With the excitement of fast cars in the air, it’s the right time to remember a pioneering woman in the automobile industry.

 Karl Benz gets all the applause for inventing the world’s first motor car, he may well have faltered without the tremendous efforts of a sterling woman called Bertha who was the first person in the world to drive a car long distance. (Men, who scoff at women drivers, eat her dust!)

Bertha was a pioneer in another way too, she realised that products need the sunshine of publicity to bloom and she devised a brilliant strategy that generated worldwide attention and helped create Brand Benz.

Bertha Benz (née Ringer) was born on May 3, 1849 in Germany. In course of time, she grew up and was engaged to Karl Benz. In 1871, she invested in his business, enabling him to work on the long and costly process of developing the world’s first patented automobile, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen.

Bertha Benz – Pioneering woman driver and brand builder

 As an unmarried woman she was able to make such an investment. When she married him in 1872, the law of the time took away her juridical power to act. Luckily for the world, Bertha did not lose her will to think and act independently.

At dawn on August 5, 1888, she loaded up two of her five children, her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old, in one of the newly constructed Patent Motorwagen automobiles. Without a word to either Karl or permission from the authorities, Bertha drove 106 km (60 miles) one-way from Mannheim to Pforzheim, telegraphing Karl of her progress. She returned along the same route the next day.

She was the first person in the world to drive an automobile over a long distance. Motorised drives had merely covered a few km until then.

While her professed purpose was to visit her mother, Bertha’s real motives were far more crucial. Both Bertha and Karl had invested heavily in the automobile, but Karl suffered from a lack of confidence in the success of the car and would not consider marketing his invention. Bertha was sure that the invention would become a financial success if only the world knew about it sufficiently. She wanted to demonstrate the car’s usefulness to the people and also give her husband’s flagging confidence a much-needed boost.

Her journey was pioneering not only because it was the first long distance drive; it ended up as a test drive that showed the prototype car’s problems. She came up with ingenious solutions to the problems that she encountered.

She got a blacksmith to mend a broken chain, she had to get a shoemaker to repair the brake shoe and in doing so, she invented brake lining. She cleaned a fuel pipe with a hairpin, insulated a wire with her garter and had to refuel at a pharmacy. The car used ligroin (refined saturated hydrocarbon petroleum fraction similar to petroleum ether used mainly as a laboratory solvent) for fuel which was only available with apothecaries. Her experience led Benz to add an additional gear for climbing hills and other improvements.

Her trip created a sensation, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen got worldwide attention and the company got its first sales order.

Sandhya Mendonca (Sandhya Mendonca writes a weekly column for the Herald Goa)

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