Mrs. Benz’s Wild Ride by V.R. Christensen

Posted by on Sep 16, 2013 in 19th England, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

What is it that makes a hero a hero? I’d like to think it’s a determination to see one’s way around any given obstacle, even when, or perhaps more so when, that obstacle requires one to change his manner of thinking.

For years I felt that Cry of the Peacock was missing something. My hero lacked a vehicle on which to fix the axis of his uniqueness. He did not want the same things his family wanted; wealth, station, privilege, a manufactured sense of honor that would drive him to maintain and protect that honor at any cost.

And then it struck me. It’s 1890, after all. Perhaps the vehicle for his heroism is…well,…a vehicle! I might very easily imagine that my Mr. Crawford could have a small hand in developing the automobile. And he might, like his hypothetical contemporary, and like any true hero, understand that it is always necessary to give credit where credit is due.

Sometimes in the making of a man, the ingenuity and influence of a woman is required.


So it was with Karl Benz. It is he who is generally accepted as the inventor of the world’s first automobile. And while he could not have succeeded without the work the scores of engineers and inventors who came before him, (the Niepce brothers and Etienne Lenoir, to name a few) or perhaps more especially those who worked contemporary to him (Daimler, Maybach, Marcus, Roger), the success of the automobile would never have been ensured without the pioneering spirit of his wife.

Karl met Bertha in 1872 in the village of Pforzheim. She was of a well to do family. Their romance progressed quickly and they were shortly thereafter married. They settled in Manheim, where, with her money, they bought a property where he built and sold tools for use in sheet metal work. In his spare time, he began development of a two cycle engine. He had it completed on New Years’ Eve 1878 but, though it was in apparently perfect working order, he couldn’t get it to run.  He returned home to his family, where he prepared to take his wife out to celebrate the New Years’ festivities, but Bertha wanted to see the engine running. So, instead, they went back to his workshop and worked on it together until, at last, it was working. It was still running an hour later when the bells rang in the New Year.

With this success Karl immediately began designing an automobile, and in 1885 the first was complete, fitted, not with the two cycle engine, but with a four-stroke cycle engine. He tried to sell them, but there was little public interest. Perhaps this was owing to the fact that both the Kaiser and the church had condemned his Motorwagen as public nuisances of perhaps evil design. Church officials called them “Devil’s carriages” and “Witch’s carriages” and warned the people not to so much as look at them. The Motorwagen was loud, and dangerous too, for they spooked the horses. Many complained, even going so far as to write to government officials. Those officials, consequently, forbade Benz to drive his vehicles, and to enforce the declaration, guards were placed about the house. Benz, defeated, put his car away and gave up.

Berta Benz

Bertha, however, was not so easily conquered. She knew that if people could see how useful her husband’s automobiles might be, that they would put aside their objections, and, just perhaps, they might want them for themselves. What’s more, she was prepared to offer proof of her husband’s genius and of the value of his inventions.

In the early morning, on a Sunday in 1888, Bertha, while her husband was out, and aided by her two teenage boys (13 and 15), stole the car out of the garage through an unguarded back alley entrance, and proceeded to drive from Manheim, where they lived, to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, a distance of 60 miles. Previous to this the car had only been driven very short distances, usually as test drives, and always with mechanical assistants.

The ride was not without incident, of course. The automobile required refueling several times. It ran on Ligroin, or petroleum ether, which was only available in apothecary shops. They also had to stop quite often to refill the small water tank that cooled the single piston engine. Another problem they ran into was the clogging of the fuel line due to the dust of the roads. Mrs. Benz stopped the car, and, removing her hat pin, proceeded to unclog the fuel line with it. At one point, a wire on the engine, which had rubbed against the frame, lost its insulation and shorted out. She used her garter as a replacement insulation. Also because of the dirt, and owing to the unevenness of the roads, one of the chains which drove each rear wheel stretched and fell off the gearing. They stopped at a blacksmith’s shop and, providentially, found a blacksmith who was more than happy to work on one of Benz’s famous inventions, and who offered to repair the chain for free. The roads approaching Pforzheim were very hilly, and so by employing the brakes as often as was necessary, they effectively polished themselves so that there was no longer enough friction to stop the wheels. Bertha made a detour to a shoemaker and asked him to apply some leather to the brakes, creating, essentially, the first brake pad.

Upon arriving in Pforzheim, Bertha sent a telegram to her husband informing him of their safe arrival. It was dusk by this time, and they had left at dawn. The journey took all day, and she returned again on the following day. Upon their return, and thanks to his wife’s long distance ‘test drive’, Karl was able to make many improvements to the vehicle, including the addition of a second gear for climbing hills.

