Her pioneering and headline-making 130-mile round-trip drive in 1888 between home and her mother’s house popularized her husband’s motorized contraption. It was a road trip into history.
A trained mechanical engineer, Dr. Carl Benz had invented and received both German and international patents two years earlier for what most historians agree is the first automobile, described in the patents as a “vehicle with gas engine”.
He was building them, but they weren’t selling.
Like so many women throughout history, Bertha Benz took action to support her husband’s dream, and pay the rent and feed the kids. Her action just happened to put the world behind the wheel.
Germany has honored that first-ever road trip between Pforzheim and Manheim as The Bertha Benz Memorial Route, with marked stops along the way.
They include what probably was the world’s first refueling stop, in the still-sleepy village of Wiesloch. It’s an apothecary, which back then was the only place to get the alcohol-based liquid that fueled such primitive two-stroke motors.
Another model getting on the road then was by Gottlieb Daimler, patented in 1888 as the Patent-Motorwagen, two years after the Benz patent.
Daimler and Benz remained fierce competitors until 1926, when they merged to form Mercedes-Benz.
It was a shotgun marriage, orchestrated by German banks to save money by consolidating R&D and manufacturing, and to make wider use of Daimler’s talented engineer and chief designer, Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the vehicle which became the VW Beetle. But that’s a whole other story.
Bertha’s woman’s ingenuity remains inspiring.
Bertha Benz used a hatpin to clear the fuel line, and a garter to fix the ignition.
More importantly, she realized, on what also turned out to the first long-distance test drive, that the brakes would need a liner to prevent them from overheating and burning out, and that gears for climbing up and down hills would be helpful.
The housewife suggested those modifications to the engineer and inventor, who added leather brake liners, produced by a local shoemaker, and a gear system. We know this from Bertha’s diary, which today might be a road trip blog, a series of “how to” videos, or both.
Her escapade went viral, widely reported in local newspapers, and her trip home was lined with crowds cheering the sight of the horseless carriage and the woman driving it.
Carl later credited Bertha with changing public perception of what he called “the motor carriage”, and jump-starting sales. We do not know what he thought originally of her taking the car without his knowledge or permission while he was still asleep, or piling in two of their sons for the expedition.
There’s a small museum in the old factory, and the simple graves of Carl and Bertha are a few blocks away.
What to See along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route
It took Bertha one full day each way to negotiate rutted paths and roads designed for horse and carriage, in a 2.5 horsepower, one-cylinder vehicle. Today’s motorized lawn mowers have more power than that!
Today, the same trip might take you even longer. In addition to that apothecary, stops include Heidelberg, with its famous hilltop Heidelberg Castle, the lesser-known Manheim Palace, and a fabulous gold jewelry museum in Pforzheim.
Also noteworthy is the village of Waldorf, from which John Jacob Astor emigrated to America, where he became a multi-millionaire real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist.
You may have heard of the hotel he built in NYC, the Waldorf Astoria. But that’s another story, too.
Also along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route is the world-famous Hockenheim motorsports track and museum, where manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz test their vehicles, and where German Grand Prix Formula 1 races are held.
An impressive number of automotive test drivers and racecar drivers around the world are women, including the legendary Danica Patrick, who just retired from racing after her final turns in the Indy 500 in Indianapolis.
All of them owe more than they may know to automotive pioneer Bertha Benz, the first woman Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Michigan.