When Karl Benz applied for a patent on January 29, 1886, for his "vehicle with gas engine operation," little did he realize that his invention would change the world. Patent DRP 37435 is regarded as the birth certificate of the automobile. The Benz Patent Motor Car, test drives of which were already carried out in autumn 1885, was the world's first Automobile.

The first internal combustion engine automobile that performed with any degree of success is generally attributed to German engineer Karl Benz and was a spindly three-wheeler powered by a massive, horizontally-mounted, single-cylinder engine. Displacing 954 cc, it produced a modest .75 hp at a lazy 400 rpm. Although it retained certain features of the horse-drawn carriage, most notably its small front wheel and larger rear wheels, the first Benz was constructed on a lightweight tubular steel frame and used wire spoke wheels rather than a heavy wooden frame and artillery spoke wheels.

Steering was by means of a simple rack and pinion, connected to a tiller at the driver's end. In an era when horse-drawn transport predominated and even the humble bicycle was a novelty, the impact of the Benz Patent Motorwagen's first appearance on the streets of Mannheim on July 3, 1886, can only be imagined.

It was not until 20 years later that Benz realized the true significance of his first automobile. Retrieved from its resting place at the Mannheim works, the original Number 1 Patent Motor car was restored in 1906 and donated to the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

This faithful replica of the 1886 Benz is one of 90 or so manufactured by Mercedes-Benz in Germany in 2002/2003 and distributed by the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. Ordered by the vendor, its sole owner from new, the vehicle comes with all the correspondence between Mercedes-Benz USA and the owner concerning its commission and purchase. Also included in the sale is its promotional literature and specifications, and the replica comes with its original wooden shipping crate and custom-built trailer.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen Replica
Number Produced:211 (93 Bentley-marketed, 118 Daimler-marketed)
Original List Price:$50,000, Daimler examples $70,000
Tune Up Cost:Cost of a single spark plug
Chassis Number Location:Bentley-marketed cars, cross member behind seat bottom; Daimler-marketed cars, plate on lower center seat front
Engine Number Location:Cylinder base on engine
Club Info:Mercedes Benz Club of America, 1907 Lelaray Street, Colorado Springs, CO, 80909
Alternatives:Series Shelby Continuation Roadsters (aluminum only), Proteus or Lynx D-type Jaguar, Cunningham C-4R Continuation Roadster
Investment Grade:C

This 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen Replica sold for $49,725 at the Bonhams & Butterfields Brookline sale on April 21, 2007. In the interests of disclosure, I did not attend this sale, so I didn’t have the opportunity to inspect this lot myself. However, years ago, the then Collier Automotive Museum owned one of these nice replicas and we would occasionally run it, on the obligatory white gas, for our visitors.

There are a significant number of these Benz Motorwagen Replicas, and they have sold for approximately $50,000 year-in and year-out. Indeed, as their manufacturer, England’s John Bentley, always had an inventory of available cars, the secondary or resale market tracked the new-from-John-Bentley price exactly. Some years ago, John said he was thoroughly enjoying the irony that Daimler, after years of making life hard for him selling his “unauthorized,” violative-of- Daimler’s-Benz-trademark, stahlrad (“steel wheel”) replicas, had come to him for a run of identical replicas to be offered through their dealer franchisees and the Classic Center. This production John cheerfully undertook, operating under the motto, I infer, that happiness is cashing big checks.

Marginally functional

So what are these things and why would anyone spend $50,000-$60,000 to get one? First and foremost, I think we can dispense with the idea that anyone ever bought one of these beautiful and very expensive reproductions for use. Indeed, as a replica of “Patent Wagen No. 1,” and as close inspection of the replica objects themselves will show, No. 1 was marginally functional and took considerable refining before the Benz automobile was commercially viable, even in those days of relaxed attitudes toward automotive function.

As each of the replica Benzes is accurately fashioned after the original, there is no opportunity for consumer feedback to improve the breed, even over the decades these things have been on the market. Their primitiveness makes them unlicenseable for road use, and interestingly, Daimler sells them as 1:1-scale working models, rather than as automobiles, which supposedly allows them to avoid the pitfalls of product liability. Consequently, every Benz replica I’ve ever seen has been virtually unused and indistinguishable from new; hence the resale market price and the new market price are effectively one and the same.

Collectors of automobiles can be divided into two groups: those who collect primarily in order to use their acquisitions-the experiential group-and those who collect a set, or create order by illustrating a theme, or sheer possessiveness. Call them the contemplative group. Now this latter group is strongly attracted by the ability to achieve “completeness.” As kids they probably loved filling in all the slots in the coin collecting folders.

What’s not to like about No. 1?

I know this well, as much of my collecting is about ordering and relating one car to another for thematic or other “curatorial” motives. Consequently, what’s not to like about the “first” prototype car in commercial history? Fifty grand gets you an exquisitely crafted, hand-built, limited-production copy to serve as a prelude to whatever collection of old cars you want. Essentially, the feature car is a “Franklin Mint” modern collectible of no intrinsic historical value that stands as homage to the historic and unobtainable real thing-the car that started the world’s automotive industry. So, you ask, will these cars ever become true collectibles in their own right? I would have to say, no.

There are just too many such replicas, given the number of Daimler-Benz nuts (they’ve got the luxo sedan, they’ve got the sunglasses, they’ve got the silver windbreaker, now they can have the authorized instant collectible stahlrad wagen), or in my case, obsessive-compulsive time-series driven collectors who are happy to have a modern, museum-quality exhibit to make a pedagogical point in their collections.

And indeed, there is no practical limit to the number of these reproductions that could be produced in the future, being dependent solely on the intentions of Daimler’s Classic Center. Since the John Bentley first series and the Daimler-authorized second series are absolutely identical, the Daimler imprimatur adds nothing to the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen Replicas value.

In ten years worth the same

At the end of the day, the new owner bought one of any number of available reproduction cars, 99% of which can be found in brand new un-run condition, for a market correct $50,000. Ten years from now, corrected for inflation, I’d expect him to be able to sell the same car for the same $50,000. Unless a stahlrad wagen replica owner’s club forms and puts on a wine and cheese tour in Bordeaux that would make these cars the flavor of the month, they will always sell for the cost of production. And compared to most “instant” collectibles, that’s a smokin’ deal.

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