Bertha Ringer was born on May 3, 1849 to a wealthy family in Pforzheim, Germany. While little is known about her early life, she was given a substantial dowry around the age of 20. She was interested in Karl Benz and his fascination with horseless carriages. Karl was in an iron construction business with an irresponsible partner. When the business was about to fail, Bertha gave him enough money from her dowry to prop it up. However, Karl lost control of the business and decided to move on. Still using Bertha’s dowry money he formed a new manufacturing business, Benz & Cie.
Karl and Bertha were married on July 20, 1872. Due to German laws, after becoming a married woman, Bertha lost the power to act as her own investor. However, the new business created with the money she had given him was successful and on sound footing. As the business became more profitable, Karl was able to spend more time working on his true interest, the horseless carriage!
After several years of failed attempts, he finally completed his first true automobile in 1885, for which he received a patent in 1886. The car had three wheels, one in front and two in back, and a single cylinder, 2.5 horsepower engine. It could actually reach a top speed of approximately 25 mph.
While Karl was a very talented engineer, he had no marketing sense. He was happy to tinker with his car and take it on experimental drives of a few dozen feet. He did attempt to demonstrate his contraption, but never very successfully. On one attempt, the driver lost control and crashed into a wall! Karl seemed happy to return to the factory and continue to tinker.
Bertha, on the other hand, had a good head for business and knew he had something pretty important. She was beginning to lose patience with his seeming lack of interest in marketing. Gottlieb Daimler was just a few miles away and she knew he had also invented a horseless carriage. This competitive pressure made her anxious to do something to bring attention to Karl’s invention.
Knowing that she could not make the trip alone, she recruited her two sons, Eugen, 15, and Richard, 13, to go with her on the first ever road trip in an automobile. She had decided to visit her mother who still lived in Pforzeim, 65 miles away! If Karl knew, he would not have allowed her to do anything so wild and dangerous, so she and the boys kept her plans secret.
There were quite a few obstacles which would have to be dealt with. First, there was no fuel tank and only about 4.5 liters of fuel in the carburetor she would have to make frequent stops for fuel. The engine burned ligroin, which was only available in apothekes (pharmacies). Then there was the problem of uneven terrain and the possibility that the car might not be able to climb the hills. Of course, there were no roads, only wagon tracks. Another obstacle was mechanical failures. Also, the car used a thermosiphon system to cool the engine, she would need frequent stops for water. However, Bertha was not to be deterred and made her plans.
Early one August morning, some reports are the 5th and some the 12th, she woke the boys and got them ready. She wrote a brief note to Karl, saying, “We are going to visit Grandma.” They pushed the car out of the garage and away from the house so that Karl would not be awakened by the engine starting, and they were off, around 5 am.
The wagon tracks were rough, rocky, dusty, and unpaved as she had expected, making driving quite demanding in her little 3 wheeled automobile. She could only go about 15 miles before needing fuel. She stopped in Wiesloch and purchased ligroin at the City Apotheke, which now dubs itself,” The First Filling Station In The World.” At each stop they also needed water for the cooling system.
Bertha had to act as mechanic as well as driver. At one point she repaired the ignition system with her garter! Along the way, the fuel line became clogged. Being pretty ingenious, she straightened a hairpin and used that to unclog the line. The little single cylinder engine simply could not supply enough power to get the car up the hills, so there were times the boys had to get out and push. The brakes began to fail. She found a cobbler’s shop, and asked the shoemaker to install leather soles, inventing, on the spot, the first brake pads. She also had to stop and tighten the leather belt connecting the engine to the differential. She make notes of every problem she encountered and her solutions. These notes were very important to Karl in making improvements once she returned home.
The weary trio of adventurous travelers arrived at “Grandma’s” around dusk. They had completed their 65 mile trip in less than 12 hours. Bertha promptly sent Karl a telegram telling him they had arrived safely. However, the news of a woman driving a car had already reached him.
Along the route, people were surprised as she and the boys drove through their towns. Many were amazed to see how safe a car seemed to be, some were shocked and terrified to see a car in their town, especially one being driven by a woman!
After a nice visit with her mother, Bertha and the boys returned home. She used a different route to avoid some of the hills and to allow more people to see the car being driven by a woman. She had driven over 120 miles safely, when no other automobile had traveled more than a few feet.
The publicity was exactly what Bertha was hoping for, but it was also important for Karl to understand the improvements that had to be made. Her notes proved invaluable to him. A very important improvement was the invention of the world’s first gear system!
The publicity brought an avalanche of orders for this new fangled contraption. By the end of a decade, Benz & Cie., became the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, employing over 400 people and scoring sales of approximately 600 cars annually!
Karl remained with his company until his death in 1929. The company had merged with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm’s Maybach’s company, and formed Daimler-Benz. The Benz family also started another company, Benz & Sonz which was owned by the family until it closed the doors in 1924. Bertha was honored with the title “Honorable Senator” by her husband’s Alma Mater, the Technical University of Karlsruhe, in 1944, on her 95th birthday. She passed away two days later at her home in Ladenburg. She was an amazing woman, willing to do what was necessary to accomplish her goals and support her husband and family!
By, Captain Nancy W. Aldrich, aviation writer