For a woman in the 1880s considering borrowing her husband’s car – or ANY car for that matter, would have been scandalous to say the least! One of the most successful and modern-day women at that time was none other than Berta Benz, young wife of the pioneering car maker Karl…
Berta Ringer was born on 3rd May 1849 into a wealthy family in Pforzheim, in the Grand Duchy of Baden. She was a woman of independent means, a ‘risk-taker’ and provided much of the funding to enable Karl to realise a lifetime dream – that of creating the world’s first horseless carriage.
When he was just fifteen years old, Karl began working on this idea which originally came from his bicycle, but twenty years later he was still at the drawing board! He certainly needed a strong woman by his side! Eventually the first three-wheeled car powered by a single cylinder and 2.5hp internal combustion, four-stroke engine with a single forward gear and capable of reaching a speed of 25mph was completed in December 1885 and Karl received a patent for his work the following year for the Model 111 Patent Motorwagen.
When Karl met the young vivacious Berta Ringer in 1871 he was instantly attracted to her and the couple married the following year on 20th July. They lived in Mannheim where Karl had his workshop. They had five children, Eugen, born in 1873, Richard in 1874, Clara in 1877, Thilde in 1882 and Ellen in 1890.
Despite Karl’s embarrassing attempt on one occasion to promote the motorwagen by driving it around the streets of Mannheim – he crashed straight into a wall, terrifying the onlookers – even this did not deter the resolute Berta who was sitting by his side. She continued to push him as basically she had staked her fortune on it! Whilst Karl sheepishly retreated to his workshop, Berta, who had become increasingly exasperated by her husband’s incessant tinkering, hatched a plan…
So, let’s look at the scenario – a brilliant engineer determined to build the world’s first horseless carriage but fearful of ridicule and rejection and with no idea of how to promote it. An attractive young wife, five years younger who wanted to prove to her husband and also to the world that a great future awaited the automobile. Let’s not forget either that around that time most travel was either on foot, bicycle or on horseback, so the concept was radical to say the least but thank goodness it was! The German Kaiser who loved horses was horrified, saying that the idea of replacing them with a machine was not only foolish but unpatriotic and as if that was not enough, the Church who were particularly conservative, even went as far as stating that it was the work of the Devil!
A BOLD PLAN
On 5th August 1888 when Berta was 39 years old she made the bold decision to drive her husband’s Model 111 Motorwagen and visit her mother who lived approximately 65 miles away in Pforzheim. Berta left a hastily scribbled note on the kitchen table informing Karl that she was borrowing the car, taking their sons with her and that he was not to worry!
Now, of course, you have probably guessed by now that Berta wasn’t just going to pack up a picnic and enjoy the scenery – her intention was to prove that a great future awaited the automobile and, just as importantly, that a woman was capable of embarking on a journey such as this. Just imagine, no proper roads, just rough wagon tracks, no modern-day filling stations and no realistic idea of how long the journey would take -and that was just for starters!
Leaving the house in the early hours, Berta and the boys set off on a 65 mile trip, aiming to reach her mother’s house before dark. As there were no road signs they followed the railway line. Imagine the scene – no one had ever witnessed anything like this and understandably it caused great interest, and, it has to be said, a little trepidation! This was the publicity that Berta had longed for!
During the cross-country journey there were numerous problems along the way including filling up with ligroin (petroleum ether) which was also used as a cleaning solvent and for ridding one’s hair of nasty nits! This could only be bought over the counter at pharmacies. The one Berta stopped at was at Wiesloch – hence making it the world’s first filling station in history! There is no doubt that as well as the intrepid travellers taking it in turns to sit at the tiller, Berta was undoubtedly the chief mechanic, cleaning the carburettor with one of her long hat pins when it became blocked and using one of her garters to insulate a wire that had short-circuited. As the brakes wore down Berta asked a cobbler to nail leather on the blocks and in so doing, invented brake lining!
Arriving at her mother’s that evening Berta thoughtfully sent a telegram to Karl informing him that they had arrived safely in Pforzheim and would return in a couple of days. Karl meanwhile had been verging on the hysterical…
Berta, Eugen and Richard returned home two days later but rather sensibly they took an alternative route, enabling them to avoid the hills which had proved particularly challenging with one single gear. So delighted and relieved was Karl to be reunited with his young wife and sons he listened carefully to their suggestion of fitting a 2nd gear.
So what happened next? There is no doubt that Karl realised that what he had to do now was to exhibit the Model III Patent Motorwagen at an exhibition in Munich. The crowds were dazzled by such a sight and even ran after it in the streets. This was a tremendous achievement for Karl, the genius engineer, and certainly it was very much a family effort but let’s not forget that none of this would have been possible without one woman, his Berta – intrepid, courageous, loyal, devoted, intelligent and definitely a delightful daredevil!
Berta died in Ladenburg in 1944, two days after her 95th birthday. In 2008 The Berta Benz Memorial Route was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind and nearly three-quarters of a century later there were elderly peasants along the route who recalled that day in August 1888 when the first horseless carriage passed through.
Next time: delve into the colourful life of Camille du Gast! One of France’s most famous racing drivers, Camille was no stranger to scandal…
Sarah Crofts has been sharing her passion for motorsport with Beaulieu’s visitors since she first joined as a volunteer in 2007. Now a Museum Attendant, she has grown to love her role more and more and can’t imagine doing anything else! Sarah’s popular Women in Motorsport tour is one of several daily tours on offer in the National Motor Museum.