Henschel Kassel plant
19.08.2010 - 01:00

German version

Henschel Kassel plant
  • An eventful existence: the Kassel plant replaced the Henschel star with the Mercedes star in 1969
  • Beginnings as a gun and bell foundry
  • Major success with locomotives and commercial vehicles
  • Now Europe's largest axle plant

The "Dragon" - the first locomotive made by Henschel

Today the Kassel plant employs some 3000 staff, with a product range that includes axles for all kinds of commercial vehicles. Kassel is Europe's largest axle plant.

Yet this specialisation is a fairly recent phenomenon. Moreover, the history of the plant – due to celebrate its 200th anniversary next year – could hardly be more colourful. For well over 150 years its history has been associated with the name Henschel, a name that is as illustrious today as it always was: back in the 18th century, the Henschels ran their own foundry business. And in 1810, Georg Christian Carl Henschel set up the business in Kassel we now know as the "Mercedes-Benz Kassel plant". The same business has well over 10 million axles to its name – axles that are used on the most disparate vehicles bearing the star on the radiator grille.

Interlude involving bridge and shipbuilding

The Henschel Foundry in Kassel started out life with a range of disparate products including bells and guns. Things took off quickly in the early days of industrialisation: the plant employed 200 staff in 1837, with the company constantly looking to move into new business segments. Only a few years after its foundation, the company's remit encompassed mechanical engineering, bridge and shipbuilding, including everything right through to the fully-fledged steamship, which Henschel launched as an inland vessel under the affable name "Eduard" in 1848.

Meanwhile, Henschel christened its first locomotive with the fairly dramatic albeit uninspired choice of “Drache” (dragon). A mere five years later, its older brother "Eduard" would stomp out of the workshops, opening up another major chapter in the history of the Kassel plant. The early days of locomotive production may well have appeared modest. Yet over the next 30 years Henschel would produce more than 1000 locomotives; by the time of the production site's centenary in 1910, production had increased a staggering tenfold – the 10,000th locomotive was being built in the Henschel workshops. The factory was now running full steam ahead: the total number of Henschel locomotives produced then quickly doubled to 20,000 units in 1923.

However, the severe economic downturn and inflation brought the booming business to a sudden stop. 1924 saw just 100 firm orders, while in 1925 new orders came to a grinding halt. Oscar Robert Henschel – just 25 at the time and set to be the last member of the Henschel family in charge in Kassel – took over the company reins in this challenging environment.

Move into the commercial vehicle business provided lifeline

Oscar Henschel resolutely got down to work. In 1924, he extended the product range to include road-building machinery. 1925 saw the introduction of truck production, with the company manufacturing its first truck the same year. It was based on a licence from the Swiss truck manufacturer FBW (Franz Brozincevic based in Wetzikon), came with a five-tonne payload and a 50-hp engine. In the same year, Henschel extended its truck line-up with a seasoned range of trucks boasting a payload of between three and six tonnes. At the same time, the company also brought out its first bus designed to carry 24 passengers.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, Henschel concentrated increasingly on building locomotives and commercial vehicles. In 1930, the family business took over, among other things, the locomotive manufacturing operations of Linke-Hofmann-Busch in Wrocław. And long before Henschel and Hanomag would join forces in the commercial vehicle sector, Henschel took over locomotive production from Hanomag in Hanover in 1931.

Henschel's first truck

Innovations all along the line

As part of commercial vehicle production, Henschel caused a stir with innovations such as a patented cab with a bunk (1929) or a hydraulically operated tipper (1930). The first Henschel three-axle vehicle dubbed “Querfeldein” (cross-country) came onto the scene in 1928, with an illustrious career ahead of it: the Wehrmacht would order 22,000 units between 1933 and 1945. Incidentally, the six-pointed star, later the hallmark of all Henschel trucks, would only adorn wheel hubs, brochures and letterheads through to the 1930s. It originally came from the coat of arms of the wife of Carl Anton Henschel, Oscar Robert Henschel's predecessor.

