oporto, Pretoria, Singapore, Stockholm, Torres-Vedras, Vevey, and Warsaw.
Daimler: sales through business partners
The export market was also the most important one for Gottlieb Daimler in the early days. Ever since his time as the technical manager of the Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz in the1870s, he had been on cordial terms with the Parisian lawyer Edouard Sarazin as a consequence of the latter’s role as co-owner of the “Compagnie Française des Moteurs à Gaz et des Constructions Mécaniques”. Sarazin followed Daimler’s activities with close interest. When the German inventor began experiments with the fast-running petrol engine in Cannstatt at the beginning of the 1880s, the lawyer visited him and was immediately impressed by Daimler’s ideas. The two friends agreed that, on completion of the new engines, Sarazin would import them to France: with nothing more than a handshake, he acquired the conditional rights to market all future Daimler inventions on French territory.
In accordance with the agreement, Sarazin arranged for Daimler’s patents, which had been registered in Germany in 1886, to be protected in France, too. In 1887, Sarazin initiated talks with businessman Émile Levassor on building the Daimler engines in France. He was already acquainted with Levassor, and with his partner René Panhard, from his student days at L’Ecole Centrale. Sarazin died of a kidney complaint at the end of 1887, but charged his wife with continuing to spread Daimler’s invention in France. Accordingly, Louise Sarazin wrote to Gottlieb Daimler, offering to continue her husband’s work in France. Writing to accept her offer, Daimler spoke of his “heartfelt gratitude,” and agreed the terms for the use of the Daimler patents in France with his new business partner. Production of the Daimler engines under licence was carried out by Levassor, as planned.
The World Exposition in Paris from May to October 1889 ensured the popularity of the high-speed petrol engine in France. A report on the World Exposition published in 1890 described the Daimler vehicle engine as a “most remarkable design”. It was clear that this was an opinion shared by other entrepreneurs. After the exposition, other French engineering works offered to build the Daimler products under licence. But Gottlieb Daimler kept his word. He had already agreed with Louise Sarazin on 5 February 1889 that she alone had the right to make use of all the French and Belgian patents. He imposed only two conditions: “Both parties must be able to make use of all measures taken by the two parties to improve and perfect the products; all products must bear my name and you shall not compete with me in other countries”.
A short time later, Louise Sarazin transferred all manufacturing rights to the firm of Panhard & Levassor in exchange for a licence fee of 20 per cent –12 per cent of which went to Daimler. “These agreements between Gottlieb Daimler and Madame Sarazin on the one hand, and between Madame Sarazin and Emile Levassor on the other, laid the foundations for the entire French automotive industry,” stated a commemorative publication by Daimler-Benz AG in 1950.
1888 – the beginnings in America
As early as summer 1888, Gottlieb Daimler and William Steinway, the owner of the New York piano making firm of the same name, established the “Daimler Motor Company” as a joint venture with headquarters in Long Island, New York. Daimler also assigned to Steinway the right to exploit his patents for engines and vehicles in the United States and Canada. Marketing was the first priority of the piano manufacturer with a penchant for combustion engines. He sent out brochures and showed Daimler’s inventions in a permanent exhibition. In 1891, in Hartford, Connecticut, it was under Steinway that “gasoline engines for automobiles were produced in the United States of America for the very first time” – to quote the plaque which was put up subsequently at the Hartford Underwood Works, and which also states that this was achieved “in accordance with the original Daimler blueprints.” It is said that, later that year, Henry Ford saw one of these petrol engines and was sufficiently impressed to abandon the idea of using steam engines to power self-propelled vehicles.


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    First ever competitive vehicle run from Paris to Rouen, 22 July 1894. Emile Roger in the 3-hp Benz Vis-à-Vis finished in 14th place. Drawing by Hans Liska dated 1960.
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    “General Agent for France, Belgium and America”: newspaper advertisement of “Mercedes Palace” in Paris, published around 1905.
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    Elegant interior: Mercedes sales outlet in Paris on the splendid Avenue de Champs Élysées, around 1910.
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    Modern flair in the fashion capital of the world: Mercedes-Benz in Paris, photographed around 1980.
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    Modern flair in the fashion capital of the world: Mercedes-Benz in Paris, photographed around 1980.
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    Early foreign production: Daimler Manufacturing Company on Long Island, New York, USA, photographed around 1895.
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    Assembly facility for the “American Mercedes” in New York, 1906: Daimler Motor Co. was set up to get around the high import duties and offer competitive prices.
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    Top product at a top location: Mercedes-Benz sales outlet in Paris at Avenue des Champs-Élysées 138, around 1928.
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    Address with a fine ring to it: C. L. Charley operated the “Mercedes Palace” sales outlet on Avenue de Champs Élysées in Paris (around 1905).
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    Early foreign production: Daimler Manufacturing Company on Long Island, New York, USA, photographed around 1895.
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    Two automotive pioneers in France around 1904/1906: seated at the wheel is C. L. Charley, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft agent in Paris. Emil Jellinek (on the right, with light-coloured hat) walks towards the car.
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    Advertisement for the American Mercedes, around 1906: production was organised in the USA to get around the high import duties and offer competitive prices.
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    Advertisement for the Benz Patent Motorcar, around 1888: Emile Roger handled foreign sales of the Mannheim cars in the early days.
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    Emile Levassor (at the front) and René Panhard in the first Daimler wire-wheel car delivered to France. Presented at the World Exposition in Paris in 1890.
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    Automotive pioneer in the New World: exhibitor’s passes of Gottlieb Daimler for the 1893 World Expo in Chicago, USA.
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    Race Paris – Bordeaux – Paris, 11 to 14 June 1895: Emile Roger (competitor’s number 13) came in eighth in a 4 hp Benz Vis-à-Vis.
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    “Maison Parisienne de Voitures Automobiles”: a Benz 6 hp delivery vehicle, built from 1898 to 1900, as advertising medium for an early dealership.
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    “This is the Handsomest Car in the World”: ad for the American Mercedes, published in 1907.