Bertha Benz’s Historic Car Ride

Nov 17, 2021 1 comments

In the early morning hours of August 5, 1888, the 39-year-old Bertha Benz, wife of automobile pioneer Karl Benz, sneaked out of the house, and without the knowledge of her husband took to the road on one of the automobiles her husband had invented. Accompanying her on the 66-mile trip was her two teenage sons, Richard and Eugen, aged thirteen and fifteen respectively. The goal of this historic journey was to prove to her husband that his invention was worthy of travel and to encourage him to market his invention as such. Thanks to Bertha Benz, Karl Benz is often given credit for inventing the automobile.

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard push-start their car in a reconstructed scene of the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888

Actors posing as Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard push-start their car in a reconstructed scene of the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Photo: Daimler

Bertha Benz took an active role in her husband’s business. Before Karl and Bertha got married, Bertha used part of her dowry to invest in his failing iron construction company. When Karl moved onto a new manufacturing venture, Bertha continued to finance her husband’s investments. Although Karl was a brilliant engineer, he was not much of a businessman. In 1885, Karl finished work on his first automobile, the Motorwagen—a tricycle, powered by a 954cc single cylinder four-stroke engine, producing 500 watts at 250 rpm. It is regarded as the world's first automobile. Karl unveiled his invention to the public in July 1886.

The public’s response to Karl’s invention was disappointingly lukewarm, and this bothered Bertha more than it did Karl. Karl reacted by building two more improved models—model No.2 was powered by a 1.5 hp engine, and model No.3 had a 2 hp engine, allowing the vehicle to reach a maximum speed of approximately 10 mph. Karl also improved the chassis. He added wooden-spoke wheels, a fuel tank, and a manual leather shoe brake on the rear wheels.

Bertha Benz at age 18.

Bertha Benz at age 18.

Meanwhile, Bertha was getting restless. “Karl, the perfectionist, was trying to get everything just right before he took the next step,” wrote John Lienhard in The Engines of Our Ingenuity. “Bertha knew perfectly well that we can't perfect a design before we field-test it. And she had more faith in Karl's auto than he did.”

So she hatched up a plan. One August morning, while Karl was still asleep, Bertha left the house along with her two sons, and carefully made their way to the factory. They quietly pushed the vehicle out of the workshop and only started it once they were out of earshot. The story goes that Bertha left a note on the kitchen table for Karl, telling him that they are visiting her mother in Pforzheim. She didn’t mention the motor car, and Karl assumed they took the train. It was only later during the day when he noticed his vehicle was missing he realized what his wife had done.

It is not known how Karl Benz reacted to his wife’s little transgression, but it’s safe to assume that he might have been a little alarmed. The journey to Pforzheim was usually made on wagons, and there were many stretches on the road that were unsuitable for automobiles. Bertha herself was not sure of the route. She knew that she had to stick to the places and roads that they knew and initially headed towards Weinheim. From Weinheim, they headed south, to Wiesloch. A source of great concern was gasoline. The vehicle did not have a gas tank. Instead, the entire 4.5 liter supply was stored in the carburetor, from which gasoline fumes were sucked into the engine for ignition. In those days, gasoline was sold in apothecaries as a cleaning agent under the name “ligorine”. Bertha filled her car in Wiesloch and then again in Langenbrücken and Bruchsal during their journey.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 3

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 3 of 1886, used by Bertha Benz for the first long distance road trip by automobile.

Keeping the engine cool was another worrying factor. The engine was cooled using an evaporative cooling system, and the trio added water to their supply at every opportunity—at public houses, from streams and even from roadside ditches.

From Wiesloch, the journey continued via Bruchsal and Durlach, where it headed east, out of the Rhine Valley and into the hills. The automobile’s meagre 2 hp engine was not enough to tackle big gradients, and Bertha and her sons had to get out to push the vehicle uphill. While driving downhill, the wooden shoe brake which was operated by hand using a lever at the side of the vehicle and acted on both rear wheels wore out quickly, and Bertha had to visit a cobbler to install leather brakes, making the world's first pair of brake linings. When a fuel line got blocked, she used her hat pin to poke it open, and when the insulation on the ignition wire wore out, she used her garter as insulation material. Thankfully, there were no punctures because the rear wheels had iron rings and the front wheel was covered in solid rubber.

Bertha and her sons reached Pforzheim at dusk, exhausted but happy. They quickly telegrammed Karl and informed him about their safe arrival. A few days later, the travelers began the return journey to Mannheim. This time, the route was shorter and headed almost in a straight line via Bauschlott, Bretten, Bruchsal, Hockenheim and Schwetzingen to Mannheim.

The town pharmacy in Wiesloch, where Bertha Benz filled her car, now referred to as the "First filling station in the world".

The town pharmacy in Wiesloch, where Bertha Benz filled her car, now referred to as the "First filling station in the world". Photo: Rudolf Stricker/Wikimedia Commons

By completing the first long-distance journey in automotive history, Bertha Benz proved to her husband and also to many skeptics that the automobile had a big future ahead. She also demonstrated that test driving new automobiles under difficult conditions were an essential step to automobile development. Following this journey, Karl made several improvements to the design, such as adding new brake linings and a low gear for climbing inclines. When Karl unveiled the new motor car in Munich shortly after, the crowd was dazzled. Within ten years Benz & Cie had become the largest automobile company in the world, “all because Bertha Benz had the nerve to take one giant leap for mankind.”

In 1925, Karl Benz wrote about his wife in his memoirs: “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.”

# “August 1888: Bertha Benz takes world’s first long-distance trip in an automobile”, Daimler
#  John H. Lienhard, “Bertha Benz's Ride”, The Engines of Our Ingenuity
# Bertha Benz, Wikipedia


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