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The Distance: Bertha Benz and Automobile History

Updated on May 5, 2015

An Inauspicious Start

The rise of automobiles was not as easy as just placing a new model on the market and having the world buy them up en masse. There were bumps along the way across the globe as various inventors worked to patent and release their 'horseless carriages' to the market.

But, in the midst of stories about Henry Ford or Gottlieb Daimler there are some figures many car lovers don't know about, but who still ended up playing a major role in the mass-marketization and overall consumer appeal of the first automobiles. Bertha Benz is one such person.

In 1871 Bertha Ringer, as she was known at that time, invested in the workshop of her then fiancé Karl Benz. Germany in the 1870's had some somewhat convoluted laws that would not have allowed Bertha to invest in Karl's business if she had actually gotten officially wed to him, so she invested while she could (becoming in fact a partner in the business) and then married in 1872.

Overall, Bertha and Karl had five children together between 1873 and 1890, leading to a large and apparently happy family.The problem was, leading up to 1886 and beyond, Karl's invention; the Motorwagen, was not doing too well. While Karl had gotten it patented and had worked out the technical aspects of the machine, business was far from booming. At the time, automobiles were seen as merely unique distractions and only really viable for around town driving. The press was not positive, and at the time, it looked like the Motorwagen and Karl Benz would simply fade into obscurity.

New Technology

The Motorwagen was a pretty nifty ride for 1886, especially because it is often considered the first true automobile (meaning it was purpose-built to be powered by an internal combustion engine). It featured three wheels, two in the back with one located in the front; and a handle for steering. A wooden body and a 1-cylinder, 2.5-horsepower engine rounded out the specs. When moving along, this machine could hit speeds of up to 25 mph.

Admittedly, not too impressive by today's standards, but when the prior equivalent was being drawn behind horses, the sheer novelty of the invention was enough to surprise and scare most people.

When the machine first hit the market in 1885-1886, the cost was about $1,000, equivalent to around $26,000 in 2015. The biggest problem with the Motorwagen, much like new technology today; was the consumer appreciation of 'bang for your buck'.

Sure, you could have a fancy horseless carriage to drive around town in, but would it actually be useful beyond a few small drives around the local city? Just like with any new item or device that hits the market, it had to be shown to last and provide the customer with some extended benefits.

Karl was stumped. He had just gotten this device officially patented, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and the general public response was fairly lukewarm.

That is where Bertha comes in.

She had an idea to help showcase the car and its more practical appeal. Of course her plan was illegal and went against her husbands wishes, but the benefits of success would make those negative impacts not matter as much.

The Motorwagen of Karl Benz


The 65-Mile Road Test

In August of 1888, Bertha and two of her teenage sons decided to take the car to visit her mother in Pforzheim, Germany. At the outset, this does not look like anything too daring or bad, but there were some complications.

One is that Karl would never allow it, especially with a device like Motorwagen. Secondly, local officials had no laws or established precedents for a vehicle like this traveling public roads, so who knows how they may react? At the core of it, Bertha was really trying to advertise the car by letting the public see it, and ensuring that it (along with her previously invested funds) did not go by the wayside.

Despite the risks, Bertha snagged the car, and started off from Mannheim to Pforzheim. The total trip back and forth only racked up 65 miles (106 kilometers) but quite a few interesting incidents occurred along the way that both showcased Bertha's ingenuity as well as the vehicles versatility.

The first obstacle to any type of travel was the simple fact that roads suitable for driving were not really there outside of the city limits. She actually had to drive on railway lines to find her way.

On top of this, she had to actually refuel using Ligroin (a type of detergent) which was available at apothecaries, fix her brakes (in the process beginning the invention of brake lining), unclog a fuel line with a hair pin, and even use a garter to fix a broken ignition.

Needless to say, it was an adventure.

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz, one of the pioneers of automobile travel.
Bertha Benz, one of the pioneers of automobile travel. | Source

Publicity and Profits

Bertha arrived at dusk, and telegraphed Karl when she arrived at her mother's house. I assume this both relieved Karl, and also likely made him pretty angry. But in reality, Bertha had just done him a big favor.

Driving around the streets of Germany in the Motorwagen provided numerous bystanders with an opportunity to look at the vehicle in action, and provided a great publicity stunt. It also provided a boon for the car from a technical perspective. With Bertha doing on-the-fly repairs, stopping for 'gas', and other key components that have become mainstay aspects of car care, new factors and items such as a special gear for uphill climbs and improved brake power were implemented upon her return.

In addition to this, people actually bought some of these vehicles. Bertha was able to show that this new invention was actually viable for regular use. By 1899, Benz was the world's largest automobile maker, with orders for 572 vehicles in that year alone. Eventually Karl left the company, but the steady profits and growth allowed his former company to merge with Daimler Motors in 1926 to create Daimler-Benz...who went on to make a mildly popular automotive model called the Mercedes-Benz.

With a simple trip through the countryside, the automobile took a major turn to public acceptance, which paved the way for future inventors, future sales, and the current market penetration we see across the globe today.

Thanks to Bertha, not only did she guarantee those funds she put in years prior come to fruition, but she placed her mark on history. Today, festivals and events honoring her legacy are held in Germany, and she has been credited for her accomplishments in film, television and writings.

Bertha Benz played a unique, and often forgotten role in the history of the automobile; one that should certainly not be neglected in this automotive age in which we live.


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