A genius whose three-wheeler is seen as the first car
Special to Automotive News Europe
If ever a man depended on the energy of his spouse to pull him through, Karl Friedrich Benz was he. To speak about Karl Benz without mentioning his wife Bertha Benz, nee Ringer, is telling only half the story.
Karl Friedrich Benz was a typical inventor, grand in his ideas, a wonderful craftsman, but hopeless in business matters. Bertha Ringer believed in Karl's ability much more than he did.
While he was torn by doubts on the direction he should take, she had none. He nearly lost his little mechanics shop to an associate until Bertha, then his fiancee, came along with a dowry prematurely cajoled from her parents.
Whenever the little gas engine in the tricycle that Karl built failed, Bertha would buck him up. When he wanted to give up the quest for the carriage that didn't need horses, she pushed him to continue. To finance the development, she saw to it that the mechanics shop got some jobs.
At last, on January 29, 1886, Karl registered his patent DRP 37435, for a three-wheeler with a four-stroke 0.9 PS engine. DRP 37435 today is recognized as the official birth certificate of the motor car.
But rich people, who should have bought the vehicle, doubted its reliability. The resolute Bertha came up with a grand public relations idea: a woman and two children all alone on a long distance tour. In those times, it was an un-heard of adventure. On an August morning in 1888, while her husband was occupied with other things, Bertha packed up their two sons, aged 14 and 15, swung herself into the driver's seat and drove 100 kilometers on rough roads from Mannheim to Pforzheim near Stuttgart. The expedition arrived just when the sun was setting.
By telegram she and the boys let the father know that they had successfully completed the first long distance trip in the history of the automobile.
The tale of the unbelievable adventure spread quickly and ignited wild conjectures on who in the world had helped this woman. It was grand publicity, and the business began to thrive.
But as the industry grew and changed, Karl Benz did not. He would have nothing to do with fast-running engines or with vehicles other than motorized horse carriages. Benz & Cie was in danger of losing its world leadership in car building at the turn of the 20th century, but Karl Benz saved the firm again, this time by resigning in 1903.
Benz died in his house in Mannheim 26 years later, three years after his Benz & Cie was joined with Daimler Motorengesellschaft, and 29 years after the death of Gottlieb Daimler, a man he never met.
In his autobiography Karl Benz wrote: "In those days when our little boat of life threatened to capsize, only one person stood steadfastly by me, my wife. She bravely set new sails of hope." Bertha, the resolute, died aged 95 in 1944.