On July 3, 1886 inventor Karl Benz rolled his latest creation, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, a light weight three wheeled carriage powered by an internal combustion engine of his own design onto the streets of Manheim for its first public demonstration.
There had been self-propelled road vehicles since Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s lumbering Fardier à vapeur, a heavy cart built to haul artillery for the French Army in 1769. Since then dozens of steam powered vehicles had been built and/or proposed. By the 1880’s Amédée Bollée of Le Mans was producing large, multi-passenger coaches and de Dion & Bouton were turning out light weight tri and quadricycles. But Benz’s gasoline powered Motorwagan is considered the first modern automobile and the direct ancestor of all that came that came after.
Benz's heiress wife Bertha financed her husband's inventions and we a shrewd businesswoman in her own right.
Benz, a successful engineer and developer of stationary engines for industrial applications, was financed by his heiress wife Bertha, a woman of strong mind and keen intellect in her own right who would be deeply involved in advising her husband on business matters. Benz’s German patent dated from his application on January 29 of that year.
Key to the tricycle was the light weight gasoline powered two-stroke piston engine that he had patented back in 1873. The version he mounted on his Moterwagen was a 954 cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine with trembler coil ignition which produced 2⁄3 horsepower (hp) 250 rpm, producing about the same power as a modern walk-behind self-propelled lawnmower engine. But it was powerful enough to propel the very light vehicle built on a tubular steel frame with thin wood panels. Each of the three wheels, specially designed by Benz, had wire steel spokes and hard rubber tires. The freely rotating single front wheel was steered by a tiller by a driver seated in front of the engine.
A museum replica of the Patent Moterwagan
The engine drove the two rear wheels with a chain drive on both sides. A simple belt system served as a single-speed transmission, varying torque between an open disc and drive disc. A large horizontal flywheel stabilized the engine power output.
That first put-putting prototype strikes us as not quite finished. There was an open crankcase. Into which oil dripped from an open pan on critical moving parts. Similarly there was neither a sealed gas tank as we know it or a carburetor. Gasoline (or another suitably combustible fluid) dripped from a small reservoir into a basin of soaked fibers that supplied a vapor to the cylinder by evaporation. There were also no brakes.
But Benz was not finished tinkering. Over the next year he built two more improved models. By the time of his Model 3 Moterwagen, it was powered by a new 2 hp engine capable of getting the vehicle up to a dizzying 10 miles per hour. It also had a real carburetor, gas tank, and manually operated brakes on the rear wheels.
All of these prototypes were all well and good, but perhaps Mrs. Benz was a trifle anxious for her investment to start paying off with sales. She recognized that the public interest had been piqued, but was far from convinced that the Moterwagen was a practical means of transportation. The shrewd and intrepid Bertha realized something more dramatic need be done.
Bertha Benz and her teenage sons posed for a photo, seen here tinted, recreating the beginning of her historic drive.
In early August 1888 supposedly without her husband’s permission—some historians doubt this claim—she gathered up her two sons, ages 15 and 14 and took the Model 3 out for a spin. A trip actually, all the way from Mannheim to her mother’s home in Pforzheim, a trip of about 60 miles which took her through the streets of Heidelberg and Wiesloch. The sight of a woman and two children zipping through the streets in a noisy, smoky contraption with no horse naturally attracted considerable attention.
Bertha was not only the driver and navigator, but the mechanic as well. When the carburetor clogged, she had no problem clearing it with her hat pin and she used her garter to insulate an exposed wire. When fuel ran low and no gasoline was available she purchased ligroin, a petroleum ether related to benzene, at the Wiesloch municipal pharmacy. Later when the wooden block of her brakes wore down, she found a cobbler to nail strips of leather on them, thus inventing brake pads on the fly.
Bertha made it safely to her mother’s by evening and sent husband a famous telegram explaining her whereabouts and how she got there. The next morning she drove home. She had proved the automobile was a reliable transportation option and that it could even be operated by an unsupervised woman. And as she hoped, the trip generated sales.
Afterwards her husband, at Bertha’s suggestion made brake pads standard equipment and added a second gear for aid in climbing hills.
An early ad for the Patent-Motorwagen featured an illustration of Benz at the tiller.
Over the next few years until 1893 about 25 Moterwagens were built and sold before Benz moved on to more sophisticated models.
Three years before Karl Benz died in 1929 he merged his Benz & Cie company with Gottlieb Daimler’s Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft to form what would become Mercedes-Benz.
Bertha Benz’ investment paid off. When she died at age 95 in 1944 she was a very wealthy woman indeed.
The route she took on her memorable 1888 drive has been named the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.