Most historians consider Germany to be the birthplace of automotive engineering, since Benz and Otto started their experiments with four-stroke internal combustion engines in the late 1870s. By the turn of the century, Germany was ahead of the curve, with about 900 cars a year being produced. Advances like overhead cams, disc brakes, multi-valve setups, fuel injection, superchargers and sophisticated steering and suspensions were all coming from Germany (and Germany’s racing heritage) decades before other countries and manufacturers were fielding such innovations.
The Depression and WWII decimated the German automotive industry, but by the 1950s Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Benz were once again breaking new ground and introducing classic designs. As with American manufacturers, many advances from military technology were incorporated into automotive designs; the results were some truly high-performance sports cars, refined luxury cars and world-class sports sedans. Volkswagen’s pre-WWII Beetle proved to be a big wedge into the American and world market; the charming little coupe was robust, practical, economical and simple, and by the 1960s had become a true cult favorite in the United States. The rear-engine, air-cooled design (with independent rear suspension) soon became the basis for the Porsche 356 and 911, and Germany’s stature in the world market was cemented. The 80s, 90s and 2000s saw huge strides forward in German automobiles, with manufacturers setting up more factories and distribution in the United States, Asia and South America and introducing affordable, efficient, well-built cars to go up against their competition from Japan and the United States.
The German Automotive Industry Today
Today, five companies and seven brands dominate the automotive industry in Germany; Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche, Opel, BMW, Daimler-Benz and Ford-Werke. Along with the six million vehicles produced domestically each year, German manufacturers build about 5.5 million cars overseas. Cars are now the number one export from Germany, and the industry is one of the prime drivers of the German economy. German firms lead the field in efforts to develop more-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles, with innovations in materials, systems and alternative engine types. German manufacturers are leading the way in environmental technologies, in particular the reduction of carbon emissions.
So when you climb into your Porsche, VW, Audi, Benz or BMW and turn the key, you can take a minute and think about how you’re benefiting from decades of forward-thinking engineering, meticulous craftsmanship and compelling design.