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Road Trip

Mrs. Bertha Benz becomes the first person in history to fill up at a self-serve station, August 1888. In today's episode of Car Lust, we'll follow a young mother and two of her children as they drive over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house in the family car.

Sounds exciting, eh?

At this point, you may be wondering what's gotten in to me. After all, taking the kids for a drive to visit relatives is a pretty mundane activity. You've done it yourself, probably more times than you can count.

This particular trip to this particular grandmother's house, however, was a momentous event in automotive history. When Frau Bertha Ringer Benz of Mannheim, Germany loaded her two teenage boys on the family automobile that day in August of 1888 and set off for her mother's house in Pforzheim, it was in fact the first time anyone, anywhere on the planet, had used an automobile for personal travel. That would make the trip one for the history books all by itself, but there's even more to the story. Frau Benz would accomplish quite a few more automotive "firsts" in the course of her 65 mile adventure.

This photo is dated 1871, and was taken just before the wedding. The lovely Bertha Ringer (that's her at left) got married in 1871 to an up-and-coming young mechanical engineer and inventor named Karl Benz. Karl was, many years later, the "Benz" in Daimler-Benz AG, the manufacturer of Mercedes Benz automobiles.

Bertha Benz was not your average Bismarck-era Imperial German Hausfrau. From all accounts, she had a keen intuitive grasp of mechanical principles, and a sharp talent for business. When her new husband's partner got into legal troubles, Bertha bought his stock in the company (at what amounts to a foreclosure sale) using her dowry money, thereby becoming her husband's business partner.

Karl's shop built industrial machinery and stationary engines which ran on natural gas. As he got better at building gas engines, Karl started to indulge a life-long dream of his, to build a self-propelled vehicle.

Karl Benz wasn't the first person to get this idea. A Jesuit missionary had built what is generally recognized as the first self-propelled vehicle, a steam-powered toy car, way back in 1672. There were several experiments with full-sized steam-powered vehicles beginning in the late 1700s. Some of these early steam-mobiles worked remarkably well, all things considered, but 18th-century engineering couldn't produce a prime mover with the power-to-weight ratio needed to make them truly practical.

By the middle of the 19th century, those newfangled internal-combustion engines that used gas or liquid fuel were starting to get light enough, and powerful enough, to make the "horseless carriage" more of a workable proposition. In the mid-1880s, several inventors were tinkering away at the problem, with varying degrees of success, in Paris, London, Padua, Vienna, Stuttgart--and at Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik in Mannheim. By 1885, Karl Benz had built his first Motorwagen.

Benz Motorwagen patent drawingMotorwagen Nr. 1 had a steel tube frame. There were three spoked bicycle-style wheels with narrow tires; one in front for steering, and two drive wheels in the back on a live axle supported by elliptical leaf springs. There was a "dickey box" (carriage driver's seat) on top of the frame, with a steering tiller in front of it. The liquid-fueled engine sat in the rear of the frame and drove the rear wheels through a one-speed chain and sprocket transmission.

The engine was a 954cc single-cylinder affair that weighed 220 pounds and produced 2/3 HP at 250 RPM. (Later testing established that if there had been any hot-rodders in Mannheim in 1885, they could have boosted it to 0.9 HP at 400 RPM with a little tuning.) The carburetor used a sleeve-valve throttle arrangement to control engine speed. A large horizontal flywheel suspended between the frame rails (you can see it in the picture below) stabilized the output and kept the engine spinning between power strokes.

Note the drive chains leading to the rear axle.
Though the Motorwagen Nr. 1 was a "rough draft" if ever there was, we have to give Karl Benz credit for getting a lot of things right on the first try. Many of the early experimenters used a wooden wagon body or something much like it as their starting point. Karl Benz was one of the first to realize that self-propelled vehicles needed a stiffer structure, which is why he used a purpose-built metal frame. We can also legitimately credit Herr Benz with the invention of rack-and-pinion steering.

Most importantly, the '85 Benz Motorwagen just plain worked--it started up, it ran steadily, it responded appropriately to control inputs, and it didn't fall apart when bouncing around the cobblestone streets of Mannheim. That was more than you could say for some of its contemporaries.

The Kaiserliches Patentamt ("Imperial Patent Office") issued a patent covering the Motorwagen in 1886. Karl Benz was already at work refining and improving the design of his engine. Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 2. had 1.1 HP, and Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 had 2.5 HP (quadruple the output of Nr. 1), good for a top speed of 10 MPH.

Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3, 1887-88 configuration By 1887, the chassis had also been improved with heavier wood-spoked wheels, and Karl had added a fuel tank, a dashboard to protect the driver from dust and mud thrown up by the front wheel, and seating enough for three. There was one other mission-critical innovation as well: brakes! Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 had a pair of lever-actuated brake shoes with leather pads that pushed against the tires of the rear wheels; the same system used on horse-drawn wagons.

