Bertha Benz, the First Road Trip Warrior
When Carl Benz registered a patent for his Motor Car on Jan. 29, 1886, he secured his place in history as the inventor of the automobile. When his wife, Bertha Benz, grabbed the wheel of the Benz Patent Motor Car on an August morning in 1888, with her sons by her side, she secured her place in history as the first person to embark on a long-distance journey.
Her trip between Mannheim and Pforzheim was more than a joy ride, though; it was an example of Bertha’s fearlessness and resolve. She was determined to get people to notice the incredible invention, rev up positive press, and drum up sales.
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The 65-mile journey that led Bertha and her children to her mother’s house was fraught with difficult terrain and mechanical difficulties, but no matter the challenge, Bertha never stopped.
“Lack of fuel, clogged valves or wiring chafed-through to breaking point – she found a solution to every difficulty on the journey. She resorted to a garter, a hat-pin, and plundered the ligroin stocks of pharmacies along the route. Even when the fuel ran out completely outside Wiesloch, and the Motor Car had to be pushed for several kilometers, she was not too proud to get down herself and help,” according to Mercedes-Benz.
Not only did mechanical troubles not deter Bertha from her goal, they also turned her into an automotive engineer.
“Bertha is even credited with devising the world’s first pair of brake pads: when the car’s worn-down, wooden brakes began to fail, she asked a local shoemaker to install leather soles instead,” reports History.com Writer Barbara Maranzani.
According to Mental Floss Writer Stacy Conradt, Bertha’s husband was ignorant of her plan and road trip adventure; she left him a note to find when he awoke, and after the approximately 12 hour trek, she followed up by sending Karl a telegram announcing that she and the boys had arrived safe and sound. As it turned out, this final note was unnecessary.
“Word had spread quickly from town to town as Bertha had stopped at small towns to fix problems and gas up,” reports Conradt.
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Bertha’s successful journey catapulted interest and sales of the Benz’s automobile, and it provided invaluable insight into the vehicle and the future of the automotive industry.
“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,” according to Maranzani.
If you want, you can relive Bertha’s journey with a drive along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, but there’s no need to carve out 12 hours — according to Conradt, your road trip time will clock in about an hour, minus any mechanical mishaps.
Bertha’s sheer determination, strength, and ingenuity blazed a trail for women, her family, and the automotive industry.