In 1902, at the dawn of the automobile age, a pioneering engineer named Alfred Soden began working at Daimler in Stuttgart as the deputy factory manager. Though he left Daimler in 1906 to join MAN (Vogelmotor). While on trip to Lake Constance, Soden met Count Zeppelin who introduced him to airship technology, which so fascinated him that after overcoming initial doubts, he applied for a job at Zeppelin. Soden's efforts paid off and he became manager of the testing department there in 1910. As part of the company's efforts to improve airship engines, Soden contacted an expert in gear wheels, the Swiss engineer Max Maag, who had developed a special grinding process for gear wheels. ZF was subsequently founded in 1915, with the involvement of Maag and Alfred Colsman, who handled the commercial side of the business.
The ZF brand was registered and the first logo designed.
ZF produced the first transmissions for passenger cars: the 8 hp transmission and the lever-type transmission.
ZF co-founder Alfred Graf von Soden-Fraunhofen presented to industry experts a four-speed car transmission named after him. Even though the product featured cutting-edge technology, its commercial breakthrough remained elusive. The impassioned engineer had even tested the transmission while taking his family out on Sunday drives.
The company changed its corporate form to become a stock corporation and was entered into the Commercial Register on June 24, 1921.
ZF unveiled its innovative standard transmission at the Berlin Motor Show in 1925. The modular design was compatible with various vehicle models, making it more efficient than any type of transmission previously available. With the success of the standard transmission, ZF achieved a sustained breakthrough in the automotive market.
ZF opened a plant in Berlin (Germany) - its first subsidiary started up operations.
Driving with annoying noises became a thing of the past with the introduction of the Aphon transmission, which was equipped with a synchronizer for the first time starting in 1930.
In 1932, ZF acquired a patent owned by U.S. company Ross for manufacturing steering systems. The company sold 10 000 steering systems in just the first year of production, enabling it to gain a foothold in a new business segment.
A fully synchronized transmission for passenger cars (BMW, Mercedes, Horch) was launched on the market, with a cone synchronizer optimizing synchronization.
The Nazi government's rearmament policy increased the number of incoming orders at ZF, with production capacity expanding due to the opening of the Schwäbisch-Gmünd plant in 1937. There was just as little open resistance to the "Nazis" at ZF as there was elsewhere at that time.
ZF launched its first tractor transmission as the A 12 system.
During reconstruction, several ZF workers, including director Albert Maier, succeeded in pooling their resources to set up a new plant in Friedrichshafen, thus laying the foundation for the company's next chapter in the post-war era. At first, employees produced or repaired household appliances such as 'Spaetzle' presses and meat mincers in hall 5, the only part of the plant that remained intact. This was made possible through intense negotiations between the French occupying forces and ZF employees, including Maier, Pirker, Metzger, and Mühlhäuser as the French had originally planned to tear down the plant. Also, ZF Passau GmbH was founded at this time.
Albert Maier designed a 2-seater subcompact car - the Champion - to meet the mobility needs of post-war society.
In August, the French authorities gave permission for ZF shares to be transferred: 89.8 percent of ZF shares went to the Zeppelin Foundation (City of Friedrichshafen from 1947), 6.2 percent to Brandenstein-Zeppelin and Zeppelin-Erbengemeinschaft (up to 1990), 4 percent to Maag Zahnräder und Maschinen AG (until 1989). During the company's second Supervisory Board meeting, Albert Maier and Robert Pirker were officially appointed to the Board of Management; deputy Board of Management members included Konstantin Schmäh and Ekart Graf from Soden-Fraunhofen; First Mayor Dr. Max Grünbeck was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board.
The German "economic miracle" was gaining momentum by the end of the 1950s, with companies beginning to export to international markets. This included Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, which established ZF do Brasil – a transmission and gear plant located in São Caetano do Sul in Brazil – on August 15, 1958. For some ZF employees and their families who migrated to Brazil starting in 1959 to oversee machine installation in the plant and oversee production, leaving Lake Constance marked the first chapter in the company's future and a great adventure in the New World. The first leg of their journey began with travel by coach to Genoa (Italy) and from there to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) by ship.
A major order was received from Auto Union (DB majority shareholder starting in 1958, DKW license manufactured in São Paulo by Vemag), in-house product developments and capacity bottlenecks led to the opening of Plant 2, volume production remained in hall 1 through 1965. Production of the 3 HP 12 subsequently began there.
For the film “On Her Majesty's Service,” the Aston Martin sports cars driven by James Bond 007 were fitted with ZF transmissions.
ZF made a deliberate decision to move into a new product segment: axles and transmissions for agricultural machinery.
ZF entered into a cooperative partnership with the British Lotus Formula 1 team. From 1961 to 1968, ZF engineers supplied the team with transmissions and personally serviced them in Friedrichshafen (Germany) after each race. This cooperation proved so successful that by 1968 the legendary Lotus driver Jim Clark had racked up many Grand Prix victories and a world championship, and it made ZF world famous in motorsports circles. The ZF transmission used in the Lotus was an enhanced 4-speed standard transmission.
In 1965, ZF's first passenger car automatic transmission, the 3 HP 12, was used as the standard transmission in BMW and Peugeot volume production. The head of development at the French manufacturer, Jacques Desbois, supported the purchase of ZF transmissions. This was mainly because he had been a foreign worker in Friedrichshafen (Germany) during the war, and despite the extremely difficult conditions, Desbois had never forgotten his former colleague Otto Schwab, who was later to become father of the ZF automatic transmission. Hansjörg Dach and Otto Schwab secretly developed the first automatic transmissions at ZF. They had identified the product's potential for the European market early on and applied their expertise to further develop the existing technology. This laid the foundation for today's global success of ZF automatic transmissions in the automotive market.
