ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES

Did you know that UMS Technologies in Coimbatore builds and sell a near-perfect replica of the first car ever — the Benz Patentwagen?What’s it like to drive? Shapur Kotwal tells you.

By Shapur Kotwal, Autocar India calendar 29 Jan 2016 Views icon6895 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES

Did you know that UMS Technologies in Coimbatore builds and sell a near-perfect replica of the first car ever — the Benz Patentwagen? What is it like to drive? Shapur Kotwal tells you. 

There’s no starter or starting handle. To fire it up, you have to spin the fly wheel... and eventually, after a few tugs, it fires. Idle is slow and a bit lumpy, and because it’s a single cylinder, you can hear every power stroke: phut, phut, phut, phut; one every couple of seconds or so, each accompanied by a tiny puff of white smoke. And unlike a modern car, it has a soft, friendly steam engine-like puff that, for all practical purposes, could be coming from a giant tea kettle. “Saar, Saar,” the mechanic gesticulates, encouraging me to mount up, as he holds the reins of the horseless carriage.

One small step for man. Yes, it was, because what else did the astronauts do on the moon but drive a car! Anyway, I step up via a spade-like foot-peg, settle down on the nice park bench and await instructions. A few adjustments and a couple of minutes later, we are finally all set to go. But how?

It turns out the controls are dead simple. Steering is by a bicycle-like handle bar, but via a rack-like setup, which presumably makes it a bit easier to steer. It is sensitive, but more on that later. Then I realise something else – there are no pedals. How do you go, and, more importantly, how do you stop? There is a stagecoach-like handbrake lever on my left, which is currently being held back by a mechanic, but nothing else. Then comes the instruction: push it gently forward and the brake disengages. Push further and you can increase engine speed. Simple, easy, anyone can do it.

But can I? I’m already planning a swift exit via the side if the brakes don’t slow it down effectively. Remember, in a carriage, it’s the horse that does most of the stopping; so naturally, I’m petrified. Then, as instructed, I push the lever forward gingerly. The brake slowly disengages, I feel it roll gently forward and then the Patentwagen begins to inch ahead slowly under power, the single-cylinder motor beginning to run a bit quicker. Pushing the lever forward a bit more, I eventually get it to move past walking pace, which actually is quite a thrill. I can feel the wind in my face and it feels fast enough to keep up with a trotting horse. What must it have felt like to keep up with a horse-drawn carriage, without a horse? There’s a long stretch ahead, so I push the lever forward a bit more, and the pace picks up again. Now we’re cantering, the wind rushing past and the carriage rumbling and rocking sideways over the slightly bumpy surface like a train on a track. It’s amazing, but 0.9bhp seems to be quite sufficient.

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The lane we are on, however, joins the main highway a hundred metres ahead – a good time to start braking. I pull the lever back and, initially, nothing. After a second or two, though, it does feel like we are slowing down, but I can’t be sure. But then we begin to stop, albeit slowly. Eventually, we come to a halt. Still, I’m sweating bullets, and it isn’t just the Coimbatore heat.

What is truly eye-opening, however, is that this car, designed in 1886 and reproduced faithfully here in India for export and sale to collectors all around the world, actually works. Of course, it has serious limitations; some unsurmountable. Even gentle slopes, for example, pose a huge challenge and are really difficult to climb. Try it from zero speed and the single-cylinder engine slows down under the load and eventually stalls. The only way up, as I discover later, is to zig-zag so as to reduce the incline. Then you need to regularly add water to the cone-like cooling device above the piston, and it often needs a bit of oil too; especially as this engine has no crankcase. The brakes do work better at lower speeds, but that’s only because a modified version of the brake shoe has been used – this one uses a strip of leather for better bite! And that was invented by Bertha Benz, wife of Carl, on the type III version when out on a long drive But it’s a ‘Mercedes’, or at least a forefather, so it rides pretty well, despite having no air in the solid rubber tyres and no front suspension, which, frankly, is pretty amazing.

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But how does it all work? Let’s look at the purpose-built tubular chassis first. Built of steel tubing, it cradles the engine and has the various bits bolted to it. Suspension at the rear is handled by leaf springs, common back in the day for horse-drawn carriages, and when you want to brake, the aforementioned strip of leather pulls itself tightly around a circular drum, placed at the centre of the spinning axle. The single-cylinder engine is horizontally located and faces forward, with the 90x150mm piston ahead and the exposed crank at the rear. The cylinder is cooled by a water jacket via a conical brass reservoir that sits on top. Air is let into the piston via a simple tube with holes, controlled by the lever on the left of the driver. The correct amount of fuel is let in by a huge drum-shaped carburettor, and a spark ignites the fuel and air mixture, making power. No modern-day car, however, can compare with it for one thing – will you just look at those massive wheels? They’re 44-inchers, hah!

What a colossus Carl Benz’s Patentwagen must have been back in 1886! Fundamentally different from everything else at the time, it established that the motor car, or auto car, was workable, practical and here to stay. Easy to drive, dependable by the standards of the time and truly unique, this was the invention that changed the world: right up there with the discovery of fire, agriculture, the first aircraft and modern-day computing. In terms of automotive anthropology, this was Adam, and when you drive it, you can almost hear a loud booming voice say, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory”.

The long drive home

The Benz Patentwagen doesn’t just boast many mechanical firsts, it also boasts some interesting others. In August 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of inventor Carl, for instance, also undertook the first long-distance drive in an automobile ever, when she drove to her mother’s place in Pforzheim, approximately 100km away. She told her husband nothing of the journey, only taking her two sons Richard (14) and Eugen (15) along. They pushed the Mark III version of the Patentwagen out, so as to not awaken Carl, only starting it up when they were a good distance from the house. The journey, as you can expect, wasn’t easy.

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The boys had to get off and push on uphill sections, Bertha had to clean the carburettor with her hatpin and even her garter came in use — as insulation! Still, the journey progressed well and by afternoon they had covered a good distance. Along the way, Bertha invented brake linings. She asked a cobbler to make a leather-lined brake ‘shoe’ for better grip, and she also made the first fuel stop ever — at a chemist (as seen in the accompanying illustration).

The trio eventually reached late in the evening, covered in grime, but elated to have made the journey, and history. The papers the next day were full of the adventure, and automobile hasn’t looked back ever since.

Bertha and her sons stop by at a chemist along the 100km-plus route  to top up on ‘fuel’.

fact-sheet

Recommended: 29 January, 1886 -- Birth of the automobile 130 years ago

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