Bertha Benz was the kind of woman who wasn't satisfied riding shotgun — she demanded to take the wheel. In the late 1800s, it would have been easy for this wife and mother to let her inventor husband, Karl Benz, keep the spotlight all to himself. Instead, she climbed into the driver's seat and changed history. In addition to earning her the nickname "First Lady of Solo Driving," her journey may have played a role in the popularity of her husband's invention — the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. She's known for more than just the first road trip, however, and her legacy continues to inspire drivers everywhere.

Black and white portrait of Bertha Benz
Source: By Bühler, Mannheim (Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz, Ladenburg), via Wikimedia Commons

The First Road Trip

Bertha Benz was born into a wealthy family in Pforzheim, a town in southwestern Germany. Her financial support helped her husband invent the first true automobile, a 2.5-horsepower, single-cylinder vehicle with three wheels and the ability to reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. Although the invention was groundbreaking, Karl's marketing efforts largely fell flat, but his savvy wife knew publicity was the key to her husband's success. She took charge by packing up her two sons in August 1888 and setting out on what became the first documented road trip in an automobile. The destination? Her mother's house about 65 miles away.

Side view of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen
Source: Adobe Stock

A Journey of Firsts

Today's drivers have it easy. Before a big trip, they stop at a local gas station and fill up, but Bertha didn't have that luxury. When her vehicle began running out of fuel, she had to find a pharmacy that sold ligroin, the petroleum-based solvent that fueled Karl's vehicles. She also cleared a clogged fuel line with a hairpin, repaired the ignition with her garter, and created the first pair of brake pads when the wooden brakes began failing — a shoemaker installed leather soles to fix the problem.

The Journey That Kicked Things into Gear

Bertha's 65-mile journey took less than 12 hours. When she arrived, she sent a telegram to her husband to let him know they arrived safely. By that point, news of her accomplishment was already spreading. Eyewitnesses in the towns and villages the trio passed through were amazed by the vehicle and the sight of a woman driving it.

The 2.5-horsepower vehicle struggled to climb hills, prompting Bertha and her boys to get out and do some pushing. This led to another notable result from Bertha's trip — the invention of the first gear system. Bertha returned home using a different route to expose another part of the population to her husband's invention. By the end of her 120-mile drive, news of the Patent-Motorwagen had reached people far and wide — and the orders started rolling in. Within the next decade, Karl Benz's company grew to become the largest automobile company in the world.

Benz three-wheeled vehicle from the 1800s along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route on a sunny day
Source: Adobe Stock

Memorializing the Drive

Bertha died at the age of 95 in 1944. Today, drivers can follow in her tire tracks by driving the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in Germany. Stretching just more than 120 miles from Mannheim to Heidelberg to Pforzheim, this drive was a bumpier journey for Benz in her three-wheeled vehicle on bench seating in the open air. Today, you can take to this scenic road to honor her accomplishment and see some beautiful scenery along the way. A few highlights along the route include:

  • The Technoseum in Mannheim, which brings the history of industrialization to life
  • The Motor-Sport-Museum in Hockenheimring, which includes more than 300 exhibits, including historic motorbikes, historic racecars, and some of the latest models
  • The Old Quarter in Heidelberg, a romantic and charming hub of culture, entertainment, and great food
  • The Jewellery Museum in Pforzheim, which details roughly 5,000 years of jewelry history from cultures around the globe

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