Bertha and Karl Benz: Taking horseless carriages out on the road


Whether you’re developing the latest in automobile technology or just looking for your next car – taking your vehicle out on the roads for a test drive seems a natural step today.

However, that hasn’t always been the case. Back in 1888, perhaps unsurprisingly, test driving wasn’t a common occurrence.

But for pioneer Bertha Benz, driving 106 miles through Germany’s Black Forest was just the ticket to evaluating her vehicle.

Bertha was the business partner and wife of Karl Benz, engineer and inventor of the world’s first practical automobile.

And her extraordinary test drive shaped many of the innovations that still power motoring today.

The early overachiever

The story of the Motorwagen starts with the birth of Karl Benz, way back in 1844.

Karl was the son of a locomotive driver in Karlsruhe, Germany.

He was keen on engineering from an early age, although like his father he was more interested in the railways than the roadways to start with.

Benz’ first big break came at the snappily named Factory for Machines for Metal Working.

He invented not only a reliable petrol two-stroke engine, but the spark plug, carburettor, clutch and gear shift to go with it.

These developments were only possible because of Bertha. When the Factory for Machines for Metal Working ran into financial difficulties, Bertha bought out the company with her dowry – before her marriage to Karl.

But nothing annoys an innovator more than being silenced. And when the company was incorporated in 1882, Karl Benz found that he and worse still his ideas weren’t getting the recognition they deserved.

And so in 1883 he left to pursue his true passion: creating the horse and carriage – without the horse.

The horseless carriage

Benz borrowed from the world of cycling to create the “Benz Patent Motorwagen” – an early automobile complete with three wire wheels, a coil ignition and rack and pinion steering.

What separated this Motorwagen from the others in development was that it was the first to entirely generate its own power.

Unfortunately, the car wasn’t without its teething troubles; the Motorwagen even crashed into a wall during a public demonstration.

But by bringing the Benz Patent Motorwagen to market in 1888, Benz produced the first commercially available automobile ever.

And in case you were wondering, it cost a cool 600 German imperial marks – or around £3,000 in today’s money.

Behind the scenes

Bertha Benz had been involved throughout the development of the horseless carriage – even financing the prototypes herself.

Bertha was also on hand when the early Motorwagen design needed some improvement.

In 1888, the vehicle only had a couple of gears and unfortunately couldn’t climb hills unaided.

Bertha was of a belief that we firmly share at SMLL: that you can only really understand how innovations will work through real world testing.

Karl wasn’t convinced that a test drive would work. But a true automotive pioneer, Betha decided to take the automobile out on the road herself – to show him the value it could bring.

An impressive road trip

In August 1888, Bertha packed her two teenage sons into a Motorwagen Mark III and set off on the 65 mile journey to visit her mother in Pforzheim.

This was no mean feat. Until then, cars had only been used to complete short trips, normally with engineers on hand.

Fuel was a serious issue; the vehicle had no tank, relying on a few litres of petrol in the carburettor. Bertha had to visit apothecaries on the route to seek out the petroleum the car needed.

The wooden brakes also proved a shortfall, failing half way through the journey. Bertha had to visit a local cobbler to have leather pads attached, creating the world’s first brake pads in the process.

Improvisation was critical. Her sons had to push the car up steep hills – and Bertha herself used her garter for insulation and cleared a blocked fuel pipe with her hat pin.

But when Bertha arrived, she became the first person in history to drive a significant distance.

And when she telegrammed her husband with her success, she could also let him know that she had gathered insights that would be critical to the development of the vehicle.

The power of real world testing

Crucially, Bertha’s experiences proved that there are some things you can only learn in the real world, which is incredibly relevant as we look to the next generation of road transport.

The Motorwagen was a great advance in itself. But Karl and Bertha learned that driving on the roads would take some serious jumps in technology, from a greater number of gears for the hills to braking enhancements for safety.

In the same way, we’re now working out how technologies like autonomous vehicles will actually work on the roads, and the companion innovations that will be needed.

Bertha’s trip also underlined the importance of infrastructure for road travel. Without regular fuel stops, cars – and drivers – would be limited in how far they could go.

Over time, apothecaries were replaced by the petrol stations that we know today. Now, as electrical cars grow in popularity we’ll need regular charging points to keep us moving.

Centuries of success

Bertha’s test drive was definitely less sophisticated than the models we use today. But it provided crucial intelligence that shaped the future development of the world’s first automobile.

Karl Benz went on to create the first trucks and buses with internal combustion engines. Eventually he joined forces with Daimler, to lend his name to the Mercedes-Benz still gracing our streets.

The work of Karl and Bertha Benz shaped a whole new age of transport – and today, we’re facing a similar prospect with the incredible innovations of CAVs.

But we believe the only way to ensure this technology works – and works in everyone’s favour – is through real world testing, just like that going on at our Greenwich and Stratford sites.

And although our tools have moved on somewhat from hat pins and garters, the spirit of Karl and Bertha Benz is still powering transport today.

How did drivers start to see in the dark? Read our previous Innovators blog to find out.