It’s commonly known and accepted that the world’s first motor car was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, the progenitor designed and built by Carl Benz (also known as Karl) that heralded in the era of the internal combustion engine, changing the world for ever.
Benz, of course, is remembered as the father of the modern motor car, his legacy living on with his name forming one half of the one of the world’s largest car makers, Mercedes-Benz.
What is less well known is the role Benz’s wife, Bertha, played in the development and production of the Patent-Motorwagen.
For starters, while Carl Benz had the engineering know-how, it was Bertha’s money that financed his endeavours, including paying for the original patent (German patent number 37435) granted in November 1886. Had she been playing in today’s world, Bertha Benz would be credited as an inventor of the modern motor car, but as a married woman in Germany at the tail-end of the 19th century, she was not allowed to hold a patent or be considered an inventor.
Bertha Benz was also far more astute in business than her husband. As well as financing his company, Bertha also recognised the need for publicity and marketing, something Carl Benz was blissfully and obstinately ignoring.
In what is today recognised as the first road trip ever undertaken, Bertha Benz and her two sons, Richard and Eugen, left Mannheim at dawn on 5 August 1888, their destination the town of Pforzheim some 106km away. She did so without telling anyone, including her husband.
History records Bertha and her sons quietly pushed the Patent-Motorwagen from Benz's workshop, only starting the engine once it was deemed safe to do so without waking her sleeping husband. History also notes Bertha left a note for Carl on the kitchen table, telling him only she had taken their two sons to visit her mother in Pforzheim and would return in a few days. No mention was made of how the trio would make the journey.
One can only wonder what Carl thought when he realised one of his three prototype cars was missing from the garage.
Ostensibly, her trip was to visit her mother, but Bertha’s real motivation was to prove to her somewhat reticent husband his invention could be commercially viable by demonstrating its usefulness to the general public. It’s important to note that up until Bertha’s road trip, drives were limited to very short round trips, and usually with a mechanic riding shotgun to help fix any mechanical issues that would arise from the nascent technology. Mrs Benz’s road trip would prove a landmark journey in more ways than one.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen used for the journey was powered by a 954cc single cylinder petrol engine with 1.5kW and a top speed of 16km/h. It featured no fuel tank, with only the single carburettor holding a store of petrol (4.5 litres).
While petrol stations are a part of life today, they didn’t exist in 1888 when Bertha embarked on her historic journey. She solved the problem of refuelling in the town of Wiesloch, purchasing Ligroin (the petrol solvent needed to run the engine in the Patent-Motorwagen) from the only place allowed to sell the liquid fuel, the local chemist. As a side note, that chemist in Wiesloch, the Stadt-Apotheke, which incidentally is still in business, is now regarded as the first petrol station in the world.
Other problems arose along the journey, all of which Bertha solved with her both her intuition and her mechanical knowledge.
A blocked fuel line was cleared using her hat pin while her garter was used to insulate an ignition wire. She enlisted the help of a blacksmith to fix a broken chain and a cobbler when the wooden brakes on the Patent-Motorwagen began to fail. To solve the problem, Bertha asked the cobbler in Neulingham to install shoe leather on the wooden brakes, thus inventing the replacement brake pad.
Bertha and her sons reached Pforzheim sometime after dusk, with Bertha notifying her husband of her arrival via telegram, before completing the 194km round trip to Mannheim three days later via different route.
On her return, Bertha highlighted other technical issues and suggested further improvements. With just two forward gears, she revealed how the Benz could not climb hills without the assistance of her two sons who helped push the car up the climb. Bertha suggested a third gear would mitigate the problem.
It did, her husband using Bertha’s suggestions to improve the Patent-Motorwagen, including adding a third gear and installing brake pads as standard.
Meanwhile, Bertha’s road trip had garnered much publicity, exactly as she intended, highlighting not only the capability of the automobile as a method of long-distance transportation but also the importance of test drives to the then fledgling car industry.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen went on sale in the summer of 1888 and by the following year, the company Benz and Cie. had grown to 50 employees. By the end of the century, that number had risen to 430, Benz and Cie. the largest car company in the world, producing 572 vehicles in 1899 alone. By 1904, that number had grown to 3480 automobiles. The age of the motor car was well and truly underway.
Today, Bertha’s significant contribution to the automotive industry is commemorated by the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, a tourist road that follows the tracks of her original road trip from Mannheim to Pforzham and back. It opened in 2008, some 120 years after her historic long-distance drive.
History has been late to acknowledge Bertha’s contribution. Since 2011, her life has been celebrated in a number of TV shows, movies and documentaries in her native Germany.
In 2016, she was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, joining her more famous husband, the pair the first and so far only married couple to receive the distinction. And in 2019, Mercedes-Benz parent company, Daimler-Benz honoured Bertha’s pioneering spirit with a four-minute commercial released on International Women’s Day.
"Bertha Benz was," in the words of Daimler-Benz, "a strong-willed, energetic woman who played a subordinate role in the patriarchal society of the German Empire in appearances only.
"She encouraged her often self-doubting, obstinate and sullen husband Carl Benz in her unique way, pushing him to continue time and time again after setbacks, and stood by him for nearly 60 years.
"She was a woman who shared her husband’s far-reaching technical visions completely and made many sacrifices as a result. Without Bertha Benz, there would never have been a Benz company in Mannheim."
Perhaps the final and most fitting tribute should come from the one person who mattered most, Carl Benz writing in his 1925 memoirs, “Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.”
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