May 5

This Day in History

Automotive

May 5, 1944:

Driving pioneer Bertha Benz dies

Bertha Benz, the wife of inventor Karl Benz and the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance, dies on this day in 1944, in Ladenburg, Germany.

Born Bertha Ringer, she married Karl Benz around 1870. Karl Benz received a patent for his horseless carriage, called the Motorwagen, in January 1886. 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. Benz was having trouble selling the Motorwagen, however: Early press reports were not altogether positive, and customers were reluctant to take a chance on a vehicle that had so far only been tested over short distances.

In early August 1888, Bertha and her two teenage sons, Richard and Eugen, hatched a plan to take the car on a surprise visit to her mother in Pforzheim, Germany. Knowing that Karl would never allow it, they left early in the morning, while he was still sleeping. The trio drove from their home in Mannheim to Pforzheim and back, a total distance of 106 kilometers (65 miles). Though big streets in the cities were often paved, there were no real roads outside urban areas yet, and Bertha had to drive along railway lines in order to find her way. To refuel the car, she bought Ligroin, a detergent then used as fuel, at local pharmacies. When the car's fuel line clogged, she unclogged it using one of her hairpins. She also used the garter on her stocking to fix a broken ignition.

Bertha's history-making drive proved that the horseless carriage was suitable for regular use. The press covered it extensively, and Karl Benz began to field requests from potential buyers all over the world. By the end of the 19th century, Benz & Cie. was the world's largest automobile company, with 572 vehicles produced in 1899 alone. Karl Benz left the company several years later. He died in 1929, three years after Benz & Cie. merged with Daimler Motors to form Daimler-Benz, makers of the famous Mercedes-Benz. Bertha Benz continued to live at their home in Ladenburg until her death on May 5, 1944, at the age of 95.

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