Who invented the automobile? The answer depends a little bit on your definition of the word. The first practical gas-powered carriage was built by Karl Benz, who later merged his company with Daimler Motor Group to form Mercedez-Benz.
Karl Benz was a design visionary whose first fascinations were with locomotives and bicycles. His 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen was the first automobile to generate its own power, which was made with a two-stroke engine and transmitted to the rear axle by a pair of chains. He didn’t think it was ready for the road, and he was mostly right.
Bertha Benz, Karl’s wife and business partner, believed in her husband’s invention. She had been there since the beginning, and provided much of the funding for it along the way. If she hadn’t taken it out for a secret, illegal joyride, the Motorwagen may have never left the garage.
From Dowry to Down and Out
Cäcilie Bertha Ringer was born into a wealthy family in Pforzheim, Germany, in the spring of 1849. Her father was a carpenter and real estate investor who indulged his young daughter’s wide-eyed interest in the workings of locomotives and other technical things. Because of her father’s position, Bertha was able to get an education beyond the domestic arts, and enjoyed studying the natural sciences most of all.
Bertha grew into a beautiful and clever young woman, and by the age of twenty had many potential suitors from well-off families. But they all seemed to leave her cold. By chance, she and her mother shared a coach one summer day with a poor, disheveled young mechanical engineer named Karl Benz. When he started talking about the horseless carriage he was working on, Bertha fell in love.
Karl had started an iron foundry not long before meeting Bertha, but he had a terrible business partner. Bertha used part of her dowry to buy him out and save the company, which began to produce gas engines. Against her father’s wishes and warnings, they were married within a few years and had five children.
Karl spent the next decade working on his horseless carriage despite a completely disinterested public. Few people were ready to invest in what was essentially a spindly tricycle with a lawnmower engine that ran on lighter fluid. He struggled to market the car to potential investors and buyers who were happy with their horses.
The First Road Trip Was a Joyride
Fortunately for Karl, Bertha believed in her husband’s creation even more than he did. At that point, the Motorwagen had only tooled around for short distances. She knew that it would take a decently long journey to really torture test the thing and figure out its remaining weaknesses. So on August 5th, 1888, she and her two teen-aged sons, Eugen and Richard, took off at dawn on the world’s first road trip without telling Karl or anyone else.
The trio faced numerous obstacles along the way, but Bertha hacked her way through all of them. The biggest problem was that the car had no fuel tank and only held 4.5L in the carburetor. It ran on ligroin, a type of heavy naphtha distilled from petroleum, which could only be found at pharmacies. So when Bertha and the boys ran out of fuel about 40km (25mi) into the trip, she stopped at a drugstore in Weisloch that is now known as the world’s first gas station.
When the fuel line clogged, Bertha used her hat pin to get it flowing again. At one point an ignition wire shorted, so Bertha sacrificed a garter from her stockings to insulate it.
Eventually the Motorwagen’s wooden brakes began to wear out. She managed to stop at a cobbler to have him fortify them with leather, inventing the first brake pads in the process. They went about 104km (65 mi) in total, arriving at Pforzheim around sunset. Bertha sent Karl a telegram to tell him what she’d done and how it went. She drove back to Mannheim a few days later.
… and It Totally Worked to Sell the Car as a Concept
Bertha and the Motorwagen encountered a lot of attention on their joyride through the countryside. People of all ages gazed in wonder as she passed. Some thought the crazy contraption was a sign of the apocalypse, and others wanted a test ride. From then on, there was enough interest in the automobile to drive it forward.
There’s a short video below that shows a Benz Patent Motorwagen being started and wheeled out to the track. It has a lot of good close-ups of the engine running, and you can see just how much Bertha and the boys would have been thrown around on that road trip.
What Bertha did was risky, dangerous, and downright awesome. She is quite rightfully still being lauded for her accomplishments. The Bertha Benz Memorial Route was established in 2008, and drivers can follow signs outlining her path from Mannheim to Pforzheim. Sounds like a good road trip to us.