Mercedes-Benz mom and inventor, Bertha Benz, newest Automotive Hall of Fame member
Many moms think they deserve a medal for taking young children on a road trip solo. Bertha Benz not only undertook the first recorded road trip, she did it in 1888 at a time when there were few roads and even fewer road amenities. Forget about the wonders of air conditioning, juice boxes and entertainment like Pokémon Go.
For this, and her role in bankrolling her husband’s fledgling car company, which grew up to become Mercedes-Benz, she is the fourth woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Meet more pioneering women
At the Automotive Hall of Fame, in Dearborn, Michigan, outside Detroit, you can learn about the other female inductees. There’s Denise McCluggage, an early motorsports writer and race car driver, Shirley Muldowney, the first woman licensed to drive a Top Fuel dragster in 1973, and Alice Ramsey who was the first woman to drive a car across the US in 1909.
Bertha married engineer Karl Benz who filed the patent for his car in 1886. She helped demonstrate how cars could be part of everyday life with her pioneering road trip. On the trip, she visited her mother just 60 miles away, but the trip took 12 hours. According to the Automotive Hall of Fame website, Karl was having difficulty marketing his car so Bertha made the trip as a publicity stunt.
In August, 1888, Bertha drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany with her teenage sons Richard and Eugen. The trip took much longer than it would today, though if you’ve taken a 60 mile trip in modern-day New York City in August it might feel longer. Highways were years in the future when Bertha made her trek. There weren’t even gas stations along the way.
An Early MacGyver
According to Benz family legend, Bertha undertook her road trip without first telling her husband. She even had to push the car out of the workshop so he wouldn’t hear it start. Bertha used cleaning fluid to fill the gas tank and contracted a shoemaker to fix a wooden brake shoe with a leather strip, inadvertently inventing the brake pad. She even used a hat pin to clear a clogged fuel line and her garter as an insulator when fixing an ignition wire.
Today you can take the same road trip along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route which winds through a picturesque region of Germany. You’ll see castles and palaces, it won’t take you nearly as long as it took Bertha, and your hair pin won’t be needed should there be car trouble.
Help from the heart and the pocketbook
Unlike wives who doubt their husband’s map-reading abilities or tire-changing skills, Bertha supported her husband’s efforts both emotionally and financially. She used her inheritance to fund the company. Jutta Benz, great-granddaughter of Bertha and Karl Benz, pointed out that as a wife in the late 1800s, Bertha “had to take care of the family, raise five children, do all the housekeeping, cooking…it was as twice as much she accomplished compared to a man.”
William R. Chapin, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame, noted that Bertha and Karl are the first husband and wife team to be inducted. Karl Benz may not have known his wife was taking that family trip, but he still used insight from her adventure to improve his cars.
When you get in the car this summer, think of the woman who took that first road trip and any challenges you face today will pale by comparison.