It takes technician Nathanael Lander a sweat-soaked hour to get the machine started as Pasadena's soaring heat and humidity foil his best attempts to find the proper fuel-air mix. "These were toys for the extremely wealthy," Lander says before giving the 75-pound cast-iron flywheel another futile heave. "Not to mention, you had to be really mechanically inclined to get one of these on the road."

Between huffing and puffing, Lander — who has a degree in historic automotive restoration — marvels at the plucky machine. "Everything in the modern car is in there," he says. "Benz just nailed it."

Finally, after prolonged fiddling, Lander gives the flywheel another spin and the engine catches fire, building slowly in rpm — whack! whack! whack! whack! — and gradually, Lander adjusts the amount of air going into the carburetor. While the engine is warming up, he shows me the controls. The steering is by way of a wooden-handle lever connected by a steering rack, more a tiller than a steering wheel. Because the engine runs at a constant speed — as opposed to a modern car, where the revolutions per minute rise and fall depending on the workload — the only other control is a long lever that engages the engine belt to the axle. To stop, you pull the lever back. This disengages the engine belt at the same time it cinches a circular brake pad around a drum.

With Lander's help, I mount the machine, using the little cast-iron step below the slatted floorboard for a leg up. The seat is comfortable, rather like a piano bench with arm rests. Carefully feathering the lever in my left hand — engaging the engine belt too quickly could kill the engine — I pull out into the street.

Wow. This thing is fun! I'm amazed at how lively the little tallyho is. When I swing the steering lever left and right, the carriage wriggles back and forth like a fish swimming upstream, the engine thumping merrily with a Mike Mulligan exuberance. It wants to go. At maximum engine speed (about 300 rpm) the engine is producing three-quarters of a horsepower (for reference, the average 750cc sport bike produces about 80 hp).

Another thing: Once you are seated you can't actually see much of the vehicle. At speed, it seems as though you are being conveyed along by some noisy, unseen force. This is the view of the road that hood ornaments have.

To the dog walkers and leaf blowers out on this sunny morning, the Patent Motorwagen must seem comically primitive, all whirring spokes and madcap machinery. With its polished brass reservoirs (coolant, fuel, carburetor) in the back, the Motorwagen looks as if it's assembled from a collection of Williams-Sonoma cookware.

It's hard for modern eyes to appreciate how advanced the Motorwagen was. This thing was the hyper-tech, code-black DARPA program of Imperial Germany.

For reference, consider the state of automotive art at the time. French inventors — with names like Bollee, Serpollet, Comte De Dion — were conceptually trapped by what they were familiar with: rail engineering. Their massive steam-powered devices were essentially trackless locomotives. The same imaginative hamstringing affected Gottlieb Daimler, another founding father of the automobile. With the help of the brilliant Wilhelm Maybach, Daimler had created his own motorwagen (his patent was issued a mere seven months after Benz's) but Daimler's machine was comparatively a behemoth, a four-seat rig with wooden cartwheels and huge exposed gears worthy of a clock tower. Literally, a horseless carriage.

Benz's machine — lightweight, nimble, essential — was a complete break from the past, the automobile qua automobile. It was a beautiful brass-and-steel dragonfly amid crows.

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. Voilà. 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