From Airships To Transmissions: Building A German Gear-Making Machine
Friedrichshafen, Germany, is an engineering community that was made famous in the early 1900s during the development of lighter-than-air aircraft. The most well-known entity that came from that town went on to become the global drivetrain component manufacturer ZF. But long before ZF built the manual transmissions found in every Power Stroke and Duramax pickup, the ZF Group got its start engineering and producing precision gears for Zeppelin aircraft and other airships.
Zahnradfabrik Means Gear Factory
When ZF was originally founded, it was dubbed Zahnradfabrik, the German word for gear factory. The company was born out of a need for precision aircraft parts by a retired German general named Count Zeppelin. Zeppelin wanted to vastly improve the transmission of motorized power to his airships’ propellers, and higher-tolerance precision cogwheels were needed. Zeppelin’s engineers approached Max Maag, a Swiss engineer from Zurich, Switzerland, who had developed the technology needed in his machine tooling operations.
August 20, 1915 saw the beginnings of ZF, a private concern, begun by Count Zeppelin and Max Maag. Another well-known engineer of this period, Alfred von Soden-Fraunhofen, was added to the staff due to his reputation as an automotive engineer from Daimler.
With more than 40 pieces of equipment brought in from Max Maag’s concern, ZF began producing the cog components and transmissions needed for Zeppelin’s diesel-powered airships. Zeppelin had envisioned global airship travel, but the hostilities of WWI demanded otherwise. Despite the wartime conditions, 1916 saw the young firm record 10 patents for new mechanical devices.
Obviously, at war’s end in 1918, with the Allies severely punishing the Kaiser’s regime and the Versailles Treaty in 1919, the remnants of the concern found themselves forced into the civilian automotive market. Parts and components utilized for German aviation in any form were forbidden. Qualified and educated staff was in short supply, and precision machinery and raw materials were almost impossible to obtain.
Though Soden immediately launched a ZF automotive engineering and production division, other severe limits were placed on the struggling firm. Allied military overseers imposed a manufacturing limit of 75 transmission assemblies per day. ZF managed to continue in spite of horrid inflation through a severe postwar recession. More than 19 machines were somehow added to allow for the production of the Soden pre-selector gearbox, a semi-automatic transmission designed and engineered by the CEO himself. This new gearbox featured a shift lever mounted on the dashboard. The novel device was priced beyond the means of the average motorist, and was thus dropped.
In 1925, the company launched its basic Einheitsgetriebe, a standardized gearbox that led to the sale of more than 300,000 units. Its success led to the launch of a quieter Aphon unit, which first appeared in Germany’s Auto Union Horch (which went on to become Audi) eight-cylindered sports convertible in 1929.
The Great Depression in the United States affected struggling economies in Europe as well. Although Germany’s economic and industrial industries were able to bring airship service to South America, its struggling economy back in the motherland created a jobless atmosphere that allowed Hitler to come to power in 1933. His first act was to establish a massive road-building program. Motorization was also increased, and as a result, ZF entered the steering systems business with units produced under license from the American company Ross Steering (which later became part of TRW).
By 1934, ZF launched its first synchronized four-speed transmission for automobiles. Three years later, ZF employed 3,500 people, operated three manufacturing plants, and became a transmission leader in Europe.
The End of Airships
In 1937, less than a year after the launch of the largest airship to date, the Hindenburg (LZ 129) tragedy in New Jersey brought ZF’s airship development to a halt. The company immediately shifted design, engineering, and production toward transmissions for the tractor and ship markets.
ZF also found itself embroiled in another war when German troops marched into Poland in 1939. New hostilities meant the company was again under strict government control. Transmission production for tanks and military trucks consumed manufacturing capacity until the main Friedrichshafen facilities were destroyed and eventually taken over by the French in 1945.
The French were determined to dismantle and destroy ZF and the Zeppelin companies. By the end of 1946, the French military had shut down both ZF and the Luftschiff Zeppelin airship manufacturer.
Publicly Owned Rebirth
The remainder of ZF’s management decided to renegotiate with the Allies, and as a result, the company began to clear away the rubble in Friedrichshafen and resume transmission output for trucks and tractors. Company facilities in Schwabisch Gmund resumed steering component production, and facilities in Passau began producing engines for tractors.
Other big changes occurred in 1947. The Zeppelin Foundation had specified from its beginnings that if the company’s original purpose of “the promotion of airship transportation” were to diminish or fall through, company ownership would revert to the city of Friedrichshafen. In addition, the company would also be administered by the city, under the name of the Zeppelin Foundation, with use of its revenues for social and charitable purposes. In short, ZF now had a new majority stockholder.
The postwar years were tough in Germany and the company thus allowed farming on its properties. A unique, one-person automobile dubbed the Champion was briefly produced by ZF. But the best news the employees got in 1948 was that the company had been removed from the government dismantle list. Two years later, the Berlin factory began operations.