Bertha Benz and the First-Ever Road Trip

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Bertha Benz changed automotive history by packing her two teenage sons into a car and driving to her mother’s house.

It doesn’t exactly sound impressive, but the year was 1888. A 65-mile road trip by car had never been attempted before—certainly not by a lone woman toting her children.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Bertha was married to Karl Benz. Their last name might sound familiar; if you don’t know Karl as the inventor of the first car with an internal combustion engine, then you’ve probably heard of one of his little creations, the Mercedes-Benz.

But in 1888, Benz was still just a fledgling company. People weren’t convinced that Benz’ creation was safe, so Bertha hatched a PR plan that would be sure to allay fears and increase sales: She would embark upon a long journey in the Benz Patent-Motorwagen No. 3—all by herself. After all, if a woman could handle the vehicle, anyone could.

Karl Benz apparently had no knowledge of his wife’s plans. She and her sons jumped into the Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 and left while he was still sleeping, leaving a note explaining where they were going. And Bertha didn’t just drive 65 miles—she stopped along the way to fuel up, repair the leather drive belt, unclog a carburetor pipe using a hat pin, and insulate an electric ignition cable with her garter. When she got to her mother’s in Pforzheim less than 12 hours after leaving, she sent her husband a telegram to let him know that she had arrived safely, but there was really no need. Word had spread quickly from town to town as Bertha had stopped at small towns to fix problems and gas up.

The road trip stunt had the intended effect: The Benz business started thriving. The trip also helped Benz hone his invention; when Bertha reported back about the car’s struggle to get up steep hills, Karl added the world’s first gear system.

You can still drive the Bertha Benz Memorial Route today, but it’ll take you about an hour as opposed to the 12 it took Bertha—though, presumably, you won’t be making stops to make MacGyver-like repairs using only articles of your own clothing.