Bertha Benz: How the World’s First Car Theft Jump Started the Auto Industry

Bertha Benz, public domain.

Bertha Benz, public domain.

She left a note for her husband on the table.

It was early in the morning of August 5, 1888, and her husband was still sleeping. She purposely didn’t mention her means of transportation. Bertha Benz just wrote that she and their two sons, Eugen and Richard, had already left to visit Pforzheim, Germany, 90 km (55 miles) away. It wasn’t until Carl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) checked the workshop in his factory that he realized his family hadn’t taken the train.

His new invention was gone.

As one recent German documentary pointed out, Bertha had just committed the world’s first car theft. But this was a true crime we can all stand up and cheer for.

Wanted: Bertha Benz for Grand Theft Auto

Bertha Benz Made the First Road Trip in the History of the Automobile

What Bertha did was a pioneering undertaking. Her husband Carl was a brilliant engineer and had designed the world’s first automobile in 1885. Bertha believed in the importance of his invention. But Carl didn’t have good business acumen and his product wasn’t going anywhere.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove.

The Benz Patent Motor Car Model III, which Bertha drove. Public domain.

Bertha knew instinctively what every modern business knows today: Marketing a product requires different skills than designing one. The only thing lacking was the definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes. And Bertha had a great marketing idea: She and her sons would drive the car from Mannheim to Pforzheim and show the world what it could do.

Inventing Brake Lining

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey.

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey. Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

Bertha Benz and her sons pushed the car out of the workshop and started it only after it was out of Carl’s earshot. Once on the road, the threesome had to conquer novel problems. It made about 9 mph. At 2.5 horsepower, the car wasn’t strong enough to climb steep gradients and they had to get out to push it. Going downhill, the car burnt out the brake shoes, but Bertha knew what to do. She stopped off at a cobbler and asked him to fit the brake shoes with a leather lining. In so doing Bertha Benz became the inventor of brake lining.

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station.”
Courtesy of the Daimler Corp.

World’s First Gas Station

She underestimated how far the fuel would bring them, but it wasn’t a big problem. Pharmacies sold fuel back then. Bertha Benz bought gas several times along the way. She made her first fuel purchase at the Stadtapotheke (City Pharmacy) in Wiesloch, Germany, and it still proudly displays a sign that it’s the first gas station in the world.

"The 'Stadtapotheke' is famous as the 'first gas station in the world.' Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim."

“The ‘Stadtapotheke’ is famous as the ‘first gas station in the world.’ Bertha Benz bought gasoline here for the first time in 1888 on her drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim.”

In Wiesloch, people gathered around the vehicle to express their amazement. “Holy sandbag,” a green grocer is purported to have yelled out. “That’s a woman up there!”

Bertha and her sons telegrammed Carl along the way to let him know they were alright. They arrived safely in Pforzheim by dusk and returned to Mannheim several days later.

The world's first gas station: Wiesloch's Stadtapothe today.

The world’s first gas station: Wiesloch’s Stadtapothe today.

 How Bertha’s Drive Changed History

Carl Benz was livid about Bertha’s trip, but he eventually changed his mind. “Following the first shock,” he wrote in his memoirs, he “felt an inner pride.” Bertha’s “test drive” results also presented new engineering challenges. Afterwards, Carl fitted the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III out with a new gear and a better brake. And sales stepped up following Bertha’s round trip to Pforzheim.

The rise of Benz’s motor factory to one of the great automotive manufacturers in the world would scarcely have been imaginable had it not been for Bertha’s courage. Her publicity stunt sounded the prelude to the Mercedes-Benz success story.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Signs for the Bertha Benz Memorial Route between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Germany now has a Bertha Benz memorial route, marked with these signs, so that drivers can take the same trip Bertha did.

The world’s first automobile a road trip, the world’s first auto theft, and the invention of brake liners. Bertha Benz, the first woman driver, accomplished all three in one trip. Which feat impresses you the most for a 19th century woman?

 

Literature on point:

Johanna Lutteroth, Bertha Benz’ große Autofahrt, Spiegel Online

Daimler press kit, Bertha Benz and the world’s first long-distance trip in an automobile

10 Comments

  1. Brian
    Aug 5, 2015

    The memorial route looks like fun. Are there drivers who take people on that trip? or is it impossible because some of the route no longer allows vehicles? I suppose you can’t take a tour on a replica car because it only seats one person.

    Does it only seat one person? Did the sons walk the whole way?

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 5, 2015

      The memorial route is open for driving; you just have to follow the signs. Last weekend, there was a memorial festival and lots of oldtimers drove the route.

      The car seats several people, and Bertha and her sons took turns driving. But stealing the car and taking the trip was her brainchild.

  2. Brian
    Aug 6, 2015

    Haaaaa! Nice Wanted poster!

  3. Leslie
    Aug 10, 2015

    Wow! A great post filled with all kinds of delicious information.
    Inventor of brake linings, pharmacies sold fuel, a Bertha Benz Memorial Route.
    And the best point of all: “Marketing a product requires different skills than designing one.” So true.
    Thanks for this hop back in time.

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 11, 2015

      Glad you liked the post, Leslie. Bertha Benz sounds like such a fascinating person, and every bit as interesting as her inventor husband. And they made such a good team. What she did took a lot of courage for a 19th century woman, and I would have loved to have met her.

  4. Alan Skidmore
    May 15, 2019

    Really great true story and a very remarkable lady. Well done by all involved.

    • Ann Marie
      May 15, 2019

      Thank you! I think women played a lot of intereting historical roles, but often behind the scenes.

  5. Irmgard (Buob) Samoil
    Aug 6, 2020

    A great historical story and credit to an ingenious woman!

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