Bertha Benz — the PR pioneer who introduced the world to the car

Tired of her husband’s endless tinkering, Bertha Benz undertook the first long-distance journey in an automobile demonstrating its revolutionary potential.

A staged reenactment of Bertha driving a Model III, with her two sons. Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo.
A staged reenactment of Bertha driving a Model III, with her two sons. Credit: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1885, it is widely agreed, Karl Benz, aided by his wife Bertha, built the first car. After Karl’s death, Bertha confidently announced, ‘Before me, no automobile existed.’

In fact, neither statement is true. In 1863 Étienne Lenoir drove his internal combustion powered car twenty-two kilometres from Paris to Joinville and back. In 1826 Samuel Brown road tested a vehicle with a gas vacuum — i.e internal combustion — engine by driving it up Shooters Hill in south-east London. There were many others. Perhaps it is simplest to agree with the American engineering academic John Lienhard that ‘no one person invented the automobile’.

But that is no reason to dismiss Karl and certainly not Bertha. He was a great engineer and a perfectionist, but you need money to pursue perfection. Bertha came from a rich family and she was impatient with perfectionism.

Karl’s cars worked but, even after three iterations, not quite to his satisfaction. Bertha clearly had a number of engineering skills that were to come in handy. But, more importantly, she had one skill that established herself and her husband as the great progenitors of humanity’s single most effective (in the sense of causes changes to the physical world) technology.

Bertha Ringer was born on 3rd May 1849 in Pforzheim in south-western Germany. She died nearby in Ladenburg on 5th May 1944. Her longevity meant she experienced the unification of Germany in 1871 and the two world wars of the twentieth century. In later life she became an admirer of Hitler and, in return, Nazi propaganda honoured her as a ‘brave German mother’.

She became engaged to Karl in 1870. It is easy to see what he saw in her; she was beautiful albeit with a very stern look. It is less easy to see what she saw in him. In photographs his hair is swept back and he wears a full ‘imperial’ moustache. But he looks posed, carefully prepared for the camera. Photographs of Bertha looks unposed; her determination is the real thing. The portraits were not events in her life, they were an interruption.

Karl was born on 25th November 1844, he died on 4th April 1929 and was thus spared the rise of Nazism. He became engaged in 1870 and she at once invested some of her dowry in Karl’s iron construction company. This failed and, once again, Bertha’s dowry came to the rescue by backing his new venture. He joined a firm of local bicycle repairers to produce static gas — or, as we know them, internal combustion — engines. This went well and gave Karl the freedom to indulge in his real passion, the construction of a horseless carriage.

He succeeded in 1885 with what has become known, rightly or wrongly, as the first real car — the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. His timing was fortuitous. Two rivals — Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler — had produced a motorcycle with an internal combustion engine and, the following year, they installed their engine in an Américaine, a stagecoach. If we define cars as four-wheeled vehicles then this was a car and Karl’s three-wheeler wasn’t. A trivial point maybe. On  29th January 1886 he registered a patent for his machine and the document is now revered as the birth certificate of the car. Bertha was involved in elements of design and road testing, work that prepared her for the astonishing drive that was to make her famous.

In the hands of perfectionist Karl, over the next three years the car went through two more iterations. Then, on 5th August 1888, Bertha cracked.

Her problem was that Karl had no marketing sense. He had a perfectly workable car that should, by then, have been flooding the streets of Germany and beyond. Instead he just kept trying to make it better. It was as if Steve Jobs had gone all the way to the iPhone 10 before bothering to put his phone in the shops.

What was needed was a big gesture. It had to address three problems — one, people were scared of cars, parents dragged their children off the streets whenever one appeared; two, there were no proper roads; and, finally, what were they for? Not that Bertha would have thought this through but her big gesture did, in fact, solve all of these problems.

At 5am on Sunday 5th August Bertha and her two sons — 13-year-old Richard and 15-year-old Eugen — drove out of Mannheim in her husband’s car. She planned to visit her mother in Pforzheim, 66 miles to the south. It was to be the world’s first ‘road trip’.

Karl is said to have known nothing of the plan until, on rising, he found a note telling him what they had done. He was horrified. Both Richard and Eugen could drive but neither had been allowed to do so unless accompanied by their father or his foreman. The trip was both illegal and blasphemous. The Vatican had declared that an automobile was a devil’s or witch’s carriage; people were advised not even to look at such a machine. In addition, the local authority had banned any such machine from public roads. Police had been stationed outside Karl’s home and workshop, forcing Bertha to leave by an alley at the rear.

