Bertha Benz’s 65-mile drive in 1888 made headlines for her husband’s fledgling auto company.
German mechanical engineer Karl Friedrich Benz invented and built a three-wheel “motorwagen,” today recognized as the world’s first car. His wife helped steer the company’s first marketing campaign.
Other inventors had experimented with electric and steam-powered vehicles. A gasoline powered engine had been placed placed on a pushcart in 1870, but it is was Karl Benz who invented the modern car when he built his “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine) in Mannheim, Germany, in 1885.
Benz applied for an Imperial patent for his three-wheeled carriage powered by a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine on January 29, 1886. The Benz Reich Patent No. 37435 has been often referred to as the birth certificate of the automobile. The design is recognized as the world’s first for a practical internal combustion engine powered automobile.
Although there had already been “auto-mobiles,” Benz used the internal combustion engine as the drive system for a “self-mover,” notes a Mercedes Benz company historian. “He presented his stroke of genius at the Imperial Patent Office – the car was born.” Since he soon built several identical three-wheeled vehicles, Benz also has been credited with the first “production car” in history.
Born in 1844 in Baden Muehlburg, Benz founded an “Iron Foundry and Machine Shop” in 1871. He received his first engine patent in 1879.
Benz’s 1886 engine – with a displacement of 0.954 of a liter – anticipated design elements still found in modern internal combustion engines, including a crankshaft with balance weights, electric ignition, and water cooling (generating 0.55 kW and a top speed of 16 km/h, virtually corresponding to the power of one horse).
It would not be long before his wife — from a wealthy German family who had earlier used her dowry to help Benz — made headlines driving his new automobile.
Bertha’s Publicity Stunt
Thirty-nine-year-old Bertha Benz made history on August 12, 1888, when she became the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile. She followed wagon tracks on a trip that popularized Karl Benz’s latest invention and reportedly saved him from financial ruin.
Bertha drove away with the “Model III Patent Motorwagen” without her husband’s permission, although she left a note saying she was taking their 13 and 15-year-old sons to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Her route from their home in Mannheim was about 65 miles, one-way.
The soon widely publicized drive, which included stops at apothecary shops to buy a petroleum solvent needed keep the car running, took about 15 hours. She returned home three days later.
“The value of the journey to the fledgling car company that would in time become Mercedes-Benz is hard to quantify properly, but she surely helped to ensure that by the end of the century it was the largest car company in the world,” concluded a 2013 article in The Telegraph.
“Bertha’s journey proved many things, not least that a woman was every bit as capable of handling one of these newfangled contraptions as a man,” the article also noted. “Today you can go to Mannheim and retrace her steps by following the signs of the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.”
According to Mary Bellis in her 1903 “Biography of Karl Benz,” Benz retired from Benz & Company after his designs became outdated by inventions by Gottlieb Daimler. Daimler (together with his design partner Wilhelm Maybach) in 1885 had taken the internal combustion engine “a step further and patented what is generally recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine,” noted Bellis.
Karl Benz would serve as a member of the supervisory board of Daimler-Benz AG from 1926, when the company was formed, until his death in 1929. Bertha Benz was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016 as the first female automotive pioneer.
In America, Charles Duryea claimed the first U.S. patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. By the turn of the century, about 8,000 vehicles shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons.
The first U.S. auto show took place in November 1900 in New York City, where public workers annually removed 450,000 tons of horse manure from streets. America’s highways and travel history are on exhibit at the National Museum of American History’s America on the Move.
Recommended Reading: Bertha Takes a Drive: How the Benz Automobile Changed the World (2017). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “First Car, First Road Trip.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/benz-patents-first-car. Last Updated: January 23, 2022. Original Published Date: September 15, 2015.