San Francisco Bay Area Section

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz

BERTHA BENZ AND THE WORLD'S FIRST MOTORIZED ROAD TRIP

In July of this year Bertha Benz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn Michigan making her and Karl Benz the only husband and wife team to be so honored.  We are pleased to print the following article commemorating Bertha Benz and the remarkable road-trip that demonstrated the feasibility of motorized transport. 

 The invention of the automobile has directly affected society for both men and women. Although the car industry is largely male dominated, Bertha Benz is mentioned frequently as a woman pioneer with an important role in the history of making cars.   Bertha Ringer Benz was the daughter of a wealthy family from the German town of Pforzheim. In 1872, she used part of her dowry (to no avail) to save Karl Benz, her soon to be husband’s, iron construction company. Although this business failed, he moved on, using Bertha’s continued financial support, to form a new manufacturing venture known as Benz & Cie. Karl developed the first true automobile in December 1885, receiving a patent 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 speed of 25 mph. Bertha noticed that Karl concentrated mostly on the engineering side of the company, but ignored the marketing side. She sought to rectify this, as she knew that publicizing their car was important, especially given the competition of other new manufacturers then.  Unbeknownst to Karl, the Benz hit the road!  In August 1888, Bertha, at the age of 39, along with her two teenage sons, decided to take a trip in their automobile to see their grandmother.  Bertha acted as driver and mechanic along the rocky, and sometimes unpaved road. When low on fuel, she found a local pharmacy selling ligroin, the petroleum solvent used as gasoline; when the car’s ignition broke, she fixed it with her garter; and when the fuel line became clogged, Bertha cleared with a hairpin. Remarkably, she even devised 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.  Eyewitness reports from residents of the towns along the 65 mile, 12 hour journey reached the press, expressing amazement at her achievement and how safe it seemed to be. While men concentrated on racing cars, Bertha thought about their more practical side. Bertha’s goal was to prove that their invention was autonomous, and was ready to enter into production. She became the first woman to make such a long distance trip popularizing their automobile and most likely saving Karl from professional and financial ruin. The avalanche of publicity resulted in the couple receiving orders almost immediately. After adding a gear system, within a decade, it became the world’s largest automobile company with 400 employees and annual sales of nearly 600 cars.  In 1926, Benz & Cie. merged with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach’s company to form Daimler-Benz, home to the Mercedes-Benz! Karl remained with the company in an advisory position as well as starting another automotive business with his son, until his death in 1929. Bertha Benz died at the age of 95 in 1944. Her 1888 triumph has been memorialized in books and on film, and today motorists can travel the 120 mile Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which follows the path of her historic trip.

Yvonne Lazear, President Central Coast Section 

 

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