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Mrs Benz

October the 25th is Pink Ribbon Day and the street appeal is being launched at the time of writing.  While pink cars are never going to be popular (see some of my previous posts), this breast cancer awareness campaign seems like a good excuse to celebrate one of the great women of motoring history.

The woman is, of course, Bertha Benz, and without her, the car might never have existed.  Bertha was born in 1849. In 1886, she was a typical Victorian housewife in Mannheim, Germany, busy supporting her husband, Dr Carl Benz, and raising her four children.  Dr Carl was facing a few problems with his newly patented invention. Nobody wanted it, preferring steam trains and horses.  Some people even thought that this noisy contraption that moved by some mysterious means was powered by black magic.  They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and it was time for the great woman to step in.

In 1888, Bertha Benz stepped in and decided to load the family into the car and visit her mother.  This sounds like such an ordinary activity but in Bertha’s day, it was revolutionary.  This was the Victorian era, before women got the vote – when women were considered “the weaker sex” and were encumbered by a multitude of corsets and petticoats.  Bertha’s mother lived 106 km away in Pforzheim, and the motor-car had never been tested over these distances.  Bertha didn’t tell her plans to Carl, but planned the journey in secret with her older two sons, leaving early in the morning before Carl woke up.  Presumably the other children were left with the nanny (she had four children at this stage; the fifth came along a few years later. 

The journey was a success and proved to the world that the motor car was useful and could be driven by anybody – even a woman.  Bertha had obviously picked up a thing or three from her husband’s workshop, as she was able to use items of her clothing to make a few repairs.  A long, thin hatpin was used to unclog a blocked fuel line and the broken ignition was fixed with a garter.  However, a blacksmith had to be called on for a chain for the gearbox, and a shoemaker provided some leather bits for the brake blocks.  And Bertha had to stop for petrol.  While bowsers hadn’t been invented, petrol was used medicinally – it was used as a treatment for headlice, which is not recommended today! – so she was able to pick up what she needed at a couple of chemist’s shop.

Bertha’s trip garnered a lot of press publicity and the popularity of the car was secured.  Carl Benz was also able to draw on Bertha’s extensive test drive to make some improvements, especially to the gearing system for hill driving. 

Today, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route is one of the more pleasant, if obscure, motoring pilgrimages to make in Germany, although most petrol-head tourists prefer the Autobahns and the Nürburgring, rather than this more leisurely route in the Black Forest region.  And in the pioneering spirit of Carl and Bertha Benz, the Bertha Benz Challenge has been established as a rally, following Bertha’s original route, open for alternative drive systems only (hybrid, electric, hydrogen, fuel cell) to demonstrate, as Bertha did, that good new ideas shouldn’t stay on the demo floor but should be used on the road.  This is planned for 2011, in conjunction with the Frankfurt Motor Show and is part of the celebrations for the 125th anniversary of Carl Benz’s patent.

Benzene, which is added to petrol to raise the octane level and prevent knocking, is not named after Carl and Bertha Benz, in spite of the similar name. It’s derived from gum benzoin, which it was first derived from.