Female Pioneers: Bertha Benz and the first road trip in history

Our series of articles featuring historical women, in support of ‘International Women’s Day’ and #BalanceforBetter, continues with Bertha Benz. This brave and ambitious woman helped to launch the world’s very first car.

Bertha Benz Film

A scene from the film “Karl and Bertha”, where Bertha and her sons set off on their first car ride

A brilliant engineer and his brilliant wife

Bertha was born in 1849 in Pforzheim, Germany. She met Karl and as an independent woman, invested her own personal funds into his business before they were even married. He later used this money to fund his ‘horseless carriage’ project which became the ‘Benz Patent-Motorwagon’. Karl was a genius and brilliant engineer, however lacked ambition and business acumen, it was his wife who was the visionary, seeing the potential for the car to be so much more than a prototype and encouraging her husband to do more.

Bertha: woman on a mission

Determined to prove her theory, one August morning in 1888 she quietly roused her two teenage sons for a journey of a lifetime. They were to take the automobile on its very first long-distance journey – from their home in Mannheim to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, 56 miles away. Not wanting to tell her husband her brave plan, Bertha left a brief note for him, explaining they had gone out and quietly pushed the vehicle away from the house so that Karl wouldn’t be woken. Once at a safe distance, the trio fired up the single-cylinder, 1.6 litre engine and set off.

The trip would prove challenging. With no clear roads or markings, Bertha had no idea in which direction they were heading so had to figure it out as they went along. They also encountered many hills and uneven terrain; the car was unable to navigate such obstacles and so the boys had to get out and push.

First Car

The first car by Karl Benz 1886

Solving problems on the road

The engine also posed risks. It had to be constantly cooled to keep it ticking along and to do this, Bertha had to pour water over the engine and let it evaporate along with the heat. During the journey frequent stops at rivers, streams and shops were made to keep water supplies topped up.

Fuel also had to be replenished – this was available in the form of ligroin, petroleum ether commonly known as benzene and available in chemists. Bertha re-stocked at one in Wiesloch, so it therefore became the world’s first fuel station, quite by accident, with the original building still there today.

The problems didn’t stop there – midway the car broke down. She didn’t panic. Instead Bertha used her initiative along with her garments to fix the serious issues. She used her hat pin to clear a blocked fuel line and wrapped one of her garters around an ignition wire which needed insulating.

During the roundtrip Bertha and her boys also sought the help of a blacksmith, to mend the drive chain and when the brakes failed asked a local cobbler to line them with leather, thus introducing the very first brake pads.

Achieving personal and historical success

Once at her mother’s, Bertha sent a telegram to her husband informing him of her triumph.

A few days later, she returned home full of new ideas on how to improve the automobile model and update the patent. Based on her own experiences and having conducted the very first official test drive, Bertha suggested the car be fitted with a lower gear so it could climb hills and well as lining for the brakes.

In undertaking such an adventure, not only did she accomplish a personal achievement, but also a historical one. She made the car accessible and marketed it to the general public, proving it could be used for personal mobility. Bertha also generated lots of publicity helping to propel her husband’s business and ultimately contributing to the future success of Mercedes-Benz.

Bertha’s story is a testament to the integral role of women in automotive history. She lived until she was 95 years old and today you can still retrace her famous steps via the ‘Bertha Benz Memorial Route’ in Mannheim, Germany.