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BellaOnline's German Culture Editor

The Modern Car, It All Began With Benz

"I believe in the horse, the automobile is just a temporary phenomenon", said Germany's last Kaiser Wilhelm II when cars first arrived on the scene.

Nevertheless not only did he become a car fanatic, over 125 years after Carl Benz registered his invention of a "motor carriage" in Mannheim on January 29, 1886 this "temporary phenomenon" shows no sign of going away.

His three wheeled invention, Patent Number 37435 and described as a "Tricycle - vehicle powered by a gas engine", was started by a crank and its internal combustion engine produced 2.5 horsepower with a top speed of 18 km/h, 11.2 mph.

The "horseless carriage" was offered for sale to the public from July, 1886.

It was the creation of mechanical engineer, later founder of the company which became Mercedes Benz, Carl Benz, and is considered to be the world's first modern automobile. Despite predecessors created by various inventors across Europe, some dated back as far as the 17th century which were steam-driven or electrically-powered. While not long after Benz had patented his own invention, Stuttgart gun maker Gottlieb Daimler independently created a four wheel vehicle that resembled a horse drawn cab.

Born in Karlsruhe on 25th November, 1844, the son of an engine driver, in his memoirs Carl Benz wrote how much of his success was owed to his wife Bertha who had married him in July 1872, and with whom he had five children.

Engaged but unmarried, in 1871 she used a prepayment of her dowry to invest in his business becoming his business partner and enabling the research and development to go ahead. German law of the time would not only have made this impossible had they already been married, she would also not have been allowed to patent the automobile.

Bertha Ringer was born May 3, 1849 in Pforzheim, Germany, and she fell in love with the heavily in debt but visionary engineer. Believing in his ideas and giving him unwavering support through some hard years, as he struggled to bring his idea of a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine to life.

"Only one person was there beside me in the lifeboat in the days when everything was heading for ruin. That was my wife. Brave and courageous she hoisted the sails of hope", was how he described it in his memoirs.

The car had been patented and offered for sale nevertheless orders were slow coming in. Not only Kaiser Wilhelm was skeptical about the horseless carriage, and Carl was again thinking of giving up the whole project.

But Bertha had other ideas.

The first long-distance automobile journey in history

In early August 1888 Bertha Benz and her sons Richard and Eugen decided to make a spontaneous visit to her mother, who lived sixty five miles (106 kilometers) to the south in Pforzheim on the edge of the Black Forest. There was an ulterior motive however, she wanted to prove to Carl that his invention had a future and, when the public saw the automobile worked and was reliable, it would become a success.

She and the 13 and 15 year old boys decided to take one of the later model automobiles, the No.3, because it had room enough for three people, and without informing the authorities, or her husband because he would not have allowed them to take such a risk, they left their Mannheim home early in the morning.

Rolling the vehicle down the driveway so they would make no noise they had traveled for several hours before it was noticed they had gone.

Streets as we know them did not exist, the countryside had field tracks with the ruts left by horse drawn carriages, which as the Model No. 3 had wooden wheels did not improve the quality of the ride, and as there were no road signs Bertha followed the railway tracks.

While her sons and some local farmers had to push the car up a hill because its engine was not powerful enough to make it without help. Bertha later suggested that providing another gear might make climbing hills easier.

Everything about the experience was new, and not only to Bertha and the boys.

A noise warned them a chain had stretched so they stopped at the blacksmiths in Bruchsal to repair it, the fuel line became clogged and was cleared with a hairpin, next the ignition broke and fixed with one of Bertha's garters.

The brakes wore down and the first brake linings were made by a Bauschlott cobbler who fixed leather onto the brake shoes, and while he was working she sent a telegram to her husband and let him know she, the boys and "his baby" were fine.

No one had made this journey before so they had underestimated the fuel needed, and as filling stations had not been invented they stopped at "The World's First Filling Station", a pharmacy that still exists in Wiesloch, to buy some "Ligroin". A solvent used to power the engine.

After arriving in Pforzheim at dusk, luckily before dark as their "Benz" didn't have headlights, Bertha telegraphed her husband that the expedition had been a success.

It was a sensation. To avoid the steep mountains three days later they took a slightly different route on the return journey on what is now the Baden-Württemberg Bertha Benz Memorial Route, and the road was lined with people. Some awestruck others frightened by the hissing and spitting horseless carriage, but this journey was the breakthrough that changed everything.

The Benz's faith in their invention had been rewarded. Thanks to a daring road trip by Bertha Benz and her sons, for which she also was later given the first ever Drivers License, the automobile had "arrived" and was now at the beginning of its own journey to success.

Photo credits: No. 3 Benz and modern Mercedes Benz, courtesy daimler.com - Bertha Benz circa 1885, author unknown source:ARD.de - Wiesloch Stadtapotheke, 'The First Filling Station in the World', via Daimler.de

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