Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mrs. Benz's Wild Ride

by V.R. Christensen

Part of my research process, when I get ready to write a book, and once I've decided on the appropriate year in which to place it, is to review the major (and sometimes minor) historical events of that year, and the few leading up to it. I end up spending a lot of time in archived newspapers, and often I find interesting little episodes from history which may or may not play a role in the book I'm working on. I found the following as I was researching early automobiles and locomotive technology for one of my books, which takes place in 1890. I hope Gary Inbinder won't mind if his article on Sir Goldsworthy Gurney's Steam Carriage jogged my memory to this little historical gem.

But first a little background.

It is Karl Benz who is generally accepted as the inventor of the world's first automobile, having developed both the carriage and the engine which powered it. No doubt he could not have succeeded without the scores of engineers and inventors who came before him, (the Niepce brothers and Etienne Lenoir, to name a few) or, perhaps more especially, those who worked contemporary to him (Daimler, Maybach, Marcus, Roger). There is also little doubt, and certainly no argument, that he owed a very great deal to his wife.

In 1872 he married Bertha Ringer, an attractive young woman of both family and means. They met in Pforzheim, where she lived, and married in Manheim, where, with her money, they bought a property where he built and sold tools for use in sheet metal work. In his spare time, he began development of a two cycle engine. He had it completed on New Years' Eve 1878 but, though it was in apparently perfect working order, he couldn't get it to run.  He returned home to his family, where he prepared to take his wife out to celebrate, but Bertha wanted to see the engine running. So, instead, they went back to his workshop and worked on it together until, at last, it was working. It was still running an hour later when the bells rang in the New Year.

With this success he immediately began designing an automobile, and in 1885 the first was complete, fitted, not with the two cycle engine, but with a four-stroke cycle engine. He tried to sell them, but there was little public interest. Perhaps this was owing to the fact that both the Kaiser and the church had condemned his Motorwagen as public nuisances of perhaps evil design. Church officials called them "Devil's carriages" and "Witch's carriages" and warned the people not to so much as look at them. The Motorwagen was loud, and dangerous too, for they spooked the horses. Many complained, even going so far as to write to government officials. Those officials, consequently, forbade Benz to drive his vehicles, and to enforce the declaration, guards were placed about the house. Benz, defeated, put his car away and gave up.

Bertha, however, was not so easily conquered. She knew that if people could see how useful her husband's automobiles might be, that they would put aside their objections, and, just perhaps, they might want them for themselves. What's more, she was prepared to offer proof of her husband's genius and of the value of his inventions.

In the early morning, on a Sunday in 1888, Bertha, while her husband was out, and aided by her two teenage boys (13 and 15), stole the car out of the garage through an unguarded back alley entrance, and proceeded to drive from Manheim, where they lived, to her mother's house in Pforzheim, a distance of 60 miles. Previous to this the car had only been driven very short distances, usually as test drives, and always with mechanical assistants.

The ride was not without incident, of course. The automobile required refueling several times. It ran on Ligroin, or petroleum ether, which was only available in apothecary shops. They also had to stop quite often to refill the small water tank that cooled the single piston engine. Another problem they ran into was the clogging of the fuel line due to the dust of the roads. Mrs. Benz stopped the car, and, removing her hat pin, proceeded to unclog the fuel line with it. At one point, a wire on the engine, which had rubbed against the frame, lost its insulation and shorted out. She used her garter as a replacement insulation. Also because of the dirt, and owing to the unevenness of the roads, one of the chains which drove each rear wheel stretched and fell off the gearing. They stopped at a blacksmith's shop and, providentially, found a blacksmith who was more than happy to work on one of Benz's famous inventions, and who offered to repair the chain for free. The roads approaching Pforzheim were very hilly, and so by employing the breaks as often as was necessary, they effectively polished themselves so that there was no longer enough friction to stop the wheels. Bertha made a detour to a shoemaker and asked him to apply some leather to the breaks, creating, essentially, the first break pad.

Upon arriving in Pforzheim, Bertha sent a telegram to her husband informing him of their safe arrival. It was dusk by this time, and they had left at dawn. The journey took all day, and she returned again on the following day. Upon their return, and thanks to his wife's long distance 'test drive', Karl was able to make many improvements to the vehicle, including the addition of a second gear for climbing hills.

News of Bertha's drive quickly spread and she became a sort of celebrity, as did Benz's Motorwagen. All previous objections and restrictions were now set aside and he was allowed to continue to develop his automobile, and to sell it, unhindered. Between 1888 and 1893 he sold about 25 vehicles, mostly in Germany and in France, where Emile Roger, under license, began building and selling Benz's Motorwagen there, and with increasing success.

Today Bertha Benz's drive is commemorated by the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which runs from Manheim to Pforzheim and back again, in a sort of figure eight, through many of the places she stopped along her way.

What a woman, that Mrs. Benz!

 V.R. Christensen is the author of Of Moths & Butterflies. And the soon to be published companion, Cry of the Peacock, for which the development of the automobile and the opening of the London Tube serve as a backdrop. She also is the author of a neo-Victorian paranormal novella, entitled Blind.  To learn more about her and her work, visit


  1. I suspect that story has in itself all the ingredients needed for a novel. Love, genius, perseverance, endeavour achieved through cooperation, authoritarian opposition, set-back, defiance, a smart, beautiful and daring heroine, bravery, resourcefulness, the common labouring folk uniting behind the hero/heroine, and a fine mad caper at the end.


  2. I enjoyed this rich and interesting post, VR.

  3. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsJuly 12, 2012 at 7:24 PM

    I would definitely thing a novel could follow this information, it was fascinating, and taking place in Germany would lend some interesting differences in the book. Great post.

  4. Great article, V.R. I recall reading about Mrs. Benz. It's a fascinating story. I'm glad my post "jogged your memory." :)


    P.S. In my new novel (a work in progress) I mention the Daimler exhibit at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.

  5. I wish I could use the Daimler exhibit. I've tried to work it in, but it's a year too early. So sad. Thanks again for the inspiration!


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