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From the Zeppelin Airship to the Motor Car

  • Success through a pioneering spirit and persistence
  • Setting the course early on for a broad ZF product portfolio
  • Flexible adaption to economic framework conditions

The dream of unlimited mobility on water, land, and in the air dominated technological progress at the start of the 20th century. New industry sectors and key technologies emerged, driven by the pioneering spirit and visions of technophiles, creative minds, and skilled inventors. Entrepreneurial know-how and the ability to reinvent itself over and over again was what founded the "Zahnradfabrik GmbH" based in Friedrichshafen on August 20, 1915. The object of the company, according to the entry on the commercial register, was to produce gears and transmissions for aircraft, motor vehicles, and motorboats.

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From the Zeppelin Airship to the Motor Car

The founding of ZF is closely linked to the pioneering efforts of Ferdinand Count Zeppelin and thus the era of early airship navigation. Count Zeppelin had already begun constructing steerable, powered rigid airships back in the 1890s. Although the airships were aimed at making civilian air flights a reality, they were primarily intended for use by the military as flying super weapons and for reconnaissance. On July 2, 1900, as the initial test flight of Count Zeppelin's first airship, the LZ 1, was launched in Manzell on Lake Constance, not far from Friedrichshafen, thousands of spectators flocked to the shores to watch the spectacle.

Disaster of Echterdingen

Despite all the euphoria surrounding the successful start of airship navigation, Count Zeppelin had to struggle with enormous difficulties: The first prototypes broke in gusts of wind, the engines proved to be unreliable, and the "flying cigars" were difficult to steer. Count Zeppelin did not have the funding to continue and the Berlin government only showed moderate interest in this new special weapon. On August 4, 1908, the fourth prototype LZ 4 took to the air for a 24-hour endurance flight to finally prove the zeppelin's suitability for military use. The flight started smoothly and the zeppelin proceeded along the Rhine towards Mainz. However, on the second day, the airship encountered engine problems and the flight had to be canceled: One of the crankshaft bearings had overheated and the LZ 4 flew to Echterdingen near Stuttgart in the hope of repairing the engines near the Daimler factories. An approaching storm ripped the airship from its mooring causing it to crash against a patch of trees where it then caught fire. Nobody was seriously injured yet the airship was completely destroyed.

The accident triggered a wave of national interest in the rigid airships and in the persistence of Count Zeppelin. An unprecedented fundraising campaign was launched and funds totaling over six million Reichsmark were collected all over Germany – an impressive starting capital which Count Zeppelin used to finance "Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH" which he founded in Friedrichshafen on September 8, 1908. The Zeppelin Foundation was also established to manage the collected funds with the original intention of promoting airship navigation. If one day this should prove no longer possible, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin included in the foundation's articles of association that the income from the foundation's assets should go to charitable causes.

Founding of "Zahnradfabrik GmbH"

In the summer of 1915, it seemed that Count Zeppelin had realized his dream. The military was using the airships for reconnaissance missions and dropping bombs. However, the zeppelins were still struggling with technical problems in the driveline. Heavy vibrations and an ear-splitting noise during power transmission pointed directly to the root of the problem: the design of the bevel gears was simply not up to the task.

Alfred Graf von Soden-Fraunhofen, head of the testing department at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, recruited the services of the Swiss engineer Max Maag in Zurich, who had developed a method for the production of mathematically accurate, ground gears. However, what Maag was missing were wealthy contracting parties. Count Zeppelin then induced Alfred Colsman, Director of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, to take up negotiations with Max Maag about the purchase of gear machining tools. His aim was to establish an independent gear factory.

Finally on August 20, 1915, following months of negotiations in the offices of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, Colsman and Maag signed the notarial agreement to establish the "Zahnradfabrik" as a close corporation with its headquarters in Friedrichshafen. The company was then entered on the commercial register at the district court in Tettnang on September 9, 1915. Count Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen and Theodor Winz were appointed as the general managers. The object of the company – as stipulated in the company agreement – was not limited to airship construction. From the very beginning, the ZF portfolio covered the entire spectrum of the "production of gears and transmissions for aircraft, motor vehicles, and motorboats". In spring 1916, the young company with 62 employees moved into a factory building in the Löwenthal district of Friedrichshafen and filed ten applications for patents, among which was the completely developed Soden transmission for automobiles.

Between war and peace

It took however two years before the first volume production gears and transmissions were ready for delivery. As ZF was not recognized as a critical wartime supplier, it became difficult for the company to receive the funding for urgently required personnel and material resources. Faced with the decision of either closing the company or finding essential wartime employment, ZF began developing non-reversing gears for airplane engines. The volume of orders continued to increase and both private investors and the military placed large orders. Production quickly ceased when the war ended in 1918. The signing of the Versailles Treaty deprived the German aviation industry of its basis. There was no market any more for the airplane and airship transmissions developed and made ready for production.

Conversion to a corporation

ZF found itself in a fundamental dilemma at the end of the war: Although machinery and equipment were of high quality, post-war production was only reaching a level of 20 percent. At the same time, the young company was suffering from the crippling burden of debt which scared off potential investors and banks. Both companies – Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH and Maag Zahnräder- und Maschinen AG – were no longer prepared to invest more money in the business. For this reason, Colsman suggested in March 1921 converting the close corporation into a corporation in order to release funds on the capital market.

In June 1921, the "Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen Aktiengesellschaft" was entered in the commercial register as a corporation. The original capital of the company amounted to five million Reichsmarks, of which four million Reichsmarks were held by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH and one million Reichsmarks was held by the Maag Zahnräder- und Maschinen AG, Zurich. Gustav Habermaas and Alfred Graf von Soden-Fraunhofen were appointed as Board members. Count Soden held this position until his death in 1944.

Rising quantities with vehicle transmissions

An economic recovery – albeit a sluggish one to start – helped an automotive industry to emerge in the 1920s. The quality of the gears and transmissions manufactured for cars according to the Maag production method was truly unique on the German market. However, ZF had to struggle with difficulties selling complete transmissions as vehicle manufacturers also had the ambition to develop and produce their own transmissions. In order to survive as a supplier, ZF adapted to the varied wishes of the small automotive manufacturers, which often demanded complete reproductions of their models. The consequences of this were high customer services, considerable startup costs, and small volume productions.

In spite of the slim prospects in terms of selling their own transmissions, ZF launched in 1919 a simple 3-speed transmission under the name "8-PS-Autogetriebe" (8 HP car transmissions) that – despite several small customers – never reached volume production status. Even the Soden transmission that the company exhibited at the Berlin Motor Show in 1921 was never produced in large quantities. A total of 75 manufacturers fitted their models with the four-gear preselector transmission, however, they only produced a small number of vehicles.

The situation had improved significantly by 1925 when ZF launched a "standard transmission" for passenger cars and commercial vehicles at the Berlin Motor Show under the slogan "Uniformity Instead of Variety". The transmission was designed to be produced in large volumes. Efficient production, a low price, and standardized spare parts were convincing arguments for the manufacturers and contributed to the success of the standard transmission: By the 1930s, ZF had produced a total of 300 000 models.

Focus on automotive technology

This era was associated with a restructuring of the business: ZF now regarded itself primarily as a supplier for the automotive industry – including commercial vehicle technology and special applications – the company's beginnings in the aviation industry began to fade. Although the transmissions were still manufactured for the "Hindenburg" and other civilian Zeppelin airships under the auspices of ZF, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH still held control over the design and construction. In contrast, ZF expanded its portfolio to include "on the ground" products: In 1932 with the launch of its steering technology and in 1937 with the production of transmissions for tractors.