250 hp from two six-cylinder petrol engines installed in parallel ultimately caused a sensation in 1931. The powerpack was designed for the touring coach, which would grace the emerging motorway network, en route to what would be some great days. In 1931, Henschel simultaneously embarked on its own engine development programme, opting for the Lanova process from Munich-based engineer Franz Lang. This process involved a combination of direct-injection unit and divided-chamber engine – a superior solution that dispensed with preheating.

Henschel 35 H 3 with 250 hp

Henschel's commercial vehicle range grew and thrived, not least on the back of a strong economic upswing. A six-cylinder diesel engine developing 125 hp was the result of the efforts to produce their own engine. And that engine would power a wide range of vehicles like the three-axle 36 J 3, the six-tonne 6 J, the two and three-axle 4 J 5 and 35 J 3 buses as well as a semitrailer tractor with a gross vehicle weight of up to 36 tonnes: a semitrailer towing two trailers paved the way for a seven-axle trailer combination.

Aviation and alternative drive systems

Henschel then moved into aviation from 1933 onwards. At the same time, the company built the first high-pressure fast locomotive and the first electric single-axle locomotive (Henschel had already started building electric locomotives in 1905). Two years later the Henschel commercial vehicle range comprised trucks with a payload between 2.5 and 10.90 tonnes. And there were also buses for 20 to 60 passengers. Steam and wood-gas-powered cars as well as trolleybuses were also part of the range.

Steam trucks Henschel

The very latest developments in aerodynamics determined the appearance of the four-tonne 38 S in 1935, powered by a seven-litre 95-hp six-cylinder engine. For the first time the radiator was angled and the edges of the cab rounded. Henschel would subsequently adopt this design in the following year on all its light-duty fast trucks, which were also fitted with more powerful engines. This stylish front would also characterise the front of all buses and coaches after 1935.

Henschel truck 38 S

Motorway coaches with a drop-shaped design

The streamlined motorway coaches made a truly spectacular statement: based on the aerodynamic know-how of the day, the drop shape was seen as the ideal design to keep drag down to a minimum. In 1936, the German National Railway set up its first motorway coach route between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. A year later, 32 routes had already sprung up. In 1938, the operator's fleet included 120 high-speed touring coaches with the drop-shape-like design, including the rounded Henschel 38 S 3 N and 40 S 3 N models. But the problem of high-speed touring could not be resolved solely by modifying the shape. Rather it was the engines that proved the weak point: the seven-litre units on the high-speed coaches produced a mere 95 hp.

Henschel had three solutions up its sleeve: in 1935, the plant launched its first 15-litre eight-cylinder diesel unit developing 170 hp; 1936 saw a 31-litre 12-cylinder twin engine developing 330 hp unveiled at the International Car and Motorcycle Exhibition (IAMA) in Berlin. The third unit in the line-up proved more modest: the six-cylinder unit with a displacement of 15.5 litres and an output of 150 hp presented in 1938, which was primarily designed for the six-tonne 6 U 20. This truck was normally used for long-distance haulage, configured to tow a three-axle trailer.

Streamlined Omnibus by Henschel

Target for Allied bombers

The next few years were spent manufacturing large quantities of goods destined for the war effort – a period that would result in a great deal of hardship. The plant manufactured tanks, making it a prime target for the Allied bomber groups. When the US army occupied Kassel in 1945, 80 percent of the plant lay in ruins, although it still had 15,000 staff on its books. Following the end of the war, Henschel was licensed to repair locomotives, trucks, buses and coaches, but could no longer manufacture commercial vehicles for the time being.

Meanwhile the company faced the threat of a break-up. Commercial vehicle production ended up – under government control – as part of "Hessische Industrie- und Handel-GmbH" (Hessia). This company converted many of the military trucks remaining in Germany from petrol to diesel engines. The full-blown Henschel relaunch came about in 1949: Oscar Robert Henschel regained control of the company, starting off with the six-tonne HS 140 and the legendary Bimot coach (two facing engines, each developing 95 hp), with a Bimot semitrailer tractor soon to follow.

