First car trip? It was the work of Bertha Benz, a pioneer of motoring

For some it might be really curious to discover that it was a woman – the German Bertha Benz, born Ringer – the first person in the world to make a long-distance journey by car in 1888, about 106 km from Mannheim to Pforzheim, two towns between Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany. And we're not talking about just any vehicle: the one in which the enterprising Bertha set off was one Motor Vehicle Patentthe first car with a combustion engine in history, designed by her husband Karl Benzfather of the well-known car manufacturer.

Seeing her pass by in that strange vehicle, some thought that Bertha was a witch. But if we had to choose an epithet to define this woman with her extraordinary intelligence and resourcefulness, she is a “pioneer”: without her, probably, her husband's invention would have ended up under piles of dust. Mrs. Benz, however, was a real storm, and when she put an idea into her head no one could stop her. Just think that she undertook her journey without even informing her husband, that she initially got quite a fright!

Bertha Benz and the story of the first automobile journey

Born on May 3, 1849 in the Grand Duchy of Badenda (Germany), as a child Bertha Ringer she demonstrated a tenacious and curious personality, who would never have given up on the canonical role of housewife.

Being beautiful, intelligent and from a wealthy family, she had no shortage of suitors who came from all over to ask for her hand, but none of them caught her attention. She fell madly in love with a penniless man she met during a trip organized by the “Eintracht” club. That man with half-empty pockets was Karl Benzwho told her about a project he would like to carry forward: a carriage that moved without being pulled by horses. Bertha was fascinated by that mind full of ideas, and she decided to marry the penniless engineer despite repeated protests from the family. Eventually her father granted her marriage dowry, which she Bertha invested entirely to set up the Benz company.

Spouses Benz

Although she had a great talent for design, Mrs. Benz was not so good at business, and the couple soon found themselves with little money. Despite the not exactly rosy prospects, Bertha did not give up, and after years of hard work, on January 29, 1886 he registered the patent for the automobile.

The enthusiasm, however, quickly faded: no one showed interest in purchasing it, renewing Carl's fears about his project. Adding further anxiety to the poor engineer was the Kaiser Wilhelm II, who didn't like this patent at all: he loved horses, and claimed that replacing them with a car was an unpatriotic idea. As if that wasn't enough, there was also competition to watch out for: another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimlerhad designed a horseless carriage very similar to his own, so it was a race to win.

The couple's business seemed to stall for a few months, but one summer evening in 1888 Bertha had it a brilliant idea: she decided to use the vehicle to undertake a long journey and publicize her husband's invention, to prove that the project they had invested in for so long would be revolutionary.

In a short time he thought about the route to take and what to take with him. At the first light of dawn August 5, 1888 stole her husband's driving license and Motor Vehicle License. She then put her two 11- and 13-year-old sons Eugen and Richard in the car and pushed it for the first few hundred meters to avoid waking Karl. Once far from the house, Bertha and the children left Mannheim for a journey of approximately 106 km, with the idea of ​​arriving at Pforzheimwhere his mother lived.

The Patent Motorwagen model 3 used by Bertha for her journey: it is the first car in the world equipped with a combustion engine.

What happened during Bertha Benz's journey

It wasn't a comfortable journey, with unpaved roads designed for horse-drawn carriages, the lack of road signs and some technical problems. Not many hours passed before Bertha realized that the vehicle needed improvements, starting with the gears (which were only two, they were not enough to tackle the climbs). The two boys often had to push the car over hills to continue the journey. Having dutifully studied her husband's project, Bertha knew where to put her hands, and she set about fixing the car several times and in a completely ingenious way: for example, he had to unblock the fuel supply with the clasp of his hat and use his garter as insulation. The evaporative refrigeration system gave her a lot of problems, which is why the little family had to stock up on water at every stop.

Furthermore, for several kilometers it was not possible to find supplies of ligroin, the fuel needed to power the machine. Bertha found it in a pharmacy in the town of Wiesloch (at the time the solvent was only available in pharmacies), which it is still remembered for having been today the first service station in history.

About 12 hours and a hundred kilometers later, the merry band arrived at her grandmother's house in Pforzheim, where Bertha sent a telegram to her husband to inform him of the success of the trip. She returned to him a few days later, still with the Patent Motorwagen, with a distance of approximately 90 km. Bertha Benz's round trip, therefore, was approx 196 km.

Bertha Benz's journey: the outward journey in red and the return in blue. Credits: Bertha Benz Memorial Route.

Bertha Benz: not a witch but a pioneer

Among those who saw her arrive aboard that strange carriage there were even those who thought she was a witch, but in reality Bertha was nothing more than a visionary who wanted to demonstrate that this means of transport was convenient and promising for the public. The trip was merely proof of this way of seeing her, and she succeeded in her aim of making her husband regain enthusiasm, demonstrating that the lack of success of her invention was due to bad publicity of the medium.

Bertha's courage was instrumental in allowing the success of an invention that revolutionized the world. Without the economic and emotional support of her husband's project and without her adventurous (and even a little dangerous!) journey, perhaps her cars would have come to us much later.

Bertha didn't get her driving license until 36 years after her trip, but it was still a great achievement. In honor of her, the Bertha Benz Memorial Routea tourist road that passes through the places that the enterprising Mrs. Benz crossed in that distant August of 1888.

Bertha Benz's driving licence. Credits: Stefan Weil.