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

Jun 27, 2008
  • 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
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.
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.
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.
Petrol is available from chemists
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.
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.
Extra muscle power helps on hills
From Wiesloch, the journey continued via Bruchsal and Durlach, where it headed east, out of the Rhine Valley and into the “hills”. The one-cylinder engine’s output of around 2.5 hp (1.8 kW) at 500 rpm and its two gears were certainly not enough to conquer big gradients. Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard had to get out and push again.
Their efforts going uphill were interspersed with an increased rush of adrenaline when driving downhill. The shoe brake, which was operated by hand using a lever at the side of the vehicle and acted on both rear wheels, could only slow down the 360-kilogram vehicle with the utmost effort. The brake shoes wore out quickly but even here Bertha knew what to do. On the way back, she stopped in Bauschlott and had a cobbler cover the brake shoes with leather – and thus invented the brake lining at the same time.
Bertha Benz also had to use her own skills to fix any small problems, whether it was cleaning the blocked fuel line using a hat pin or insulating the worn-through ignition wire with the help of a garter.
News for Carl Benz
We know that the long-distance travelers kept Carl Benz, who was waiting at home, up-to-date with the progress of their journey by sending several telegrams, the first of which was sent from Bruchsal. But none of the telegram messages remain.
It was not only the Patent Motor Car Model III that ran out of steam near the village of Wilferdingen with its steep hills; so did the three motorists. Two young farm hands, who were initially wary of the whole thing, finally stepped in to help. This final challenge was thus also overcome; from now on, it was quickly on to Pforzheim via Brötzingen. They reached their destination at dusk. The first leg of the adventurous journey in an automobile had been completed. A few days later, the three long-distance travelers began the return journey to Mannheim. This time, the route was shorter and headed almost in a straight line via Bauschlott, Bretten, Bruchsal, Hockenheim and Schwetzingen to Mannheim. This journey also went smoothly for the now experienced motorists.
Proof of sustainability
By completing the first long-distance journey in automotive history, Bertha Benz not only proved to her husband, as she planned, but also to many skeptics that the automobile had a big future ahead. She had demonstrated that the motor car was fit for purpose on this 180-kilometer journey (there and back). The rise of the later Benz & Cie. Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik AG, Mannheim, to become the biggest automotive factory in the world would barely have been imaginable had it not been for her daringness – and that of her sons.
Incidentally, the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III was given another gear and a more effective brake following the findings of the “test drive”. It thus also became clear for the first time that testing and trying out new automobile models under difficult conditions was essential.
The Patent Motor Car
Benz presented the Patent Motor Car, the world’s first automobile, in 1886. By 1894, 25 vehicles, with engines ranging from 1.5 to 3 hp (1.1 to 2.2 kW) had been built.
The Model I was the original Patent Motor Car. It had steel spoke wheels and other design details that allude to the cutting-edge bicycle constructions of the time.
The modified Model II was originally also a three-wheel vehicle but was then converted to a four wheeler for test purposes. The vehicle, including the Ackerman steering that was trialed in it, was another important step towards the modern automobile. There was probably only one such version.
The Model III was the first automobile to be sold in small production runs. There were various add-on parts. Customers could opt for an additional vis-à-vis seat bench and therefore choose a total of four seats or opt for a folding top. The vehicle had wooden spoke wheels. The powered rear wheels (diameter: around 125 centimeters) were ringed with steel, whilst the controllable front wheel (diameter: 80 centimeter) was covered with solid rubber. The wheelbase was around 1.58 meters and the wheel track 1.25 meters.
It was not easy for Carl Benz to market his Patent Motor Car – until the Frenchman Emile Roger from Paris set up the first sales outlet abroad. As a tag on the vehicle states, a Patent Motor Car Model III, which still exists today, was sent to England via Roger. It was probably built by Benz in 1888 and was showcased at the Isartor in Munich during the power and work machine exhibition. This vehicle is identical to the one that Bertha Benz and her sons traveled in on the world’s first long-distance automobile journey. It is the oldest Benz Patent Motor Car still in original condition and therefore the oldest Benz automotive. The vehicle now belongs to the Science Museum in London.
Technical specifications of the Benz Patent Motor Car Model III
Construction: open-top three wheeler
Engine: one-cylinder, four-stroke engine
Displacement: 1660 cm³ Output: 2.5 hp (1.8 kW) at 500 rpm
Carburetor: Benz surface carburetor
Valves: automatic intake valve, controlled exhaust valve
Cooling system: water/thermosiphon cooling system
Lubrication: drip-feed lubricator and grease cap
Ignition: electric high voltage buzzer ignition
Tank: 4.5 liters in the carburetor
Starter: turning the flywheel
Transmission Leather straps from the engine to the cone pulley, differential, 1 chain for each rear wheel
Clutch: none
Gearbox: two-speed fixed disc, 2 forward gears
Gear changes: hand lever beneath the steering crank to push the strap between the discs
Frame: steel pipe
Front-wheel suspension: front wheel in control fork, without springs
Rear-wheel suspension: live axle, fully-elliptical springs
Steering: rack steering, steering crank in the center of the car
Hand brake: wooden shoe brake/rear tires
Footbrake: none
Lubrication: grease caps
General data
Dimensions: 2700 x 1400 x 1450 mm
Wheelbase: 1575 mm
Wheel track: rear 1250 mm
Wheels: wooden spokes, diameter, front: 800 mm, rear: 1125 mm
Tires: front: solid rubber or iron; rear: iron
Weight: 360 kg
V-max: 16 km/h
Fuel consumption: approx. 10 liters for every 100 kilometers
Bertha Benz, born on May 3, 1849 in Pforzheim as Bertha Ringer, died on May 5, 1944 in Ladenburg. In August 1888, she made the world's first long-distance drive in the world 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.
Part of the route of the long-distance journey undertaken by Bertha Benz and her two sons in August 1888.
On their cross-country journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 1888, Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard bought light petrol from the town pharmacy in Wiesloch in order to refuel the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Illustration.