Her pioneering and headline-making 130-mile round-trip drive in 1888 between home and her mother’s house was a media sensation and helped her husband’s motorized contraption become popular.
It was a road trip into history, which you can follow today on your own road trip.
Bertha’s husband, Dr. Carl Benz, was a trained mechanical engineer. He had invented and received both German and international patents two years earlier, in 1868, 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.
Here is the original Patent:
Road Trip into History
Like so many women throughout history, Bertha Benz took action to support her husband’s dream, 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 home in Mannheim and mom’s house in Pforzheim as The Bertha Benz Memorial Route, with historical markers and designated 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.
Although Daimler claims to have invented the automobile, his patent was 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.
The merger also was designed 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 intuition and ingenuity remains inspiring. She 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 sleepy 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 and named after himself and his hometown, the Waldorf Astoria. But that’s another story, too.
As are the stories my maternal Grandmother used to tell me about Waldorf, where she was born and grew up. When I was a kid, they were just stories of some strange unknown world.
Now, they are part of the ties that bind me to my German heritage and my connection to automotive history and to the pioneering women of history.
But I digress.
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 Danica Patrick, who retired recently from racing after her final turns in the Indy 500 in Indianapolis. And the late, great Denise McCluggage, one of the first women racecar drivers, in the 1960s, whose second career was as an automotive journalist, and who won awards in both fields.
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. McCluggage is the first journalist inducted – and as far as I know, the only woman to have won awards both as a racer and as a journalist.
This article was published originally on Evelyn Kanter ecoXplorer in 2018, following my trip along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, and is being republished in March 2022 in honor of Women’s History Month.