We all love cars here at Autopia, but what inspires us most are the people; the inventors, the drivers, the risk takers and record breakers, the business men and women who have all contributed to create such a rich history of human endeavour.
Business Woman. Visionary. Car Thief
On January 29, 1886, Karl Benz registered his patent for a three-wheeled vehicle which is generally recognised as the official birth certificate of the motor car. It would never have happened however, without the help of his wife Bertha…
As good an engineer as he was, Karl was hopeless at running a business and just before they were to be married Bertha stepped in, borrowing her dowry from her father and investing it into the company. While he continued to tinker on his projects, she kept his little mechanics shop going, bringing in work to finance the development of what eventually became the ‘Benz Patent-Motorwagen’.
This level of involvement for a woman was pretty much unheard of in those days. Just to put it in perspective, the International Council of Women was formed in 1888 (two years after the patent was registered) and the main item on the agenda was to be given the vote. It took five years before the first country, New Zealand, extended the right to women, and women’s suffrage wasn’t granted in Germany until 1918. So into this world comes Bertha, CFO and Head of Sales for Benz & Cie, but it was what she did next that was even more amazing.
Two years after the Motorwagen was patented, nobody was buying any. The concept just wasn’t tangible for people back then, vehicles of any sort had never been driven more than a kilometre or two, and those trips had been accompanied by engineers and assistants. The ‘wagen was a large expense, for very little benefit. Astute business woman that she was, Bertha recognised this and decided to take matters into her own hands – so she stole her husband’s car.
On 5th August 1888, without telling Karl or the authorities what she was up to, Bertha packed up and took off with her two sons – Richard and Eugen – to visit her mother 53 kilometres away.
It was the first road trip ever, demonstrated the usefulness of the Motorwagen and attracted such attention that sales began to take off, as she had hoped. Bertha’s remarkable trip is now celebrated every year with a memorial rally, retracing her route from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back.
When Karl woke up to find his Motorwagen missing that morning he probably didn’t think he was a lucky man, but he knew it in the end. In his autobiography he 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 lived to a grand old age of 95, and died two days after she was given the title of ‘Honourable Senator’ by her husband’s alma mater the Technical University of Karlsruche.