What was the first road trip?

To Grandmother's House We Go

To prove to the public -- and to her husband -- that the invention of the automobile was truly a marvel, Bertha decided to take the motorwagen out for a drive. But she didn't just want to take it around the neighborhood. She wanted to visit her mother in Pforzheim, a town about 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) from where she lived in Mannheim. Because, in her words, "Karl would never have allowed that," she didn't ask his permission. Instead, she planned the daring road trip without his knowledge and left early one August morning in 1888, before Karl woke up. She also took along their sons, Eugen, 15, and Richard, 14.

Of course, given that gas stations didn't exist at the time, dirt roads were rough and horse-trodden, and Benz's automobile was finicky and unreliable, this was no easy road trip. But Bertha was resourceful and determined to overcome every obstacle. To fill up, she was able to stop at a pharmacy and purchase ligroin (petroleum ether), a type of detergent that could also serve as fuel.

Benz's three-wheeled design wasn't ideal for the dirt roads, either. Although the carriage-worn roads had two ruts for the machine's back wheels, there was no rut for the center front wheel. Instead, there were horse tracks, which must have made for a bumpy ride. (Benz would later give in and manufacture four-wheeled automobiles to compete with his rival, Daimler.)

Other problems befell the three motorists. They found the motorwagen couldn't make it up hills without needing a push. Bertha reported this to Karl, who later added better gears. She also used her feminine accessories -- employing her hairpin to fix a clog in the fuel line and her garter to insulate the electric ignition cable when it broke. She made it to Pforzheim by nightfall and wired her husband that they had arrived. But the way back wasn't easy either. The wooden brake shoes had worn down, so much so that when they got to Bauschlott, she asked a shoemaker to nail leather strips on them -- the first brake pads.

Her husband later praised her, saying, "She was much more courageous than me, and went on a decisive trip for the further development of the motor carriage."

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  • Arnold, Kathy. "Queen of the Road." TheAge.com.au. June 18, 2011. (June 28, 2011) http://www.theage.com.au/travel/activity/drives/queen-of-the-road-20110615-1g2pb.html
  • Bertha Benz Memorial Route. Bertha-Benz.de. (June 28, 2011) http://www.bertha-benz.de/indexen.php?sub=2&col=b&inhalt=pers
  • Bouzanquet, Jean Francois. "First Ladies: Female Racing Drivers 1888-1970." Veloce Publishing, Ltd., 2009. (June 28, 2011) http://books.google.com/books?id=TH41bjMO1esC
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