Although the automotive world was and is dominated by men, it was a woman who paved the way for road tripping. Over 130 years ago, Bertha Benz drove the Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3, which was invented by her husband Karl, from Mannheim to her mother in Porzheim (Germany) and back, covering 194 km (121 miles). This first ever road trip is an amazing story which lead to several premieres and to the much needed attention for the marque Benz, later to become Mercedes-Benz. And to the thing we love most: road tripping.
Bertha was born in 1849 in the quite wealthy Ringer family, in an age when women didn’t have access to higher education. Nevertheless, Bertha had a talent for natural science which wasn’t denied by her father. Although at first he wasn’t pleased with the fact that his wife gave birth to another daughter. After attending school Bertha grew up to be an attractive, clever and socially accomplished woman.
Meeting Karl and building the first motor car
During a coach journey on 27 June 1869, a young but poor engineer joined Bertha and her mother in their coach. He spoke about a horseless carriage on which he was working. Science loving Bertha was mesmerized and fell in love with this man, who was named Karl Benz. She chose to leave her more or less wealthy lifestyle to chase the dream of her soon to be husband of building this horseless carriage. After trials and tribulations, poverty and perseverance, and with a lot of help (also financial) of Bertha, Karl succeeded and his dream came true.
His first ‘Motorwagen’ was patented on 29 January 1886 as DRP-37435: “automobile fueled by gas”. In 1887 Model 2 was created and two years later Model 3 was finished. It was with this model that Bertha added a chapter to history by driving the worlds first ever road trip.
The how and why of the first ever road trip
Karl may have been a talented engineer, but he was a terrible marketeer. Bertha knew that and also knew that something had to be done to have the eyes of the world upon them. Because there was added pressure from the competition just a few miles away; another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler, had invented a horseless carriage of his own— the world’s first four-wheeled, high-speed automobile.
Frustrated by her husband’s apparent unwillingness to act on his own, Bertha took matters into her own hands. In early August 1888 (the date has been variously given as either August 5 or 12), Bertha packed up one of her husband’s cars, the recently completed Patent-Motorwagen No. 3, and with her two teenage sons in tow set out to visit her mother in Pforzheim. She didn’t tell Karl beforehand, but instead left him a letter informing him of her plans and sending him a telegram after she arrived at her mothers place.
The Benzes hit the road— which in many places turned out to be rocky, dusty and unpaved—with Bertha acting as both driver and automobile mechanic along the way. On the way, she solved numerous problems. She had to find ligroin as a fuel, which was available only at apothecary shops so she stopped in Wiesloch at the city pharmacy to purchase the fuel. A blacksmith had to help mend a chain at one point. Brakes needed to be repaired, in doing so Bertha Benz invented leather brake lining. She also had to use a long, straight hairpin to clean a fuel pipe, which had become blocked, and to insulate a wire with a garter.
She left Mannheim around dawn and reached Pforzheim somewhat after dusk. On road people ran together crowds to take a look at such miracle. About this distant automobile race all Germany learned. And the press turned a close attention not only on travel, but also on Karl Benz’s car.
While the publicity was certainly nice, there was a more practical upshot to Bertha Benz’s road trip. The difficulties she and her sons faced getting Karl’s 2.5-horse-powered car up neighboring hills (often manually pushing the car uphill) convinced the inventor to make a crucial modification – the introduction of the world’s first gear system.
Be a Bertha
In 2008, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind, because it follows Bertha Benz’s path during the world’s first long-distance journey by automobile in 1888. Now it is possible to follow the 194 km of signs indicating her route from Mannheim via Heidelberg to Pforzheim (Black Forest) and back. Download GPX files here and here.