ZF turned 50 and became the largest independent European company specializing in driveline and steering technology.
At the end of the 1950s, ZF resumed developing drives for aviation applications. In 1970, it reached an important milestone in this traditional field with the BO 105 helicopter from MBB. It was the first mass-produced helicopter developed in Germany and was equipped with a ZF FS 72 transmission system. ZF's product met the exacting requirements regarding quality, precision, and weight.
ZF took over shares of the subsidiary it founded jointly with the Borg Warner Corporation in 1970: ZF Getriebe GmbH. As of 1973, this location successfully produced ZF passenger car automatic transmissions.
Volume production of the Ecomat started up. 1981 was the first year microcomputers were used for transmission control in the Ecomat. This innovative technology was based on a microcomputer controller secretly developed by Mr. Schwarz and a colleague.
ZF opened for business in the United States by establishing a wholly owned ZF subsidiary, ZF of North America Inc., in Chicago
ZF Japan was founded in Tokyo as the company's far east representative.
After four years of development work, the ZF-Ecosplit transmission for heavy commercial vehicles was ready for volume production. It became the backbone of production at Friedrichshafen and one of the most successful commercial vehicle transmissions of all time. Over the next 20 years, one million units of this heavy CV transmission were produced. A decisive factor in its success was giving the design engineers the opportunity to develop a fully mature product - without pressure to deliver instant success.
In the 1970s, ZF came up with and began working on the concept of low-floor technology for buses. However, it would take another 10 years before demand for the product would take off. ZF is now the leading global supplier of bus axle systems, with volume production of the AV 130 starting in 1983.
ZF acquired 74.5 percent of Lemförder Metallwaren. This was a decisive step for ZF in becoming a full-range supplier for chassis and driveline technology.
ZF opened for business in India with the founding of ZF Steering Gear, Pune (26 percent share)
ZF set up its first production facility in the United States with the construction of a plant in Gainesville, Georgia. In 1986, the plant began supplying the Ford Motor Company with 100 000 transmissions a year. ZF's presence in the U.S. market thus took on a new dimension.
ZF began volume production of the ZF-Servotronic steering system for passenger cars. It could be individually programmed and was described by experts as the “nucleus of a revolutionary steering system.” Smooth power steering at a standstill and a steering force that increases in line with the driving speed were highlights of this product.
ZF turned 75. The ZF Art Foundation was established and the Research & Development Center celebrated its grand opening.
ZF took over the IFA plant in Brandenburg (Germany) and converted it into a state-of-the-art manual transmission production facility. ZF expanded into new countries.
ZF Friedrichshafen AG and the Chinese group Beijing North Vehicle Works jointly established the Beijing ZF North Drive System Technical Co. Ltd in the People's Republic of China. This paved the way - very early on compared to other German companies - for building up an extensive ZF presence in Asia.
20 Years of Duncan, ZF's axle system produced for the first time.
ZF Lenksysteme GmbH opened for business.
The ZF Group acquired and integrated the company Sachs. This was a major challenge for management and employees due to the very different corporate cultures.
ZF Lenksysteme launched volume production of the ZF-Servolectric electric power steering system. Customers included BMW, Audi, and VW. The ultra-modern steering system was the result of a joint venture with Robert Bosch GmbH. Together, the two foundation companies had been working flat out on its development since 1999, bundled their expertise, and jointly completed the project successfully.
ZF Friedrichshafen AG increased its shareholdings in ZF Lemförder Metallwaren AG, Lemförde from 75.6 percent to 100 percent. In return, Dr.-Jürgen-Ulderup Foundation, Lemförde, the previous shareholder, received a 6.2 percent shareholding in ZF Friedrichshafen AG.
The CDC electronic damper system from ZF Sachs made its debut in the first volume-produced compact-class vehicle - the Opel Astra.
ZF unveiled its new EcoLife bus transmission at the IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show.
The new generation of the 6HP went into volume production.
ZF Engineering Pilsen was founded in the Czech Republic.
ZF opened its first European industrial production facility in Schweinfurt (Germany) for manufacturing hybrid modules for passenger cars.
ZF began volume production of the 7-speed dual clutch transmission.
The Brussels-based antitrust authorities approved the acquisition of electronics manufacturer Cherry Corporation, which became the Electronics Components business unit in the ZF Group.
8HP volume production began in Saarbrücken (Germany).
ZF Services expanded its global repair business for wind turbine gearboxes, with a new competence center in Dortmund (Germany) acting as the central repair coordination office.
As a multinational company in the automotive industry with deep roots in the region where it was founded, ZF strengthened its ties there by establishing the Knowledge Workshop for young people and children in Friedrichshafen (Germany) in 2009. The purpose of the facility is to introduce young people in the home region to the world of engineering. Plans are in the works to open more Knowledge Workshops at other ZF locations.
The 8HP was launched on the market.
The Group acquired Hansen Transmissions International which was then incorporated into the Wind Power Technology business unit.
ZF delivered the world's first 7-speed manual transmission.
The first 9-speed automatic transmission for passenger cars with front-transverse drive went into volume production in 2013. Land Rover has equipped its Range Rover Evoque with the 9HP since the end of 2013. In the same year, the Chrysler Group also started license production of the 9-speed automatic transmission which the US manufacturer installs in the Jeep Cherokee, among other things.
Volume production of the plug-in hybrid started up.