Bertha Benz’s daring journey paved the way for those who followed
Even people who aren’t into cars know Mercedes-Benz. However, even you might not know that although Karl Benz is considered the mechanical genius behind the first Benz Patent-Motorwagen in the late 1800s, the iconic automobile might not have claimed its lofty place in history without another Benz—Karl’s equally astute, fearless, and confident wife, Bertha.
Cäcilie Bertha Ringer was born May 3, 1849 to a wealthy family in Pforzheim, Germany. According to societal norms, Bertha’s future would include marriage and motherhood, but certainly not higher education. Regardless, Bertha’s favorite lessons in school involved natural science, and when her father explained the workings of the locomotive, the young girl was mesmerized. That might have been the extent of it had Bertha not seen what her father wrote in the family Bible on the day she was born: “Unfortunately, only a girl again.”
According to Mercedes-Benz, that five-word notation triggered Bertha’s determination to prove that females are capable of great things. Going against her father’s wishes and casting his warnings aside, Bertha chose to partner with a young, penniless mechanical engineer named Karl Benz, who captured her imagination by revealing his dream of creating a horseless carriage.
In 1870, two years before the two were married, Bertha invested her dowry in Karl’s failing iron construction company so that he could begin a new venture, Benz & Company. The business focused on the manufacture of industrial machines and eventually began producing gasoline engines, allowing Karl to pursue his ultimate invention, the automobile.
It took years for Karl to create a working prototype, and Bertha was hardly a silent partner. According to Mercedes-Benz, she identified several key areas—such as the fuel line design—that Karl later improved. She also invented leather pads to supplement the wooden brakes and oversaw the business side of the company.
Technically, the first Benz Patent Motorwagen was completed in December 1885. Since the public wasn’t buying, however, Karl kept tinkering and hoping. It seems no one could be persuaded that the Motorwagen could replace reliability of a horse, especially when it came to long-distance travel.
Bertha remained patient and supportive, but finally, on August 5, 1888, she could wait no longer. Convinced that the Motorwagen was indeed ready for primetime, Bertha took matters into her own hands. Early that morning, she and her two eldest sons (Eugen and Richard) quietly rolled the Motorwagen out of the garage and down the road a bit before firing it up, so as not to wake a still-sleeping Karl. Bertha left a note for her husband, explaining that she and the boys were driving the Motorwagen from Mannheim to her parents’ home in Pforzheim, a journey of 107 kilometers (67 miles).
Knowing that the car didn’t have the range to complete the trip without having to refuel, and anticipating a breakdown or two, Bertha planned her route so that she would always be near a pharmacy. Since service stations were still far off in the future, pharmacies would have to do, since they stocked ligroin, a cleaning agent derived from petroleum.
Bertha’s road-trip preparation proved valuable. Not only did the Motorwagen run out of fuel as expected—a pharmacy in Wiesloch carries the distinction of being the “first filling station in the world”—the car also suffered mechanical issues. For every problem that arose on the 12-hour trip to Pforzheim, Bertha found a solution, including insulating the spark plug with her garter and using a hat pin to clean the fuel lines when they became clogged.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen created quite a stir, just as Bertha had hoped. Curious onlookers and, more importantly, inquisitive newspaper reporters came out to see the horseless carriage for themselves. It was marketing gold and ultimately vaulted the Benz family to fame and fortune.
Mercedes-Benz has told Bertha’s daring story twice via YouTube, the first time in 2018 in a video depicting Bertha making the trip alone (below), and again in 2019.
Denied a higher education but still savvy and determined enough to leave her mark on the automotive industry and the world, Bertha Benz was proclaimed an “honorary senator” by the Technical University of Karlsruhe on her 95th birthday. She died two days later on May 5, 1944. Seven decades later, she was named to the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016.
“(Bertha Benz) forged the road ahead to pave it for us all,” Mercedes’ 2018 video proclaimed. “She drove more than a car. She drove an industry.”