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Before the Rumble Seat

The weekly auto review takes a giddy spin down the streets of Pasadena in the world's first vehicle -- and reflects on an era when wheels like these first touched the pavement.

June 21, 2006|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

Actually, as Benz himself found out, his contraption could be a little too much fun. The first thing he did during testing was to crash it into a brick wall. Also, because of the inherent instability of a three-wheel configuration, the Motorwagen will happily tip over if you corner with too much speed. I'm at the controls only a couple of minutes before I corner hard enough to pick up the inside rear wheel. Whooaaa!

WHAT'S even more remarkable is that the Benz Motorwagen is so recognizably a car, comprising technical antecedents of the machines we know today.

Though compared to modern engines Benz's one-cylinder number has a diagrammatic simplicity, it works the same. It's liquid cooled, for instance. There's a flywheel and a crankshaft. On the belt drive's shaft is an oblong steel lobe -- a cam. As it rotates, it causes a rod to saw back and forth, opening and closing a small window between the cylinder and the carburetor, thereby admitting the fuel-air charge into the cylinder. This is the intake valve. The lobe also actuates a pushrod that operates the exhaust valve, a poppet-style device just like ones in a 2007 Mercedes-Benz engine.

Meanwhile, another lobe on the belt drive shaft opens and closes a switch that fires the spark plug at the right moment in the combustion cycle. Voila. Ignition timing.

If it sounds as if it would take an expert machinist to operate it, well, Benz might have thought so too, until his wife borrowed the family car without telling him. On a summer morning in August 1888, Bertha Benz got up early, loaded her sons Eugen and Richard on board and set out in the Motorwagen for her mother's house in Pforzheim, a journey of some 50 miles. Karl Benz awoke to find a note his wife had left saying she was going to visit Grandma. He must have been panicked. The Motorwagen had never been tested for more than a few miles.

That evening, Bertha wired Karl to say they had arrived safely. But not, as it turned out, without incident. Bertha was obliged to clean out a clogged fuel line with her hatpin and mend an ignition wire with one of her garters. When the brake shoe started to give way, she stopped at a farrier's in Bauschlott for a block of leather to replace it. In Wiesloch, she stopped at an apothecary to fill up on benzene (this pharmacy still bills itself as the world's first filling station). And so it happened that the world's first motorist was, in fact, a woman.

THE automobile was fun. It was easy. It was clean and indefatigable. Unlike a horse, it had no mind of its own -- though owners of some British sports cars would argue that point. Perhaps most important, the invention of the automobile coincided with the discovery and exploitation of the planet's vast endowment of oil, the buried recrudescence of life on Earth a billion years in the making. Oil, too, had a hand in shaping Los Angeles.

What I think about as I pilot the little park bench along the streets of Pasadena -- whack! whack! whack! whack! -- is the fantastic history that played out after the Motorwagen, the pandemic of mechanical art and ingenuity it inspired. I'm overwhelmed by a sense of incipience, and also a touch of remorse. The automobile has not been the unalloyed blessing that Benz might have hoped. It may be that the automobile was too fun, easy and delightful for our own good.


1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen

Original price: 600 imperial Deutsche marks for the prototype

Price, as tested: about $60,000

Powertrain: Gas-powered 0.954-liter, four-stroke, water-cooled one-cylinder horizontal engine with open crankcase and cast-iron flywheel; pushrod actuated, with sliding intake valve and poppet exhaust valves; belt-drive to countershaft with idle and fixed disc and integrated differential; rear-wheel drive with fixed-ratio chain drive.

Horsepower: 0.75 at 400 rpm

Curb weight: 584 pounds

0-18 mph: 45 seconds

Wheelbase: 57 inches

Overall length: 106.3 inches

Height: 57.1 inches

Fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon

Final thoughts: A star is born

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