Meet Bertha Benz – Visionary, mechanic, long-distance driver, PR supremo, and very, very handy with a hat pin

(At Motorsport Woman we love Bertha Benz. If we had a pin-up girl, it would be her. Intelligent, bold, incredibly practical, Bertha never let the odds against her put her off doing what she believed in.)

Let’s set your expectations from the start: Bertha Benz did not go fast, but she did go far. And in doing it she took a huge risk. Just how huge is difficult to fully understand looking back from our car-obsessed 21st century. Bertha went further in fact than any one had ever gone in a car before – more than 50 times further.  

In August 1888, she drove around 60 miles. It took her a whole day. And it changed our history.  

In 1886, Bertha’s husband, Carl, patented a three-wheeled “vehicle with a gas engine”. Bertha had helped finance the development of this, the world’s first motorwagen with her own dowry money. She invested in this slightly odd inventor fellow she met on a train even before they were married, and went against her wealthy parents’ wishes in marrying him in the first place.

 

Bertha has always been interested in technical things, but as you can imagine, the there was no chance of her studying or becoming an inventor herself in 19th century Germany.

Carl and Bertha’s life together was tough. They ploughed everything into their business and the dream that Carl had had since he was 15 – to build an automobile. They were often mocked, and had very little money. Registering the ‘birth certificate for the car’ in 1886 should’ve changed things. But it didn’t.

Carl was no business man; he was an inventor, and one that lacked faith in his invention. He kept tinkering, making small changes to “perfect” his car. Bertha had had enough.

Realising that they’d never sell a car if she left it to Carl, in 1888, Bertha took matters into her own hands. Not only did Bertha have faith, but she believed that the motorwagen would change transport for ever. She knew exactly how the Patent-Moterwagen Model 3 worked, and believed that for people to buy it, they really would have to see it, or at least hear about it. Without telling Carl, Bertha put together her product launch plan.

The product launch plan

She would drive the car from their home in Mannheim to her mother’s house in Pforzheim. She’d take her two teenage sons with her. The round trip would be about 120 miles if they didn’t get lost – which, given that maps where a bit iffy, was unlikely. By making the trip she would test drive the car and show people something that would blow their minds.

The daunting logistics

In making the journey, Bertha was up against more than just having to drive on carriage-wheel-rutted tracks. The single-cylinder four-stroke engine would need fuel, and of course there were no petrol stations. 

 

Bertha would also have people to deal with – people who supported Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belief that a motorwagen would be unpatriotic, and those who agreed with the Church’s views that they were the work of the devil. How people would react to a she-devil driving an unpatriotic, gas-propelled chariot along the rutted roads of 19th century Germany was anyone’s guess. 

But none of these things stopped Bertha. It was time to show Germany what she knew was possible. 

The daring journey

In the very early hours of 12 August 1888, Bertha, Eugen (15) and Richard (13) pushed the motorwagen out of the workshop and down the road where they could start it without Carl hearing. Bertha left him a note and they set off.
Going was slow. The 2hp engine meant the car had a top speed of just 10mph. It also only had one gear, and they needed to push it up the hills.

Remember that this was the car’s first real test drive. Until then, Carl had taken the car out for very short trips only. Bertha needed to carry out running repairs.

Luckily she had worked closely with Carl for years on his invention. She knew that car as well as he did. In the evening, after washing up, their five children in bed, Bertha would sit beside him in the workshop, driving the pedal of her sewing machine to charge the battery.

So, when the fuel line clogged, she knew that her hat pin could solve the problem. When a short-circuiting ignition wire needed replacement insulation, she hoiked up her voluminous skirt to take off her garter. When the wooden brake blocks caused problems, she stopped in at an astonished cobbler, getting him to cover them in leather (and inventing brake pads).

Then there was the issue of fuel. Bertha needed to stop at pharmacies to buy ligroin, a benzine which in those days was used for cleaning. She’d had to carefully plan her route to make sure they didn’t run out, as there was nowhere to carry it on the vehicle itself.

The historic result

Bertha and her boys used up most of daylight to get to their destination. But they got there, completing the first ever long-distance car journey, and the first ever real test drive.
And Bertha got what she was looking for – publicity.

Benz & Cie began selling their automobile in the late summer of 1888, and Benz’s Model 3 was introduced to the world at the 1889 World Fair in Paris. And you could say that the rest of Bertha’s bold vision is Mercedes-Benz’ history.

In 1944, the year Bertha died, she was made an honorary senator by the Technical University of Karlsruhe (now the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology). This was the university that evolved from the polytechnic where Carl had studied engineering at a time when women were not allowed to study at universities or colleges.

You can drive the very scenic Bertha Benz Memorial Route from Mannheim to Pforzheim today.

More about the amazing Bertha Benz
 
Watch
• Bertha Benz takes world’s first long-distance trip in an automobile
• Bertha Benz: Women who Dare
Read
• Bertha Benz. A woman moves the world. Biography on the Mercedes Benz website
• Meet Bertha Benz, the woman who took the first real drive
• Germany: A driving tour through Mercedes Benz’ history