Great ideas don’t mean squat if you can’t market them properly. The invention of the modern automobile, developed by the dynamic duo known as Karl and Bertha Benz, is no different. Bertha had invested much of her own dowry into Karl’s workshop in 1871 – 17 years later his patented vehicle was ready for sale, yet nobody was aware of it.
So, on August 5, 1888 Bertha decided to take Karl’s automobile and her children, Richard and Eugen, to see her mother 106 km away. She didn’t tell her husband or the authorities, making Bertha Benz the first person to commit Grand Theft Motorwagen. Thelma and Louise have nothing on this lady.
The Benz’s patent motorwagen Model 3 was powered by a single cylinder 4 stroke motor, pumping out 2 hp and could hit a top speed of 16 km/h. Incorporating ingenious ideas like a fuel tank and manual brakes, the Model 3 was a road-worthy machine. Yet Karl was hesitant at marketing the Model 3, preferring to test and refine his Motorwagen with small tests. Bertha, impatient, decided to take matters into her own hands.
Bertha and her sons very nearly didn’t make it. The Model 3 broke down numerous times, necessitating a visit from a bike mechanic to fix a chain and a shoemaker to improve the brakes (originally a solid block, he affixed leather pads, inadvertently inventing brake pads). At one point, two farm boys helped push the No. 3 up a steep hill. Putt-putting around, one could only imagine the look on people’s faces as she drove by sans horse. Bertha relied on a local pharmacy in Wiesloch for gasoline (known as ligroin), which was used as a cleaning fluid, becoming the first filling station in history. I think its fair to say that August 5, 1888 should also be celebrated as the day with the highest number of accidental inventions of all time.
In addition to being the first female driver, Bertha became the first roadside mechanic. Using a hairpin to clean the carburetor and a nylon to properly insulate an ignition wire, she managed to continue her getaway. Upon arrival at her Mother’s house in Pforzheim, she telegraphed her husband to assure him everyone was safe and sound.
No information exists on what Karl’s actual reply was, although we can assume it may have been unprintable. What we do know is that Karl redesigned the No. 3, following Bertha’s detailed notes, adding leather brake pads, brake linings and a low gear for hills. More importantly, Bertha’s roadtrip generated a substantial buzz, enough to produce substantial sales and return a profit on the Benz’s time and money.
In 2008, her route between Mannheim and Pforzheim was officially designated as a route of industrial heritage of mankind, known as the Bertha Benz Memorial Route. This year (Sept 14-16) the most advanced prototypes and experimental cars will hit this route in the 2nd annual Bertha Benz Challenge, featuring hybrid, electric, fuel cells, and hydrogen cars, promoting the best in automobile design. Great ideas never die, if you don’t push them out the door first.