Benz’s 106-km journey was the first trip of its kind with an automobile.
Today, we celebrate the 131st anniversary of a legendary road trip.
On August 5, 1888, Bertha Benz took her automobile and two of her teenage sons out on a drive to visit her mother. A perfectly ordinary activity—except nothing about it was ordinary.
The car was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 3 of 1886: one of the earliest automobiles ever created, colloquially known as the Model III. Its predecessor, the Model I, was the first automobile.
The trip was 106 kilometers one way, from Mannheim to Pforzheim in Germany, and it was the first long-distance trip of any sort using an automobile. Prior to that, all automobile-related and motorized trips were very short-range, round-trip affairs that required constant monitoring by the authorities for maintenance and safety.
Benz had neither informed nor consulted anyone about her journey, so it was technically illegal. But she did it anyway to prove several points—not just to take the kids to visit grandma.
The Model III, while technologically advanced compared to its predecessors, was in no way designed for a long-range trip. It had only two gears, wooden brakes, an evaporative cooling system (read: it always needed lots and lots of water), and no fuel tank to speak of outside of the 4.5-liter carburetor.
And yet, Benz surmounted every challenge.
When she needed the specific fuel that the Model III ran on—ligroin, a petroleum solvent—she didn’t have any “gas stations” to go to. She had to pick it up from an apothecary in the city of Wiesloch, which technically made it the first gas station in history.
Benz consistently prevailed with her resourcefulness and ingenuity throughout the journey. She fixed a clogged fuel line with a hat pin, insulated wire with a garter, asked a blacksmith along the way to fix a chain, and even invented the prototype of brake pads using leather from a cobbler when the wooden brakes broke.
Her children helped, too. The Model III’s two-gear system couldn’t handle steep roads, so they helped push the automobile along the steeper paths of the wagon route they followed.
When the trio eventually arrived in Pforzheim in the evening—reportedly scaring quite a few people along the way because no one had ever seen a contraption like the Model III before—Benz sent a telegram to her husband, business partner, and fellow inventor Karl Benz. Her trip was a resounding success, and proof that automobiles had the potential to do so much more for the public if the couple simply set their dreams high enough.
The entire world knows the rest of their legacy.
If you’re curious about Benz’s experience while traveling in Germany, check out the Bertha Benz Memorial Route. It tracks the entire 194-km run of Benz’s journey (because she did have to drive home, after all), and is recognized by the German authorities as an official Scenic Route that highlights German history and industry. It is also the setting of the Bertha Benz Challenge (“Sustainable Mobility on the World’s Oldest Automobile Road!”), which showcases only vehicles that use future-oriented drive systems like hybrid engines and fuel cells.
The next time you go on a road trip, spare a happy thought for the brilliant and capable lady who defied cultural norms—and the law—to demonstrate the power of disruptive technology. She was, like all pioneers, ahead of her time.