Bertha Benz and her long-distance trip (6)

News of Bertha’s drive quickly spread and she became a sort of celebrity, as did Benz’s Motorwagen. All previous objections and restrictions were now set aside and he was allowed to continue to develop his automobile, and to sell it, unhindered. Between 1888 and 1893 he sold about 25 vehicles, mostly in Germany and in France, where Emile Roger, under license, began building and selling Benz’s Motorwagen there, and with increasing success.

cry-of-the-peacock185x280While some in 1890 still doubted the viability of the automobile, some saw it as a dawning achievement, the harbinger of grand and wondrous things to come. For a gentleman living on a struggling estate, where any advancement or improvement is considered a great risk, such an idea as mechanization provides an adequate and convenient motivation for a young man to step out of the shadows his family has cast over him. And perhaps, when the time comes, it will provide a means by which he might rescue another from that same, all-consuming shadow.

V. R. Christensen, September 16, 2013

Cry of the Peacock is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle formats at all Amazon affiliates.


  1. There are many good words with which to honor people like those you describe. Entrepreneur, inventor, facilitator, teacher, fairly leap to mind, but not “hero”. It is a much overused word.

    During the final year of my son’s participation in Cub Scouting (I was the Den Leader for his group), I had to prepare them for Boy Scouting, teaching them the Scout Oath, Motto, and Law. I fell back on my experience in Vietnam to help them understand “A Scout is brave”.

    The better part of my tour of duty in Vietnam was spent investigating acts of heroism and reporting on them. I sat with panels of officers who judged lesser acts to determine which should be cited and with which award. I forwarded major award recommendations such as the Medal of Honor to the Department of the Army. What I learned and what I taught those boys is that heroism is doing what is necessary in spite of fear. I discovered acts that were seemingly heroic committed by people who were either unaware of the danger or acted in a “fugue” state in which their mind “departed” the circumstances because it was unable to deal with the horror. I had to wonder, and still do, were these heroes? What do you think?

    • That’s an excellent question. That ‘fugue’ state you describe implies an absence of fear, and I suppose it’s impossible to say, since one can’t really know what they were thinking in such a situation. They are in survival mode, I suppose. But, taking a step back a bit, I know I wouldn’t have the courage to join the military, so that, in itself, seems heroic to me.

      In my own life, any courage that I have displayed has been in doing what I believed was right, despite what other people thought. I don’t mean to make that out as heroism, but if it were taken to the extreme… Fighting for liberty, others’ rights, even if we’re not talking about engaging in a physical battle… going against the grain of society’s norms, that seems extraordinarily brave to me. My ‘hero’ (literary term) in this book was fashioned a bit after Daniel Deronda. Deronda had been offered all this prosperity and station, the distinction of being considered “an English gentleman”. But in order to have it, he had to denounce his Jewish heritage. It was easy enough to do before he knew he was Jewish. But once he learned of his history and had, perhaps by chance, perhaps by intrinsic affinity for its culture and teachings,it became a much harder thing to do. His adoptive family thought him a fool. Society would certainly find much to object about. And yet it was something he had to do. Perhaps hero is too strong a word for him. In my mind, I’m not sure it is. And as the chief protagonist in a work of literary fiction, well…that is, by definition, what he is called.

      Maybe if I had written a war story, yours would be an easier question to answer. It is an interesting question, however. I guess what I mean to say is that since I know so little of war, I feel a bit like a hypocrite answering. I appreciate your asking it, however. Perhaps someone has a better answer than I can give.

    • It was my experience from fighting in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine in 1966 that most of the troops who do things an average citizen would see as heroism did not set out to become a hero and when we do something seen to be an act of heroism it usually has to do with not wanting to let our fellow troops down—the men we trained with, we go on patrols with, ambushes with, stand long-dark hours on watch with, and go on major field operations with—the same men we went drinking and whoring on R&R to Hong Kong, Okinawa, the Philippians or Bangkok with.

      We trust each other because our lives depend on it and the idea of letting that trust down is unthinkable to most men in the military who are in combat.

      Instead, we stand by each other risking death when death comes our way because we don’t want to fail at our job.

      For example, when I was on watch in a bunker inside an armed camp with razor sharp concertina wire surrounding it, and I was on watch alone while the other three men in our bunker were asleep and I was so tired I feared falling asleep and failing the three sleeping Marines, I would take out a grenade and pull the pin. I’d then leave the bunker holding the grenade and take up a position just outside the bunker. That way if I fell asleep, my hand might relax and arm the grenade. Then if I did not wake up, the grenade that would probably kill me would wake up and alert everyone inside the bunker.

      Before turning to the use of a grenade as described, I also had a straight pen in my shirt lapel that I would pull out and jab into my finger tips to keep me awake. The idea of falling asleep on watch and possibly missing an enemy infiltrating the camp who would kill some of the men I fought beside was something I did not want to be responsible, and I was willing to die to make sure it didn’t happen.

      Was I a hero? No way. I was only doing my job the best I could at the age of 19. I’m sure most of the other Marines I served with would have done the same for me.

  2. Re: Benz — Thanks for giving us the details as to whom we can blame for the automobile. I had to smile when it turns out it was his wife that took the long test-drive! Typical. I let my wife do the laundry. She actually wants to — doesn’t like it when I do it. She’s also the better driver, which begs a comparison…