On Thursday, July 21, Bertha Benz (1849-1944 received one of the industry’s highest awards of achievement, induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan. Also inducted this year were Ralph Nader, Alan Mulally, and Roy Lunn.
“We are thrilled to honor Bertha Benz for her entrepreneurial spirit that played a vital role in creating what is today’s global automobile industry.” said William R. Chapin, president of the Automotive Hall of Fame. As noted in the award citation, she was “the wife and business partner of automobile inventor Carl Benz, and the driving force behind the invention of the automobile. She was neither an engineer nor an inventor, but she must be mentioned at the same time as her husband. They will become the first husband and wife team to be so honored. Carl Benz was inducted in 1984.”
That Berta Ringer – her maiden name – was a rare beauty is attested by one of the few pictures of her that exist, taken about the time of her wedding. Less understood is her intelligence and support of her husband’s work. In addition to providing moral and financial support, she might be considered the first test engineer in the automobile’s earliest days. While Carl Benz spent time tinkering and engineering during this early period, it was Bertha and her sons – not Carl – who took their now-famous journey from Mannheim to Pforzeim, demonstrating proof of concept and earning her place in history.
“The role she played in making her husband’s invention become reality always used to be an important topic in our family,” said Jutta Benz, great-granddaughter of Bertha and Carl Benz, via teleconference.
As the story was told in their family, in August of 1888, their 15-year-old son Eugen suggested taking Father’s car to visit grandmother, a trip that Bertha and her sons had planned to take by train. Anxious to prove her husband’s invention beyond the limits of their village, in which they had been forbidden to drive the car, Bertha agreed. So before dawn on a Sunday morning, without Carl’s knowledge, Eugen, Richard, and Bertha stole away on their journey.
Her mettle and understanding of the technical operations of the car was proven many times as every mile brought some challenge during that now famous journey. Failure was something Bertha’s strong will would not accept. She used her hatpin to unclog a fuel line; her garter provided insulation for an electrical short; a blacksmith repaired the drive chain; an apotheke in Wiesloch supplied ligroin, the petroleum-based cleaning fluid that powered the car, and a cobbler installed leather on the failing brakes.
Every small hill posed a trial, solved with young Richard at the tiller while Eugen and Berta pushed. While just a 60-mile journey that took one day, it was the first automobile journey of any distance. Of note is that this first excursion was not undertaken by any of the men working on such machines; it was a young woman and her sons.
Though the initial journey was remarkable, Juergen Wittman, manager at the Classic Center Archives in Germany who accepted the award, provided a footnote to the history. While Bertha and the boys waited in Pforzheim, Carl made new drive chains and shipped them by train from his shop. Then, Bertha and her sons drove the automobile back to Mannheim. Knowledge from these journeys delivered a quantum leap in automobile technology and provided a basis for Karl’s eventual success.
Upon their return, Karl went to work on the “next generation” three-speed transmission, one that would allow the car to travel without being pushed up hills, and thus began a process of continuous engineering improvement that remains to this day as the hallmark of Mercedes-Benz products.
Representatives from Mercedes-Benz USA, Mercedes-Benz Financial, Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, and your Mercedes-Benz Club of America attended the induction to celebrate her achievement.
The Automotive Hall of Fame tells the stories of the people behind outstanding automotive achievement. Since its founding in 1939, they have honored nearly 800 from around the world. Visit them at the museum in Dearborn, Michigan or visit www.automotivehalloffame.org.
Courtesy of Michael Salemi