On August 5, 1888, Bertha Benz was the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance. She brought worldwide attention to the Motorwagen, the precursor to modern-day automobiles. Although her husband, Karl Benz, is celebrated on paper as the inventor, it was Bertha’s money, marketing and chutzpah that put his car on the map.
Born Bertha Ringer in 1849 to a wealthy German family, she married engineer Karl in 1872. Bertha used her family money to finance her husband’s creation of a horseless carriage. Under modern day law, Bertha would have actually owned the patent rights. However, German law in the 1880s prohibited married women from even applying for a patent.
In 1886, Karl introduced one of the first automobiles to the world, the Motorwagen. The wooden vehicle had two wheels in the back, one in the front and a handle-like contraption as a steering wheel. Powered by a single-cylinder, 2.5-horsepower engine, it could reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
However two years later, the Motorwagen was suffering from slow sales. People were reluctant to buy a vehicle they had only seen travel very short distances. Bertha realized the only way to sell more cars was if they demystified the public’s fear of driving. Bertha decided to get behind the wheel of what became one of the shrewdest marketing stunts in history.
At the break of dawn on August 5, 1888, Bertha and her two sons quietly pushed their Motorwagen out of the driveway as to not awaken a slumbering Karl. Bertha kept her plan a secret from her husband, who would never allow it. The trio began their historic “impromptu” 60-mile trip from their home in Mannheim to her mother’s house in Pforzheim. With only a small amount of fuel in the carburetor, Bertha had to plan her route around where apothecaries were located so she could buy ligroin, a detergent that was used as fuel.
During her road trip, Bertha also proved herself to be extremely resourceful. When a fuel line got clogged, she used a long hat pin to fix it. She used a garter to repair a broken ignition. At one point, she had to employ the help of a blacksmith to help fix a broken chain. When the brakes on the car began to fail, Bertha visited a cobbler who installed leather on them, hence creating the first brake pads. Meanwhile, at a time before roadmaps even existed, she literally forged her own path on the trip via automobile to her mom’s house.
Sure enough, Bertha’s successful long-distance road trip garnered a great deal of publicity. Additionally, the trip allowed Bertha and Karl to make several improvements to their horseless carriage, including additional gear for climbing uphill and brake linings to improve brake power.
Bertha passed away on May 5, 1944. She was 95 years old. We thank the driving pioneer for bravely taking to the open road and opening our eyes to a life-changing mode of travel.