Henschel Bimot-Bus

1950s: dazzling array of new models

Development continued with a dazzling array of new models in the 1950s. Orders for locomotives – still a key sector for Henschel – were received from every corner of the globe. Henschel trolleybuses joined the line-up along with other models produced in cooperation with the bodybuilders at Waggonfabrik Uerdingen. These were followed by the HS 100 truck and the HS 115 with all-wheel drive, the HS 120 and the heavy-duty HS 170 truck, plus a bus chassis with a 200-hp underfloor engine. So-called tram trucks with an engine in the cab were produced alongside cab-over-engine buses and coaches with a light-alloy shell design and the powerful three-axle all-wheel-drive HS 3-180 dump truck. Henschel developed air-sprung trucks, buses and coaches.

But it was also in this period that the company faced its first major crisis. Still under the management of the majority shareholder Oscar R. Henschel, the renowned company faced insolvency in 1957, having to seek court protection from its creditors. With help from the national and regional governments, a rescue company was set up to save Henschel.

Henschel HS 200 UN

Exit of the Henschel family

The era of Dr Fritz-Aurel Goergen dawned. He came from one of the successor companies in the broken-up Thyssen group, initially assuming the position of chair of the Supervisory Board, before becoming chairman of the company a year later. The Henschel family finally severed its ties with the company. Goergen, Herbert Coutinho and three banks took over the partners' interests. Massive cutbacks followed − including the end of steam locomotive production and the takeover of the former aero engine plant by VW − after which Henschel soon prospered again. In the anniversary year 1960, the workforce totalled 13,500 (at the end of 1958: 8000); revenue in the two years after 1958 had also doubled to 400 million marks. Right on cue for its anniversary on 15 October 1960, Henschel produced its 50,000th commercial vehicle.

In 1961, Henschel took over the locomotive department of Maschinenfabrik Esslingen; the remaining parts of Maschinenfabrik Esslingen would in turn be transferred to the ownership of the then Daimler-Benz AG in 1965. In 1961, Henschel came up with its amazing all-new line-up of cab-over-engine and cab-behind-engine models; these sensational models came from the drawing board of designer Louis Lepoix. He introduced a modular system: more than two thirds of the parts of the cab-over-engine and cab-behind-engine models were identical.

Henschel went its own way: a collaborative venture – initially agreed for 25 years – with the French brand Saviem ended after just two years. Similarly, cooperation with the UK brand Commer involving light-duty trucks and large vans brought limited success; even before then the light-duty Henschel HS 90 and HS 95 trucks had failed to live up to expectations.

Henschel-Commer HC HC 10 TL

Just how dynamically and resourcefully Goergen managed the business became clear in 1963: Henschel was the first German vehicle manufacturer to offer its customers leasing-based finance. However, company boss Goergen, now the firm's majority shareholder with a 54-percent stake, became embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding an armaments deal in 1964. The Henschel shares ended up with Rheinstahl in Essen, trading under the name of Rheinstahl Henschel. Henschel then merged with the Rheinstahl subsidiary Hanomag. As a result of the takeover, Henschel ceased bus and coach production in 1965.

Daimler-Benz AG stake

Rheinstahl would, however, soon be devastated by the steel crisis, with the company once again looking to get out of vehicle production. Rheinstahl negotiated with the likes of Leyland to secure the sale of Henschel. Shortly afterwards in 1968/69, the then Daimler-Benz AG initially took over 51 percent of the shares of Hanomag-Henschel Fahrzeugwerke that had been set up together with Rheinstahl, before raising its stake to 100 percent shortly afterwards.

A brisk exchange of components and vehicles among the brands ensued. The trucks from Hanomag-Henschel received engines and axles from Daimler-Benz; Mercedes-Benz in turn integrated Henschel's heavy-duty dump trucks under its own trademark and with its own components into its line-up. The absence of all-wheel-drive cab-over-engine models provided the ideal opportunity for Henschel vehicles fitted with Mercedes V-engines and Mercedes hub reduction axles to step into the breach.

End of the road for Henschel trucks

In 1974, the last trucks under the old Henschel trademark rolled out of the workshops; they were chassis for concrete mixers. Precisely 111,555 Henschel trucks had been built over 50 years. Cab-behind-engine models for Mercedes-Benz rolled off the production line in North Hesse until 22 March 1980, before Kassel finally became the component plant for commercial vehicles within the group.

