Digging into automotive history is interesting because it can challenge fond beliefs that you have held for a long time.
For instance, who would have believed that Bertha Benz, wife of the famed Carl, was such a mover and shaker, or that the great man probably wouldn’t have got where he did without her hand being partially on the steering wheel.
You see, instead of being content to run the local parent-teacher association, Bertha was her husband’s business partner and earned the right to share the limelight as the first person to drive a car over a long distance.
This accomplishment only occurred after she had pulled Carl out of the financial doo-doo when his first business failed, and had dug further into her seemingly bottomless purse, to help him set up Benz and Co – the place where the car legend began.
Women who dare: First long-distance car journey
It was in 1888 that Bertha took on her epic journey. The event took place only three years after Carl got his patent for his first three-wheeled horseless carriage piloted by a single cylinder 2.5 horsepower motor that roared along at an incredible 25mph.
Bertha, it appears, also knew about marketing and the need to get their car noticed before that Daimler chap down the street beat the Benz’s to the punch. So she took off on her epic journey.
Bertha, being a woman of action, leapt aboard a Motorwagen No 3 without telling her husband of her plans and set out for a long drive and, unknowingly, secured her place in history.
Mechanical feat: ‘Beating the hairpin bends’
Now, before you start getting ideas of a trek across Europe, remember that it was 1888 and the Autobahn had still to be invented, so the notable journey was from Mannheim to Pforzheim, where Bertha’s mother lived.
The road was rocky and rough, and unfortunately for Bertha, the only way to get up steep hills was to push. But, she was not only tough, she was also a talented mechanic — which given the questionable reliability of the car was just as well.
Bertha was, as it turned out, was forced to rely on her mechanical skills several times before reaching her destination.
Legend has it that she ran low on fuel and bought ligroin, the petroleum solvent used to run Carl Benz’s cars, at a local pharmacy. The car’s ignition was repaired with a garter and a blocked fuel line with a hairpin.
When the wooden brakes failed, the indomitable Bertha devised the world’s first pair of brake pads: She got a local shoemaker to install leather soles and so solved a major problem for her engineer husband.
The journey ended safely at Mom’s house just before dark. It had taken under 12 hours and had covered 65 miles (104km).
Watch: Bertha’s epic journey ‘driving an industry’
The story ended happily for the Benz’s. The media hailed her stunning achievement and the chivalrous Carl, concerned that his wife had to push the car so often, modified the vehicle and introduced the world’s first gear system.
Bertha died in 1944, but her name lives on through the Bertha Benz Memorial Route which follows the path she drove in 1888, becoming a pioneer at the age of 39.
Fittingly, in 1925 when writing of his wife, Carl said:
“Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.”