The clerk at the Wies­loch city phar­macy ser­i­ously doubted the san­ity of his cus­tom­er, a woman in her late thirties in a dress as soiled as to make her appear­ance unac­cept­able amongst the good burgh­ers of the town. Per­haps she was dan­ger­ous. Wies­loch was only ten miles south of Heidel­berg, which had a uni­ver­sity, and the good doc­tor was informed that some women had recently attemp­ted to join the chem­istry fac­ulty. But the nature of the lady’s request was some­thing he nev­er had to con­sider before.

The “Stadt-Apo­theke” became the world’s first filling sta­tion – to the right the Ber­tha Benz Monu­ment

You want ten litres of Lig­roin?”, he stammered. Then he looked at the lady’s dress and noticed the stains. Lig­roin was basic­ally pet­ro­leum, and per­haps the lady wanted to improve her scan­dal­ous appear­ance. “I under­stand, Ma’am. But for these stains half a litre will do nicely, per­haps one litre.”

The lady insisted. The apo­thecary, unable to ima­gine what one might do with ten litres of pet­ro­leum except, maybe, burn down a forest, asked for the reas­on of the pecu­li­ar order. “It’s for my auto­mobile,” the fruit­cake explained, and lead the man out­side. There stood a con­trap­tion of a kind the good doc­tor had not seen before in his life. It was ridicu­lous. It looked as if someone had wanted to build a horse car­riage, but had for­got­ten the top struc­ture and the horses. It looked like this:

Rep­lica of Mod­el I, Mer­cedes-Benz Museum, Stut­tgart

The doc­tor, a good cath­ol­ic like all the cit­izens of the town, looked sus­pi­ciously around for the pres­ence of Satan and only very hes­it­antly touched the out­er-wordly appar­i­tion. He felt wood, rub­ber and iron, hence the phys­ic­al exist­ence of the vis­it­a­tion could no longer be denied. He asked for an explan­a­tion, and the lady told him a story plainly out of a Jules Verne nov­el, of which the apo­thecary, it must be admit­ted, had read a few in his youth.

This car, the lady told him, has not been mankind’s first attempt at con­struct­ing an auto­mobile, but earli­er designs failed at the dearth of a reli­able engine, until from the 1870s on, Nikolaus Otto and Gottfried Daimler suc­ceeded in build­ing reli­able four-stroke-engines, which are, to this day, called Otto­motoren – Otto engines.

Ber­tha and four of her five chil­dren

Her name was Cäcilie Ber­tha Benz, she said, and was the wife and unof­fi­cial (because illeg­al) busi­ness part­ner of the invent­or and engin­eer Karl Benz. Their com­pany, Benz & Cie., had con­struc­ted and pat­en­ted the present Benz-Pat­ent-Motor­wa­gen, a horse­less car­riage with a water-cooled pet­ro­leum engine. It had been awar­ded the Ger­man pat­ent num­ber 37435, for which her hus­band had applied on 29 Janu­ary 1886. Unfor­tu­nately, the fancy inven­tion was ignored by the pub­lic, and although Karl improved Mod­el I with II and III, dis­in­terest per­sisted.

The Pat­ent-Motor­wa­gen, Mod­el I, three wheels, tubu­lar steel frame, rack and pin­ion steer­ing, con­nec­ted to a driver end tiller; wheel chained to front axle, elec­tric igni­tion, dif­fer­en­tial rear end gears, mech­an­ic­ally oper­ated inlet valves, water-cooled intern­al com­bus­tion engine, gas or pet­rol four-stroke hori­zont­ally moun­ted engine, single cyl­in­der, bore 116 mm, stroke 160 mm, pat­ent mod­el: 958 cc, 0.8 hp, 16 km/h, com­mer­cial mod­el: 1600 cc, ¾ hp, 13 km/h
Engine and Trans­mis­sion

The nov­elty in Karl Benz’ concept was that, from the begin­ning, the car was designed to become, one day, the world’s first “pro­duc­tion” car, of which great num­bers could be built. Many tinker­ers worked on cars, but hardly any­body except Benz in such a sys­tem­at­ic way. Horse­less car­riages could be, and would be built, but would they work in every­day use? They were extremely fault-prone, hence every driver had to double as mech­an­ic, there were no roads, where could one get gas­ol­ine except in a phar­macy – which stocked only small amounts of it any­way?

Early fly­er ...

Thus, on this morn­ing of August 5, 1888, Ber­tha set out to show the world what her husband’s work could do. She was a prac­tic­al woman and knew that people tend to cov­et some­thing only when they are aware of its exist­ence. It was a ques­tion of mar­ket­ing, she real­ized. The car had pre­vi­ously nev­er been driv­en more than a few hun­dred yards around the work­shop and few people had seen it. She did not tell her hus­band or any­one else, did not inform author­it­ies (why any­way – there were no such things as driv­ing licences), but took her sons Richard and Eugen, thir­teen and fif­teen years old, and set out to vis­it her moth­er, who lived in Pforzheim, start­ing from her own house in Man­nheim.

Bertha’s route, on today’s roads about 103 km (64 miles) Wies­loch is at “B”

As it was to be expec­ted, the enter­prise turned out no mean feat. She had to clean a blocked fuel line with her hair pin and use her garter as insu­la­tion for the over­heat­ing engine. The 4,5 litres of pet­ro­leum in the car­bur­at­or ran out quickly, for­cing her to the afore­men­tioned fuel stop at Wies­loch, where the apo­thecary thus became own­er and attend­ant of the world’s first ser­vice sta­tion. A broken chain neces­sit­ated anoth­er stop, to have it fixed by a loc­al black­smith. When the brakes – made of wood – began to evid­ence abnor­mal tear and wear, she vis­ited a nearby cob­bler and had leath­er pads fixed on it, thereby invent­ing the world’s first pair of brake pads. The engine was cooled by an evap­or­at­ive cool­ing sys­tem, which was respons­ible for fur­ther filling-up stops.

Mod­el II, 1886
Mod­el III, 1888, used by Ber­tha on her his­tor­ic trip ...

But she per­sisted. She reached Pforzheim after dusk and repor­ted home by tele­gram. A few days later, she made the jour­ney back suc­cess­fully. The rest, as they say, is his­tory.

The trip was an instant suc­cess. First loc­al, then nation­al and finally the inter­na­tion­al press picked up the story. It became the key event in the prac­tic­al inven­tion of the auto­mobile as means of private trans­port.

Leipzi­ger Illus­trated Magazine, Septem­ber 1888

Check out this Mer­cedes-Benz Clip on You­Tube and anoth­er, very cute Aus­trali­an Clip

Mod­el “Velo” (1894), Mer­cedes-Benz Museum, Stut­tgart

In her hon­our, the Ber­tha-Benz Memori­al Route was ded­ic­ated in 1988, fol­low­ing her tracks. Its an offi­cial tour­ist and theme route in Baden-Württem­berg.

Offi­cial Road Sign

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2019)

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