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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


This morning I tucked into Pfannkuchen with local Bingen (as in Hildegard) honey in an effort to stockpile carbs. The challenge I faced was to cover the 65 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim on the northern lee of the Black Forest in less than fourteen hours. An average speed of 4.6 mph - but don't forget lunch and the odd stop for some Black Forest gateau.

I am trying to replicate one of the cleverest journeys in history. An inspired piece of intuitive publicity by Bertha Benz that made the reputation of her brilliant engineer husband, Karl Benz.

The story begins with Karl, born in 1844 quite near here. An only child, he was brought up by his widowed mother in some poverty. Salvation came through the education system that even then was propelling Germany to industrial pre-eminence. (Unsurprisingly, when the Japanese were forced out of isolation and sought quick routes into the modern era, they modelled their education system on that of Prussia).

By 1882 Karl had invented and patented a petrol engine, a workable accelerator, an ignition system using spark plugs, a carburettor, a clutch, a gear box and a water radiator. Nearly all the elements of a car were there - and when he teamed up with a bicycle manufacturer, he had the wherewithal to make a three-wheeled bicycle-car. In January 1886, he succeeded in obtaining a patent for the first automobile to run under its own power - the famous Reichspatent No.37435.

1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen (c)wikicommons

Karl's other smart move in these years was to marry Caecilie Bertha Ringer, five years his junior, the wealthy daughter of a family from the Black Forest. In his 1925 memoir, Karl wrote:

Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.

If I had been Bertha, I would have been somewhat less than pleased with Karl's assessment of my worth. She had done rather more than that. While merely engaged - and therefore still in control of her trust fund - she bailed out one of Karl's sinking enterprises. And after their marriage, when he took control of the trust, her money continued to lubricate their business. They married in 1872 and for the next sixteen years Bertha was occupied with a series of five children while her husband struggled on with his profitless inventions.

Bertha Benz (c)wikicommons

Then in 1888, with the Benz MotorWagen newly patented, she did something that to this day beggars belief. Without telling Karl, she took one of his MotorWagens and, with her sons Eugen (aged fifteen) and Richard (aged fourteen), set off in the dawn light to drive 65 miles to her mother's house in the Black Forest.

Such a trip in motoring terms at that time was the equivalent of a flight to the moon. No-one before had driven anything anywhere other than on short demonstration trips. No-one knew whether the three-wheeled MotorWagen could survive roads made for carts. Could it handle steep hills - and where would they obtain fuel and water? Bertha had no driving experience: no-one anywhere had driving experience, so could she stand the physical strain?

But the challenge was the point: Bertha intended to shake the world. She wanted to show that the era of the car had arrived and she was prepared to risk her life, and the lives of her sons, in the attempt.

If there was ever a day when Bertha showed how much the Benz tag owed to her, this was it.

She ran out of fuel - so she bought some suitable solvent from the Stadt-Apotheke in Wiesloch. She used a hatpin to unblock the fuel pipe and a garter to insulate a sparking electrical wire. She had the blacksmith in Bruchsal mend the broken drive chain. (The involvement of blacksmiths in the motor trade was to become normal practice for decades: because there were no standard parts, if your car broke down on the road, the local blacksmith would hammer out an ersatz something or other to see you on your way.)

Bertha's other great triumph that day was to invent brake pads. She had found that the brakes on the MotorWagen (which relied on the friction of wood on wood) did not hold on steep hills. Her solution was to have the village cobbler in Bauschlott nail leather pads onto the wooden brakes - increasing the friction sufficiently to be effective.

Her sons did sterling service. If you have ever driven a car without power-steering, you will know the physical effort involved. The MotorWagen's steering comprised two levers - left and right. The strain of controlling the car with two levers on rutted and potholed tracks must have been considerable. My guess is that sheer physical exhaustion would have forced Bertha to share the driving with her sons. Not that children can't drive well: one of my sons drove a Ford Mustang at age 9 and the other, a little older, jinked round a tree that was approaching at such speed that my final prayer was already rising.

The engine that Karl had designed for the MotorWagen was tiny and produced only 1.5 horsepower. The feeblest modern lawnmower has at least 2 horsepower; ride-on mowers carrying a single person (Bertha had three) have 16 horsepower; the Race Marshal's Harley has in excess of 100. The gearing didn't help either, only two forward gears, both designed for the flat – so the boys had to push the car up the steeper inclines.

One can only imagine the chaos of pigs and chickens scattering as Bertha puttered through villages. The world here had barely passed out of the medieval. They might have known about steam engines, but Karl's two-stroke made sounds they would never have heard. People must have gawped, jaws dropping: the magical horse-less machine was being driven by a woman and children. But she wasn't attacked and she didn't crash and by dusk on that August day, she and her sons had arrived at her mother's house.

The drive took around 12 hours and achieved exactly what Bertha had planned – a volume of global publicity that enabled the Benz patent to leapfrog the horse and carriage carriage as a new concept of transport.

During the decade after this triumph, Benz became the biggest manufacturer of automobiles in the world. Bertha and Karl effectively created our motorised society: in 1895, they designed the first truck and the first motor bus; and in 1909, the Blitzen Benz powered by a 21.5 litre engine set the world land speed record at Brooklands – 141.94 mph, only slightly slower than the Race Marshal's state-of-the-art Harley.

When in 1926, the Daimler and Benz companies merged ('Mercedes' was the daughter of a Daimler designer) the three-pointed star inside a circle became the symbol of German technical prowess.

Bertha's drive is part of Mercedes Benz folklore: her route was the proving ground for the latest evolution of the car: an autonomous research vehicle drove itself all the way from Mannheim to her mother's house in Pforzheim. I expect people gawped then, too.

These days she is just as famous in Germany as her husband. I enjoyed riding what is now the Bertha Benz Memorial Route as it wound its way through the beautiful wine-growing region here in Baden.

Unfortunately, I have only got as far as the Abbey at Maulbronn, rather short of Pforzheim. But I am consoling myself with a long lunch reading Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel (published in Britain as The Prodigy), a semi-autobiographical story about a talented boy destroyed by forced learning at the Abbey school. Hesse himself, sent to Maulbronn three years after Bertha's drive, was so miserable under the intensive regime of 41 hours of lessons a week that he ran away and later tried to commit suicide.

Of course, you may be more interested in my lunch than Hesse's novel: I am having a plate of Brother Jacob's Maultaschen - those large parcels of dough that during Lent hide the forbidden meat from the sight of God. One of the reasons that cyclists on the Tour de France drop out mid way is that they have not maintained a sufficient intake of calories. This was my worry as I thought about the ride back, so my Maultaschen are accompanied by more than a few rosemary-buttered potatoes. The Race Marshal turned up twenty minutes ago - having roared over to Pforzheim - and she is having a biker's portion of spaghetti aglio e olio.

In honour of International Women’s Day in 2019, Daimler made a short film of Bertha Benz’s 1888 journey -

Oh Lord Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz -

And the Heather Myles classic -

To celebrate Karl's invention of the truck -

Richard Strauss set three of Hesse's poems - Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (On Going to Sleep) -

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Jun 17, 2020

What a gal! Judging from your evidence, Bertha Benze was not simply an individual of wealth, intelligence, ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit and indomitable will —you fail to mention she was very easy on the eyes. Prior to today, the name “Bertha” conjured a mental image mainly influenced by the eponymous artillery piece. Now I’ll endeavor to picture the beautiful Mrs. Benz.

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