Bertha Ringer Benz, the daughter of a wealthy family from the southwestern German town of Pforzheim, had come to her husband’s aid before. Two years before the couple’s 1872 wedding she had used part of her dowry to help prop up the failing iron construction company Karl Benz had launched with an irresponsible business partner. When he lost control of the company shortly thereafter, Benz moved on, using Bertha’s continued financial support (and business acumen) to form a new manufacturing venture known as Benz & Cie. When the company proved successful, Karl was able to turn his attention to a lifelong dream—the creation of the first true automobile. After several years of failed attempts, Karl finally finished work on his first horseless carriage in December 1885 (he received a patent for it the following year). The single-cylinder, 2.5-horsepower car had three wheels—one in front and two in the back—and could reach a maximum speed of 25 mph.
Karl may have been a supremely talented engineer, but he was a terrible marketer. The first few public displays of his new invention didn’t go well, including one demonstration that quickly ended when a driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a nearby wall, terrifying onlookers. Ever the perfectionist, Benz retreated to his factory, where he continually tinkered with his automobile in private. However, Bertha, whose inheritance had helped keep the family afloat in the lean years, was well aware of the need to publicize the automobile as much as possible. And there was added pressure from the competition just a few miles away; another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler, had invented a horseless carriage of his own— the world’s first four-wheeled, high-speed automobile.
Frustrated by her husband’s apparent unwillingness to act on his own, Bertha took matters into her own hands. In early August 1888 (the date has been variously given as either August 5 or 12), Bertha packed up one of her husband’s cars, the recently completed Patent-Motorwagen No. 3, and with her two teenage sons in tow set out to visit her mother in Pforzheim. She didn’t tell Karl beforehand, but instead left him a letter informing him of her plans.
The Benzes hit the road— which in many places turned out to be rocky, dusty and unpaved—with Bertha acting as both driver and automobile mechanic along the way. When she ran low on fuel, she sought out a local pharmacy that sold ligroin, the petroleum solvent used to run Karl Benz’s cars. She made an emergency repair to the car’s ignition with her garter. When the fuel line became clogged part of the way through their journey, Bertha was able to clear it using nothing more than her hairpin. 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.
The three travelers finally reached the home of Bertha’s mother around dusk, having covered 65 miles in less than 12 hours. Bertha sent Karl a telegram informing him of the family’s safe arrival but news of her exploit had already reached the press, thanks to eyewitness reports from residents of the towns and villages Bertha and the boys had passed along the way. Most expressed amazement at Karl Benz’s achievement and how safe it seemed to be, although others were reportedly terrified of the sudden appearance of the automobile in their midst—one driven by a women, no less. While the publicity was certainly nice, there was a more practical upshot to Bertha Benz’s road trip. 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.
After visiting with her mother for several days, Bertha set out for her return trip, following a different route and introducing her husband’s automobile to even more people before arriving home safely. In all, she had driven over 120 miles at a time when no other automobile had traveled more than a few dozen feet. Her trip unleashed an avalanche of publicity and the couple began receiving orders for their newfangled contraption almost immediately. Within a decade Karl’s company, Benz & Cie., became the world’s largest automobile company with a full-time staff of more than 400 and annual sales of nearly 600 vehicles.
Karl remained with the company he had founded in an advisory position until his death in 1929. Benz & Cie. had merged three years earlier with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach’s company to form Daimler-Benz, home to the Mercedes-Benz. While the Benz family remained on the company’s board, they also started another automobile business, Benz Sonz, in 1906. Karl and Bertha, along with sons Eugen and Richard, who had accompanied their mother on her history-making 1888 trip, formed the new company, which remained family-owned until it closed its doors in 1924. Bertha Benz died 20 years later at the age of 95. Her 1888 triumph has been memorialized in books and on film, and today motorists can travel the 120-mile long Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which follows the path of her historic trip.