The takeover of Hanomag-Henschel was crucial for Daimler-Benz: after the Wörth truck plant was built in 1965 and following the acquisition of Krupp in 1967, it provided at the time the final piece of the jigsaw in becoming the world's number one commercial vehicle manufacturer. This approach ultimately enabled light-duty vans to be included in the line-up, alongside the Henschel vehicles and their sales network.

New role in the production network

Today the Kassel plant is an important component in the
Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle production network. Huge quantities of axles have been manufactured here since 1973; Kassel became the central axle plant for the Commercial Vehicle Division in 1977. Alongside truck production, Kassel also manufactured precisely 44,337 Mercedes-Benz engines from 1973 to 1980.

The Kassel plant has been part of Daimler since 1969 and is now Europe's largest axle plant.

Progress moved forward apace in Kassel: a wide range of axles covering model series zero to six for off-road vehicles, vans, trucks, buses, coaches and trailers were made in Kassel. In 1979, the gear production facility and the associated hardening shop started operations. In the same year, the new training centre was also inaugurated. Since 1981 the plant has been entirely responsible for gear wheel production for axles covering model series zero to six; the assembly and painting of Unimog axles followed shortly afterwards.

The crown wheel is hardened before being fitted to the hypoid axle.

Locomotive manufacture has also continued to play a role in Kassel for many years. High-speed electric locomotives have been manufactured here since 1985. Following an interlude involving Thyssen and ABB, locomotive production within the group became part of the Adtranz rail rolling stock equipment manufacturer. It formed the competence centre for diesel locomotives as well as manufacturing high-power electric locomotives such as the 101 series, and employed around 500 staff. However, DaimlerChrysler sold the Adtranz group to the Canadian company Bombardier Transportation in 2001.

Separate product division set up

The Kassel axle plant still remained the largest of its kind in Europe, operating from 1997 onwards within the newly founded Powertrain business unit as the axle product division, with integrated sales and development departments and a second production site in Gaggenau. In 2001, Kassel celebrated production of its 10 millionth axle, including 100,000 units of the trailer axles under production since 1996. They were based on the disc-braked front axle of the heavy-duty Actros truck and made a substantial contribution to ensuring that disc brakes soon also became standard on the towed unit. Operators expressed a great deal of interest in this solution, not least since the use of identical parts on the towing and towed unit provides major benefits.

Global footprint and brand affinity

The Kassel site was renamed in October 2007: instead of "Kassel plant" it is now called "Mercedes-Benz Kassel – A Daimler AG plant". On the one hand, it represents a statement of its affinity with the renowned brand, but also serves to differentiate clearly between the corporate and product brand. Further milestones followed in 2007: the 14 millionth axle was produced, of which around 400,000 were trailer axles.

In 1996, the Kassel plant started manufacturing trailer axles with a great deal of success.

Axle production in Kassel used to be part of the former Powertrain business unit, later renamed "Operating Unit" of the DaimlerChrysler Truck Group. This has in turn been superseded by the "Truck Powertrain Operations & Manufacturing Engineering" unit which brings together global major-assembly production, with responsibility for production planning of the vehicle and major-assembly plants. The aim is consistently to further develop the already widespread exchange of major assemblies within the Daimler Truck Group's global production network.

The total number of axles produced in Kassel now stands at over 15 million. The current product line-up is wide-ranging: front and rear axles for MPVs, off-road vehicles, vans, trucks, buses and coaches; added to which are trailer axles and propeller shafts as well as differential cases for passenger cars. Highly innovative products include the trailer axles that are brought together in the Mercedes-Benz TrailerAxleSystems (TAS) unit. "Durable Compact Axle" (DCA) is the overarching term for the current axle family which has made Mercedes-Benz the technology leader in this segment. The most innovative member of the DCA family is the "Airmaster" trailer axle, which can store compressed air for the brakes and air suspension in the axle housing, hugely reducing weight and opening up the prospect of entirely new vehicle concepts.

Daimler AG
Daimler AG


gedruckt am 18.07.2024 - 03:30