Worst of all the trip was, on the face of it, impossible. No automobile had driven so far before and even this one would need constant attention. Bertha, being Bertha, overcame all of these obstacles.

No filling stations existed at the time, a huge problem for a machine that only managed 25 mpg and had a tank that only held 1.3 gallons. Bertha created the first filling station in the world — it is still celebrated as such — in Wiesloch, twenty miles south of Mannheim, by buying the entire stock of ligroin from the Stadt Apotheke. Ligroin was a form of petrol used for cleaning. She also created the first brake pads when she persuaded a shoemaker to attach leather to Karl’s wooden blocks that were rapidly wearing out. She used a hat pin to unblock the fuel line and, excitingly, her garter to insulate the frayed wire on the spark plug. Finally, the cooling system was evaporative which meant it had to be continually replenished from rivers and streams.

Karl sent a telegram to Pforzheim in a state of panic. Bertha returned home by a less hilly route. She and the boys had been forced to push the car up the steeper inclines. Once home, she instructed Karl to include a third gear in future and, of course, he did.

Whatever arguments there may later have been about the first car, for the moment the Patent-Motorwagen was it. It was a sensation. Karl, having failed to get any PR traction from a static museum display before Bertha’s wild ride, persuaded the Munich police to let him drive round the city. The Münchener Tageblatt described the scene.

‘Without any sign of steam or other visible means of propulsion, human or otherwise, the vehicle proceeded on its way without difficulty, taking all the corners and avoiding all on-coming traffic and pedestrians. It was followed by a great crowd of breathless pedestrians, and the astonishment of everyone can easily be imagined.’

The novelty value aside, had Bertha answered the three questions about the car? She had. People were now excited by, not afraid of, cars; the roads were good enough to carry Karl’s car over long distance; their purpose was now clear — to visit your parents or, indeed, anybody at all.

Doubtless these discoveries would all have been made sooner rather than later. And people continued to be frightened or angered by these noisy and dangerous machines. There were many cries of ‘Get a horse!’ as they passed. But Bertha had crossed the line — not by engineering but by a public relations coup.

This was perhaps rather unfair on Daimler and Maybach, two much more innovative engineers than Benz. They raced ahead with car design producing their masterpiece. Daimler died in 1900 but his son worked with Maybach to complete, in 1901, the Mercedes 35hp. It was the future of car design and, in the words of the British car writer St John Nixon, it led to Karl’s car ‘being regarded more in the light of an obsolete vehicle which was rapidly losing its hold on the motoring public.’ Karl’s name survived, however, when, in 1926, the Mercedes-Benz company was formed. Latterly this development also led to the resurrection of the story of Bertha’s road trip in the company’s publicity. It established an originalist myth of Mercedes not as ‘a’ car company but as ‘the’ car company.

Where, now, does that leave Bertha? In 2008 she became an official tourist attraction with the opening of the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, an officially approved 194 kilometres of road marking her trip to and from Pforzheim. The pharmacy in Wiesloch is on the route at the ‘first filling station in the world.’

There is a kind of self-conscious comedy in all this. Bertha’s road trip was not a scientific or engineering triumph, it was a marketing triumph, not just for Karl’s machine but also for the mighty motor company that emerged from the work of various German engineers. There were plenty of such engineers in France at the time and Henry Ford would engineer his way to world domination when he produced the Model T in 1908. But as the journalist explains to James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ The story of Bertha has everything — she was determined, she was a woman, she was an impatient woman and she had a hesitant husband. The fact that she took the two boys on the ride also gave her the title ‘Brave Mother’. She was a legend that needed printing.

Furthermore, she explained the car simply by showing what it could do. This may have seemed obvious to the first automotive tinkerers but it was not obvious to the general public because they could not begin to imagine the changes involved in the overthrow of the horse by the internal combustion engine. The physical world would be transformed by roads, filling stations, motorways, motels and by mighty industrial processes that sprang from the process of car manufacturing. Landscapes and our senses of time and distance would be transformed. Most of all an unprecedented freedom of movement was to be provided for the masses.

It would all have happened without Bertha. But she accelerated the process by creating demand. She was a PR to the last. Only a PR would have said ‘Before me, no automobile existed’ and, more to the point, only a PR would have been, however momentarily, believed.

 

Bryan Appleyard’s book The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £22.00

Author

Bryan Appleyard