Karl Benz continued tinkering with his Patent-Motorwagen, but was in no hurry to put it into production. He was a perfectionist, and kept thinking of ways to make it a little better. Working on it was also probably the most fun he'd ever had at the shop.

Bertha had a slightly different perspective. While Karl looked at the Patent-Motorwagen and saw a challenging and enjoyable engineering problem, Bertha saw Deutsche Marks waiting to be earned. She tried to convince her husband to start putting the Patent-Motorwagen through more extensive testing over long distances--up to that point, he'd only ever driven it around the shop grounds and on short jaunts through the local streets--as a prelude to offering it for sale as a production model. Karl was opposed to the idea, as he didn't think the Patent-Motorwagen was quite ready for prime time.

Then Bertha received word that her sister Tekla had given birth to a baby girl, back in Bertha's old hometown of Pforzheim in the Black Forest. At some point, she would be going to her mother's place to visit and see the new baby. Usually, she'd go by train, but now she had another way of getting there. Why not go by Motorwagen? Karl would certainly object if she asked him ahead of time, but if she didn't ask ahead of time, he couldn't say no, could he?

On a morning in August of 1888 (we're not sure of the exact date), Bertha got up before sunrise with her two oldest children, Eugen, age 15, and Richard, age 13. Bertha wrote a short note to her husband, advising him that she and the boys were going to Grandmother Ringer's house in Pforzheim for a few days. The three of them went to the shed, pulled Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 out, and pushed it down the street, far enough from the house that the engine noise wouldn't wake Karl. The boys climbed on, Bertha started the engine, and they were off on humanity's first road trip.

Just to clarify, this was not the first time that an automobile or automobile-like contraption had gone over a road in open country. Many experimenters had made out-and-back test runs on the highways, and there had even been some short-lived steam-powered common carrier services operated in England. This was, however, the first time that a private individual had driven her own automobile on a personal journey.

Bertha chose her route carefully. Up to this point, the Patent-Motorwagen had only run on paved city streets. She couldn't be sure of how well it would handle the rougher back roads, so she stuck to hard-surfaced old Roman highways as much as possible. Fuel consumption was another mystery--Karl had made estimates based on what he'd seen on his short runs in town, but both he and Bertha knew that there hadn't been enough testing to confirm his predictions. Bertha was careful to pick a route that ran through towns where she could obtain fuel (more on that in a little bit) and repairs if needed.

There was another reason why she wanted to pass through as many populated places as possible. One of Bertha's motives in making the trip by Motorwagen was to show a working Motorwagen to as many people as possible, creating what we now call "marketing buzz," and maybe even getting a little favorable coverage in the newspapers. Bertha's drive to Pforzheim was not only the first road trip, it was also the first publicity stunt in automotive history.

The red line shows the trip out; the blue one is the return trip. You can follow the route on an interactive map here. From Mannheim, Bertha went east up the Neckar River valley to Schreisheim, where she turned south onto the ancient Roman Via Montana ("Mountain Road"), crossing the Neckar on the east side of the famed university town of Heidelberg. Nine miles south of the river, in the town of Wiesloch, Bertha parked the Motorwagen in front of the Stadt-Apotheke (town pharmacy) to refuel.

This requires a bit of explanation.

There were, of course, no gas stations in Bismarck-era Germany. There was, however, an oil industry in 1888, with oil wells and oil refineries and all that. Its primary product was kerosene, which was then the most commonly-used liquid fuel. Refining crude oil into kerosene produced byproducts in the form of other petroleum distillates. The byproducts were not nearly as much in demand, though today we would recognize many of them as components of modern gasoline.

Among those byproducts was liquid benzine (not to be confused with benzene or benzyne). Another name for it is "petroleum ether," though as a matter of chemistry it's not really an ether, either. It's a mixture of saturated hydrocarbons ("paraffins"), light, volatile, and rather flammable. It also makes a pretty effective labaratory solvent. In 1888 Germany, benzine was sold in pharmacies under the trade name "ligroin," as a household cleaning solution for getting those tough stains out.

Because ligroin was volatile and flammable, it also worked quite well as a fuel in Karl Benz' one-cylinder gas engines. Bertha bought a large bottle of ligroin, poured it into the tank, restarted the Motorwagen, and continued on her way, having just made the first self-service gas stop.

(By the way, the Stadt-Apotheke Wiesloch is still in business today, and recently celebrated its 275th anniversary. On its website, the store proudly boasts of being die 1. Tankstelle der Welt--the world's first filling station. The store moved from its original location in 1966, but the old building, seen in the photo at the top of this post, is maintained as a museum. If you want to visit, they offer a group hotel, tour, and wine-tasting package.) 

