At the beginning of the 1990s, it had become apparent that the locomotives of the class 103 were worn out to the limit due to years of stress in front of heavy express trains and urgently needed a successor. ABB Henschel (later Adtranz) was commissioned to develop a 220 km/h high-power locomotive, which was based on the class 120. In addition to the use with express trains, however, it was also planned that freight trains could be pulled if necessary. This was of particular importance as there were plans to convert all long-distance traffic to multiple units in the future.
The 101 was the first class to receive the new smooth-surfaced locomotive body, which also offers good aerodynamic properties while being simple to manufacture. In this model, it is characterized by deep skirts over the chassis and is often used as a large advertising space. The traction motors and other parts of the electronics have been redesigned to meet the high demands. The transformer was optimized in terms of efficiency in accordance with a requirement from the DB and, at 13 tonnes, is the heaviest of all German traction units. When setting up the driver's cabs, almost the same layout as on the 120 and the ICE was used.
Between 1997 and 1999, 145 locomotives were put into service, which corresponds exactly to the number of 103s. They replaced them within a very short time and quickly became DB AG's driving force in long-distance traffic, even though the ICE remained the publicly perceived flagship. The greatest weakness was the undersized power train machinery, as some of the high-performance components reached their limits under heavy loads. This sometimes led to failures where locomotives of the classes 103 and 120 had to step in. Nevertheless, the 101 was also used at night and on weekends in front of freight trains, including the 160 km/h Parcel InterCity.
Since then, the primary area of application has been the IC trains, since the 101 is still the most frequently used class even after the introduction of newer three-phase locomotives. After some ICs had been replaced by ICE 4s, the first locomotives were retired. As of October 2022, in addition to the 101 destroyed in the Brühl accident, 32 others had already been retired or scrapped. With the planned introduction of the Talgo 230 from 2024, the class 101 will gradually disappear.