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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Bertha Benz is first to drive “long distance” in an auto

Bertha Benz, her two sons and the Benz Model III. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will profile a number of women who have made contributions to transportation.

The first woman to be profiled is Bertha Benz, a German automotive pioneer and inventor. She was the business partner and wife of automobile inventor Carl Benz. 

On August 5, 1888, Bertha Benz was the first person to drive an automobile with an internal combustion engine over a long distance. She field-tested the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, invented brake linings and solved several practical issues during the journey of about 66 miles. By doing so, she generated global attention for the Patent-Motorwagen as well as the company’s first sales.

A young Bertha Benz. 
(Photo: Daimler AG-Mercedes-Benz)
A young Bertha Benz.
(Photo: Daimler AG-Mercedes-Benz)

Background

Bertha Benz was born on May 3, 1849 to a wealthy family in Pforzheim in the Grand Duchy of Baden.


In 1870, Bertha Ringer (her maiden name) used part of her dowry to invest in Karl Benz’s failing iron construction company. She was able to invest her money as an unmarried woman; after marrying Benz on July 20, 1872, Bertha Benz lost her legal power to act as an investor according to German law. Under modern patent laws Bertha would hold patents on her work, but as a married woman in the late 1800s, she was not allowed to be named as an inventor. As Benz began a new manufacturing venture (Benz & Cie), he continued to use her dowry as financial support. 

More than 13 years later (in December 1885) Karl Benz finished building his first horseless carriage. Bertha acted as a field tester for the vehicle, and contributed to the design of the Motorwagen by adding wire insulation and inventing leather brake pads to supplement the wooden brakes when they failed. Moreover, she identified several key areas that needed to be improved – such as the fuel line design – that Karl later fixed. In addition to her contributions to the machine’s design, Bertha helped finance the development of the Motorwagen.

The first “long-distance” drive

While not being able to share the patent rights to the Benz vehicles, Bertha Benz is a historic figure for another reason. On August 5, 1888, the 39-year-old wife and mother drove a Benz Model III from Mannheim to Pforzheim (a distance of about 66 miles) with her 13- and 15-year old sons. She did so without informing her husband Karl, and without permission of the authorities. 

Therefore, Bertha Benz became the first person to drive an automobile a significant distance. Before her historic journey, motorized drives had been very short trial runs, made with the assistance of mechanics. Bertha and her sons followed wagon tracks on their trip. 

Another photo of Bertha Benz. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

Although the stated purpose of the automobile trip was to visit her mother, Bertha Benz also sought to prove several things to Karl: that the automobile they had both invested in would become a financial success once its usefulness was demonstrated to the public; to give Karl the confidence that their autos had a future; and to convince Karl that his invention needed to be marketed to be successful. 

The trip was daunting, and Bertha had to solve several mechanical issues along the way. She and her sons left Mannheim shortly after dawn. The auto had a 4.5-liter supply of petrol in the carburetor and no fuel tank; therefore, Bertha had to find and purchase ligroin, the petroleum solvent needed to make the car run. At that time, the solvent was only available at apothecary shops, so she stopped at a pharmacy in the town of Wiesloch to purchase the fuel. At that time in Germany, petrol and other fuels were available only from chemists (druggists). Therefore, another first related to the trip was that the pharmacy in Wiesloch became the world’s first fuel station.

The Model III developed a blocked fuel line; Bertha cleared it with her hat pin. She also used a garter as insulation material. Later, a blacksmith had to mend a chain. When the car’s wooden brakes began to fail, Benz asked a cobbler to install leather on the wood, which became the world’s first brake linings. The Model III was built with an evaporative cooling system to cool the engine; therefore a supply of water was a major need on the trip. Benz and her sons added water to their supply each time they stopped. Moreover, the Model III only had two gears; at times they were not enough to power the auto up hills. Therefore, the Benz sons often had to push the vehicle up steep inclines. They reached Pforzheim after dusk; during the journey the auto averaged less than 5 miles per hour. Nonetheless, Bertha, her sons and the auto made the trip successfully; Bertha sent a telegram to notify Karl of the journey. They drove back to Mannheim several days later.

The consequences of Bertha’s trip

As the first person to drive an automobile long-distance (and as a woman to boot!), Bertha Benz’s trip generated a significant amount of publicity, which made marketing for the company and its Benz motorcar an easier task. 

