The Woman Behind Mercedes Benz

The Famous Test Drive of Bertha Benz (1888)

The beautiful commercial above tells part of the story about the incredible woman behind the founding of Mercendes Benz. Bertha Benz (1849 – 1944) was a German automotive pioneer. She was the business partner and wife of automobile inventor Karl Benz. On 5 August 1888, she was the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance, rigorously field testing the patent Motorwagen, inventing brake pads and solving several practical issues during the journey of 65 miles. In doing so, she brought the Benz Patent-Motorwagen worldwide attention and got the company its first sales.

Bertha Benz Circa 1871 at Age 22

Two years before her marriage to Karl Benz, she used part of her dowry to invest in his failing iron construction company. As an unmarried woman, she was able to do so; after she married Benz, according to German law, Bertha lost her legal power to act as an investor. On 20 July 1872, Bertha Ringer married Karl Benz. As he moved on to a new manufacturing venture, Benz & Cie, he continued to use her dowry as financial support.

Karl finished work on his first horseless carriage in December 1885. Bertha served as a field tester, contributing to the design of the Motorwagen by adding wire insulation and inventing leather brake pads to supplement the wooden brakes when they failed. Moreover, she identified several key areas of opportunities – such as the fuel line design – that Karl later improved. In addition to her contributions to the machine’s design, Bertha helped finance the development of the Motorwagen. She would hold patent rights under modern law, but as a married woman, she was not allowed to be named as an inventor on the patent at that time.

The Benz-Patent Motorwagen Number 3 of 1886 Driven by Bertha Benz

On 5 August 1888, 39-year-old Bertha Benz drove from Mannhein to Pforzheim with her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old respectively, in a Model III, without telling her husband and without permission of the authorities. She thus became the first person to drive an automobile a significant distance, though illegally. Before this historic trip, motorized drives were merely very short trials, returning to the point of origin, made with assistance of mechanics. Following wagon tracks, this pioneering tour covered a one-way distance of about 66 miles.

Although the ostensible purpose of the trip was to visit her mother, Bertha Benz had other motives — to prove to her husband, who had failed to adequately consider marketing his invention, that the automobile in which they both had heavily invested would become a financial success once it was shown to be useful to the general public; and to give her husband the confidence that his constructions had a future.

She left Mannheim around dawn, solving numerous problems along the way. Bertha demonstrated her significant technical capabilities on this journey. With no fuel tank and only a 4.5-litre supply of petrol in the carburetor, she had to find ligroin, the petroleum solvent needed for the car to run. It was only available at apothecary shops, so she stopped in Wiesloch at the city pharmacy to purchase the fuel. At the time, petrol and other fuels could only be bought from chemists, and so this is how the chemist in Wiesloch became the first fuel station in the world.

Karl and Bertha Benz 1925 


She cleaned a blocked fuel line with her hat pin and used her garter as insulation material. A blacksmith had to help mend a chain at one point. When the wooden brakes began to fail, Benz visited a cobbler to install leather, making the world’s first pair of brake pads. An evaporative cooling system was employed to cool the engine, making water supply a big worry along the trip. The trio added water to their supply every time they stopped. The car’s two gears were not enough to surmount uphill inclines and Eugen and Richard often had to push the vehicle up steep roads. Benz reached Pforzheim somewhat after dusk, notifying her husband of her successful journey by telegram. She drove back to Mannheim several days later.

The novel trip received a great deal of publicity, as she had sought. The drive was a key event in the technical development of the automobile. The pioneering couple introduced several improvements after Bertha’s experiences. She reported everything that had happened along the way and made important suggestions, such as the introduction of an additional gear for climbing hills and brake linings to improve brake-power. Her trip proved to the burgeoning automotive industry that test drives were essential to their business.

The commercial really tells two stories, though. At the beginning of the commercial, a group of woman pull a plow in the fields. They suddenly pause, terrified at what they see moving through the German countryside. We get a glimpse of a black figure atop some magic horseless device. Ominous music rises. A few of the women corss themselves as they watch the black figure go by. The focus is on a small, terrified little girl who begins running. The camera pulls up and we can see a small town is in the distance. for this town. She runs into the town yelling “A witch, a witch is coming!” People in the town lock their homes, church bells begin ringing and a priest is called into action.

Soon, the magic contraption comes into town and comes to a stop with a small explosion of steam and fire. The little girl watches all of this. In the next part of the commercial, the woman leaves her contraption and walks through mud and tries to enter a locked building. She glances at the little girl and the little girl moves her head in the direction of another building, the local pub. The woman enters the pub and asks if the pharacist is there. She says she needs ligroin, a substitute for petroleum in those days.

The pharacist has the legroin and she buys it and goes through a process of putting it into her mechanical contraption. The little girl watches the process. The woman has strange skills not associated with the labor of plowing the little girl knows. The car makes a small explosion and starts up. The woman gets back on it with her sons and leaves the town. She turns around to look back on the little girl. The little girl moves forward a little as if to follow her for a second.

Then, the ending titles of the commercial appear across the screen.

“She believed in more than a car. She believed in herself.”

The camera comes back to the little girl who stands in front of the townspeople. We move in to the little girl’s face. It no longer has the look of fear on it. Now, there is a new expression of confidence. Much is running through her hear as she watches the woman and her two sons move away.

In the world of 1888, there was one more little girl who is inspired by this woman to believe in herself.


Ruth Bader Ginsberg

This post created on 9/19/20, a day after the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

R.I.P. Ruth.

You were a modern Bertha Benz who believed in yourself and inspired so many other young girls.


One thought on “The Woman Behind Mercedes Benz

  1. What an inspiring video! Here’s to Berths Benz,Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and all the other women who set the bar high for our sisters, daughter’s and ourselves.

Leave a Reply