Benz vs. BMW: A Century of Out-Inventing Each Other

A timeline of automotive ingenuity.

In March, BMW marked its centennial—and a century of technological rivalry with Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz. In newspaper ads, Benz, which can lay claim to having invented the car in 1886, congratu-mocked its Bavarian archenemy: “Thanks for 100 years of competition. The 30 years before that were a little dull.” That’s like M-B doing doughnuts on BMW’s driveway. Here, a timeline of the two companies trading pole position for automotive supremacy.

1886: Karl Benz creates the Patent-Motorwagen, widely accepted to be the first automobile.

1886: Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach retrofit a stagecoach with a gasoline engine.

1900: Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) builds the Mercedes 35 PS, a car named for a customer’s daughter.

1901: Daimler receives a patent for the honeycomb radiator, still the basis for water-cooled engines.

1916: BMW’s predecessor, aircraft maker Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW), is founded.

1921: A young DMG employee, Ferdinand Porsche, helps build the first supercharger.

1923: Banned from building aircraft or their engines by the Treaty of Versailles, BMW makes the R32, its first motorcycle.

1925: BMW’s R37 and R39 motorcycles fit production engines with cylinder heads made of lighter, cooler-running aluminum.

1926: Mssrs. Daimler and Benz merge their companies: Mercedes-Benz is born.

1929: After six years of motorcycles, BMW begins making the 3/15, its first production car, based on Britain’s Austin 7.

1931: Ditching less-responsive solid axles, the Mercedes-Benz 170 is the first car with four-wheel independent suspension.

1932: BMW releases its first fully original car design, the BMW AM1. (Although the body is made by Daimler-Benz.)

1936: The world’s first diesel car, the Mercedes-Benz 260D, hits the road.

1954: It’s more famous for its gull-wing doors, but the Mercedes-Benz 300SL is the first production car to have fuel injection.

1956: To compete with the 300SL, BMW releases the 507. While prized today, the car is a market failure and moves BMW toward bankruptcy. Three years later, the company nearly sells itself to Mercedes-Benz.

1972: While a 1-year-old Elon Musk is grabbing his toes, BMW brings its all-electric concept car, the 1602e, to the Munich Olympics.

1973: BMW releases the 2002 Turbo, one of the first cars to feature a turbocharged engine.

1978: Mercedes-Benz offers an electronic antilock brake system on its S-Class sedan, beating BMW to market.

1982: Mercedes-Benz’s 190E is the first production car to have a multilink rear suspension.

1985: At the Frankfurt Auto Show, Mercedes unveils its all-wheel-drive system, 4Matic. BMW does one better, selling an all-wheel-drive version of its 3 Series sedan, the 325iX.

1988: BMW stuffs a mammoth 12-cylinder engine into its 7 Series sedan. Three years later, Mercedes does the same.

1988: Just to see if it can, BMW tests a 16-cylinder engine in the 767 Goldfish. The car is never approved for production.

1995: Electronic Stability Program—an anti-skid technology that’s now mandated on all vehicles by U.S. law—first appears on a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

1996: The world’s first voice-recognition system appears in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

1997: Sensing a market shift toward SUVs, Mercedes starts selling the M-Class. BMW brings one out two years later.

1997: At the Tokyo Auto Show, Mercedes unveils a concept limo called the Maybach, meant to compete with Rolls-Royce.

1998: BMW buys Rolls-Royce.

1998: Daimler starts selling the Smart Fortwo, a two-seat microcar for city driving.

1999: If 12 cylinders is cool, then … Mercedes considers packing 24 into its Maybach limo, but ultimately settles for a 12-cylinder model.

2000: Tapping its motorcycle heritage, BMW starts selling the C1, a partially enclosed scooter for city driving.

2001: BMW unveils iDrive, an onboard computer system that uses a rotary controller, in its flagship 7 Series. It’s widely panned.

2001: The BMW-owned Mini brand shows its new small car, the Mini Hatch/Hardtop, at the Detroit Auto Show. The car becomes a huge sales success.

2003: Mercedes-Benz produces the world’s first seven-speed automatic transmission.

2005: Committed to the same rotary-controller strategy that bedeviled BMW’s iDrive, Mercedes adds a similar system to its flagship S-Class. It’s also widely panned.

2005: BMW unveils the Hydrogen 7, a version of the company’s 7 Series sedan featuring an engine that can run on gasoline or compressed hydrogen.

2011: BMW displays a concept electric car, the i3, at the Frankfurt Auto Show.

2015: Mercedes-Benz’s advanced research vehicle, the F 015, presents a vision of a driverless future with swiveling conference-style seats.

2016: BMW shows off its concept Vision Next 100, offering a glimpse of controls based on motion sensors and Iron Man-esque displays.

Credit: Courtesy BMW Archive (1); Courtesy BMW Group (6); Courtesy Daimler AG (5); Courtesy Mercedes-Benz (4)

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