The trip was also a key event in the automobile’s technical development. Bertha’s observations of the auto’s performance led to several major revisions of the Benz patent. She made critical suggestions, such as the “introduction of an additional gear for climbing hills and brake linings to improve brake-power.” Also, Bertha’s trip demonstrated to the nascent automotive industry that test drives were essential.

An ad for a Benz & Co. three-wheel automobile and a photo of Bertha Benz next to the automobile she drove into history. 
(Photos: mercedes-benz.com)
An ad for a Benz & Co. three-wheel automobile and a photo of Bertha Benz next to the automobile she drove into history.
(Photos: mercedes-benz.com)

Next steps 

The Benz family moved to Ladenburg in 1906. Karl Benz had a workshop built, and he founded the family-held business, Benz and Sons.

Benz wrote the following in his memoirs in 1925: “Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.”

Daimler

Gottlieb Daimler and his engineer Wilhelm Maybach converted a stagecoach, adding a petrol-powered engine, which led to the founding of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG). 

Emil Jellinek, a European automobile entrepreneur who worked with DMG, registered the Mercedes trademark in 1902, and was responsible for naming the 1901 35-horsepower DMG vehicle the Mercedes after his daughter Mercedes Jellinek. 

Mercedes Jellinek. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz Archives)
Mercedes Jellinek. (Photo: Mercedes-Benz Archives)

Jellinek was a businessman who understood marketing. He promoted the Daimler automobiles among the highest circles of society in Europe. His customers included the Rothschild family and other well-known people. But Jellinek thought bigger than just Europe; as early as 1901 he was selling Mercedes automobiles in North America. His first customers included the wealthiest families in the United States, including the Rockefellers, Astors, Morgans and Taylors. 

Also in 1901, the name “Mercedes” was re-registered by DMG worldwide as a protected trademark. 

Mercedes-Benz

On June 28, 1926, the merger of the companies owned by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler took place, creating Daimler-Benz. Later that same year Mercedes-branded vehicles were produced by the newly formed company.

Now named Mercedes-Benz, the company traces its beginnings to Karl Benz’s invention of the first internal combustion engine used in a self-propelled automobile (the Benz Patent Motorwagen) – financed by Bertha Benz’s dowry and patented in January 1886 – and in Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft’s 1901 Mercedes. 

While Mercedes-Benz is primarily a luxury brand in the United States, it is also one of the world’s major manufacturers of trucks. For decades, Mercedes trucks have provided effective  transportation solutions in light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, the founders of Daimler-Benz. 
(Photo: group-mercedes-benz.com)
Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, the founders of Daimler-Benz.
(Photo: group-mercedes-benz.com)

Death and legacy 

Karl Benz died in 1929, after the success of Daimler-Benz was assured. Bertha Benz died at her family’s villa in Ladenburg in 1944. 

Members of the Benz family resided in the home until 1969. The Benz home is now designated as a historic structure and is used as a scientific meeting facility for the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes science and research “to gain a better understanding of the correlation between man, the environment and technology.”

Bertha Benz, later in her life. (Photo: mercedes-benz.com)
Bertha Benz, later in her life. (Photo: mercedes-benz.com)

The Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially approved in 2008. It follows Bertha Benz’s route during the world’s first long-distance journey by automobile in 1888. 

On January 25, 2011, Deutsche Welle (DW-TV) broadcast an episode of its series “Made in Germany,” a documentary about Karl Benz’s invention of the automobile. The documentary showcased the very important role that Bertha Benz played in that invention. Another documentary, “The Car is Born,” focused on Bertha Benz’s historic road trip. “Karl & Bertha” was a 2011 television movie about the life of Karl and Bertha Benz.  

The first female automotive pioneer, Bertha Benz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016. She was the visionary business partner of her husband, who was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1984. Bertha Benz had a major role in the filing of the first patent for the Benz automobile in 1886 and demonstrating the auto’s capabilities “on the road.”

To honor International Women’s Day in 2019, Daimler-Benz commissioned a four-minute advertisement dramatizing portions of Bertha Benz’s 1888 journey. 

There can be no doubt that Bertha Benz earned her place in history and was “essential to the successful launch of the Benz Motor Company.”

Bertha Benz is featured in this illustration. (Illustration: hackaday.com)
Bertha Benz is featured in this illustration. (Illustration: hackaday.com)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.
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