August 1888: Bertha Benz takes world’s first long-distance trip in an automobile

  • The Benz Patent Motor Car covers the 180-kilometer trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back without any problems
  • The pioneering activity paves the way for the automobile
Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim

Bertha Benz with her sons Eugen and Richard during the long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim with the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1888. Reconstructed scene (push-starting the car) on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the motor vehicle’s first long-distance journey

In August 1888, Bertha Benz drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim with her two sons in the Patent Motor Car built by her husband Carl Benz. A few days later, she returned to Mannheim. This first long-distance trip in the history of the automobile was a pioneering undertaking. For the most part, it all ran smoothly: there were only a few minor technical problems on route, which were all solved. An original Model III Patent Motor Car, identical in construction, still exists today and is the world’s oldest remaining Benz automobile, which dates back to 1888.

Carl Benz was a magnificent technician. In 1886, he applied for a patent for his motor car – the world’s first automobile and therefore an epoch-making innovation. However, his business acumen was not so strong. His wife Bertha bravely and enthusiastically stood by his side: she supported her husband in many ways, recognized the importance of his invention at an early stage and firmly believed that it would be a success. The only thing lacking was the definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes.

Encounter: The original Benz patent motor car of 1888 (left) and a replica of the world’s first automobile from the year 1886

Encounter: The original Benz patent motor car of 1888 (left) and a replica of the world’s first automobile from the year 1886

Bertha Benz decided to go on a lengthy test drive to encourage her husband and to prove to him the capability and sustainability of his invention – albeit without telling him about it beforehand. She already had a destination for her drive in mind: Pforzheim, her place of birth.

Bertha Benz, 1888

Bertha Benz, 1888

At the beginning of August, when the school vacation began, it was time. Bertha Benz let her sons Eugen and Richard into her plan. Mother and sons carefully made their way to the factory early in the morning. They quietly pushed the vehicle out of the workshop and only started it once it was a safe distance away from the house – by turning the horizontal flywheel. As the story goes, she left a note on the kitchen table for Carl, who was still asleep, with an openly-worded message that she was on her way to Pforzheim – with not a word about the “test drive.” He later noticed that the motor car was missing and realized that his loved ones were not travelling by train.

Once the three had finally got the car rolling, they realized that they did not know how to get to Pforzheim.

Petrol is available from chemists

Benz patent motor car model 3 (1886 - 1894). Benz Patent-Motorwagen Modell 3.

First contemporary photographic report about a journey with the Benz patent motor car model 3 (1886 – 1894). It was published in “Illustrierte Zeitung” (Leipzig) in September 1888.

Once the three had finally got the car rolling, they realized that they did not know how to get to Pforzheim. So they decided to stick to the places and roads that they knew and initially headed towards Weinheim. In Weinheim, they headed south, to Wiesloch. “Ligroin” supplies, as petrol was known at the time, was a great source of concern, as the 4.5-liter supply in the carburetor – there was no gas tank yet – was running ominously low. Ligroin was available from chemists back then. The town pharmacy in Wiesloch, which still exists today and claims to be the world’s first gas station, was able to help them. The long-distance travelers later bought more ligroin in Langenbrücken and Bruchsal during their journey.

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station”

Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard during their long-distance journey in August 1888 with the Benz Patent Motor Car. Contemporary portrayal of filling up at the pharmacy in Wiesloch, the “world’s first gas station”

Cooling the engine was even more of a worry than finding fuel. The engine was cooled using the evaporation of water according to the thermosiphon system. The water supply was topped up at every opportunity: at public houses, from streams or, when there was no other choice, from a ditch. There were no punctures because the rear wheels had iron rings and the front wheel was covered in solid rubber.

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