Bertha Benz (1849-1944) had been married eighteen years when she took her husband’s car for a spin—without his permission.
She was 39 years old and had just learned to drive. She planned to visit her mother, but needed help in case the car broke down, so she enlisted her teenage sons.
One morning before dawn, they rolled down the driveway so Mr. Benz wouldn’t hear them, and off they went to Pforzheim, sixty miles away.
The year was 1888. There were no roads.
What was Bertha thinking as she sat behind the steering column en route to the Black Forest? Would her husband be mad, glad, insanely worried? That car was his baby.
Truly. It was the first one ever invented.
Other inventors had tried to attach an engine to a carriage, but Carl Benz conceived the first vehicle designed to use an engine. Bertha borrowed his third prototype, but he couldn’t find buyers for it.
No Roads. No Gas Stations. No Mechanics.
Bertha became exasperated with her genius husband and hatched her plan to visit mom, proving herself to be a brilliant marketing director for the fledgling Benz motorcar company.
She hit the road when there were no roads.
In Wiesloch, she stopped at a pharmacy to refuel, since gasoline was sold as cleaning fluid then.
In Bruchsal, she found a blacksmith to repair the snapped drive chain.
In Bauschlott, she had a cobbler replace the leather on a brake shoe. While he was working, she telegrammed her now-frantic husband to let him know she and the baby were fine.
Somewhere along the route, she used her hatpin to clear a clogged fuel line and insulated a short-circuited wire with material from her garter.
At another point, her boys and a few local farmers pushed the car up a hill, since its 2.5 horsepower engine couldn’t make it.
She arrived in Pforheim after dusk, telegraphed her husband of their success, and became an immediate sensation. People lined the road on her return trip, some fascinated, others frightened by the hissing and spitting horseless carriage. But the automobile had proved it safety and utility.
Bertha’s Legacy: One Billion Drivers
Germany holds a festival every two years to celebrate Bertha’s historic journey.
Since 2008, you can drive the Bertha Benz Memorial Route from Mannheim to Pforzheim via Heidelberg. It runs through the beautiful Baden wine region and signposts the milestones of Bertha’s trip.
From age 22, when she invested her dowry in her husband’s company, through age 39, when she pioneered the road trip, until her death at 95, Bertha Benz’s daring helped birth an invention that changed our world (for better and worse).
What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Bertha Benz
- If there’s no road, make your own
- There will always be hills and always be help
More About Berth Benz
- Bertha Benz at Wikipedia
- The Improbable Journey of Berta Benz, an animated film by Gutsy Gals Inspire Me
- The Berta Benz Memorial Club, a German non-profit seeking to keep Bertha’s memory and her route alive