In order to make it to Pforzheim, Bertha also had to become history's first shade-tree mechanic. At one point, a fuel line clogged, and Bertha cleaned it out with one of her hat pins. When the insulation on one of the wires failed and caused it to short out, she used one of her garters to patch it. The leather pads on the brake shoes wore out faster than expected, so Bertha stopped at a cobbler's shop and obtained some replacement material, then performed the first brake job. A drive chain broke, and they stopped in Bruchsal while the local blacksmith repaired it.

A Bertha Benz reenactor sitting on a replica of Motorwagen Nr. 1.The Motorwagen continued on to Grotzingen, just east of Karlsruhe, where they turned up the Pfinz River valley and began the final climb over the pass at Königsbach into Pforzheim. On the steepest grades, the motor wasn't powerful enough to keep the Motorwagen's speed up. As it slowed, the motor started "lugging" and eventually stalled. Bertha and the boys, with the help of a local farmer, pushed the Motorwagen up the steepest parts of the road.

They rolled into Pforzheim after dark, tired and dusty. Bertha made a point of going to the telegraph office and sending a message to Karl letting him know they'd arrived safely and the Motorwagen was still in one piece. They stayed in Pforzheim for a couple of days before driving back to Mannheim. The return trip was by a different route with gentler downgrades, so as to not be too hard on the brake pads.

None of the accounts I've read say much about Karl's reaction when he discovered that Bertha and his teenage sons had swiped his experimental Motorwagen and gone off on a long trip. He was probably ticked off at first, then concerned for the safety of his family and his invention, and then very relieved when the telegram arrived. Somewhere along the way, his engineer's instincts asserted themselves. He may not have been quite ready for a long-distance test of the Motorwagen, but if his wife and kids were going to go off on a frolic and putter around the Rhine valley and the Black Forest in one for several days, the least he could do was get some useful data out of the adventure. When Bertha and the boys got back to Mannheim, Karl debriefed them on every detail of the Motorwagen's performance.

When relating the story of how the Motorwagen had stalled on the climb to Königsbach, Bertha suggested to her husband that maybe it needed a second set of reduction gears that could be cut in on hills to allow the engine to keep running at its most efficient speed even as the car slowed down. We may therefore credit Bertha Benz with one more important automotive innovation: the idea of the stick shift!

Note that the sign accurately depicts Motorwagen Nr. 3.
The Bertha Benz Memorial Route, a 120-mile "heritage trail" that retraces Bertha's journey, was created in 2008. It's marked with signs like the one above. The Memorial Route follows the original roads where possible, and modern equivalents when necesssary. (The old Roman Via Montana is now a hiking and bicycle trail for part of its length, and there's that cloverleaf on the outskirts of Karlsruhe that I suspect wasn't there in 1888.) Next September, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route will be the site of the "Bertha Benz Challenge," a rally for hybrid and alt-fuel vehicles.

I'll leave you with a German-language video that shows a Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 1 replica in action, in a recreated sequence of Karl test-driving it in 1885, and again in the hands of a modern-day reenactor. It includes a black & white clip from the 1920s of Karl Benz driving the real Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 1 on a cold day at some sort of commemoration; Bertha herself appears very briefly at about 1:04, standing next to her husband.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The color photo of a reenactment of the first self-service fuel stop comes from this German-language article. The line drawing of Motorwagen Nr.1 was lifted out of the original German patent. The photo of the Motorwagen Nr.1 engine bay came from Wikipedia. The photo of the reenactor at the Mercedes Benz display comes from here. The other illustrations come from the official website of the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.  


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Thanks for this wonderfully well researched and well written article. It must have been something to be there, and Frau Bertha sounds like quite a woman.

I wonder how long it took for one of the boys to ask: "Are we there yet?"

"On a morning in August of 1888 (we're not sure of the exact date), Bertha got up before sunrise with her two oldest children, Eugen, age 15, and Richard, age 13. Bertha wrote a short note to her husband, advising him that she and the boys were going to Grandmother Ringer's house in Pforzheim for a few days. The three of them went to the shed, pulled Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 out, and pushed it down the street, far enough from the house that the engine noise wouldn't wake Karl. The boys climbed on, Bertha started the engine, and they were off on humanity's first road trip."

Heh- also the first recorded car theft?

Downhill ever since, the ongoing and ruinous war between humanoids and carz. The carz are winning of course, gobbling up the countryside and all the resources, killing a million or so humanoids every year, destroying he entire space ship. It's the only one we've got.

What an adversary. If we humanoids can beat the carz we will be ready to defeat any space monster.

steve - don't worry about the "carz".

You're mother is never going to let you drive.

Never ever.

Delightful article.

I found myself regretful that Frau Bertha Ringer Benz was matrimonially unavailable, due to marriage and death.

Thanks a lot for that wonderful article on that great lady!

My wife Frauke and I had the idea and the honour to create the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in a grass-roots effort without any official help or financial support.

And as Bertha drove the most innovative car of her time in 1888, the Bertha Benz Challenge in September 2011 will only be open for the most innovative and future-oriented cars of today. See:

Participants and supporters are highly welcome!

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