Long Distance in an Original Benz

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Mannheim, Germany, is home to the first motor car ever built, the first long-distance journey and the woman who drove it 125 years ago.

Photography by the authors

An attractive young woman stands in one of the squares in Mannheim, Germany. Her dress is dated. She is wearing clothes from an era 125 years ago.

It has been raining, but she doesn’t care. She wants visitors to the city to see something that, at first glance, looks like a bicycle. It is in fact a city monument to the first motor car ever built, the first long-distance journey in it and, of course, a tribute to its driver. It was built here, and both Mannheim and the automobile world are proud to show it. But most of all it is a homage to an extraordinary woman, Bertha Benz.

The charmer in period costume, the tourist guide for Physician’s Money Digest in the city of Mannheim, is playing the part of this outstanding woman who married Carl (sometimes written as Karl) Benz in 1870 when she was 21. He was working with engines and what were essentially attempts at mechanized bicycles.

Mannheim was badly damaged in World War II but the space where Carl created a small workshop still exists — the garage gate now wearing a metal decal showing a 2D representation of his car. Carl later moved to nearby Ladenburg in North Baden and built a larger factory, now a prestigious museum.

Carl didn’t really invent the motor car (many engineers were trying to do that in 1888) but he was the closest to success — despite the apathy of the public and superstitious fears that horseless carriages were the work of the devil. However, Benz was a perfectionist more inclined to improve each prototype than a business man trying to market his product. Enter his wife, Bertha.

The simple story is her mother lived in Pforzheim 97 miles to the south and her sister had just given birth to a baby there. She bundled her own two sons, aged 13 and 15, into the third prototype and set off to visit her mother.

But the story isn’t really simple. No one had ever driven such a long distance before. The roads — some from Roman times — were rudimentary; her car was an untested and essential prototype; and she didn’t have her husband’s permission or knowledge.

Things went wrong. And this incredibly resourceful woman handled them all! Even including the problem where the husband, instead of seeing the trip as positive public relations, was not pleased and sulked apparently for six months. The distance was unheard of, and for the event to be initiated by a woman seemingly bothered his male ego.

The story is as much about Bertha Benz as it is about this famous car, the Benz Patentmotorwagen Modell 3. Most of the potpourri of our images we show here we shot by courtesy of Winfried A. Seidel, the owner of the Dr. Carl Benz Automuseum. He could not do enough to help us understand and drive the Bertha Benz Memorial Route. This September 2013 will be the 125th anniversary of her brave adventure.

A mannequin in this museum represents Carl, and here stands the prized original Model 3 car itself. The inserted image shows one of our two drivers, Peter Krause. On the right is Winfried Seidel, who is somewhat pensive as if he is reconsidering his permission to let one of us drive the Model 1 replica and let us both sit in the original Model 3 where Bertha Benz herself once sat.

Bertha had been a quick learner when she visited her husband’s workplace. She also had a practical streak and her common sense turned out to be considerable.

Bertha’s historic personal effects are on display in the museum, too, including some of her famous hair pins and hat pins. Krause, a museum driver, demonstrates how Bertha would have had to lie down to find the blocked tube she cleared with her hat pin. Her garter is still there, too, including the one she used to insulate a connection that was becoming over heated and shorting out. Krause drew our attention to the brakes she reinforced at a shoemaker’s shop by buying extra leather for her worn-out brakes.

Bertha was vehement when she returned the car to Carl from her drive into the hills of North Baden. The car needed more gears, she insisted, to be able to handle hills. But her common sense showed up when she reach the village of Wiesloch and had run out of propellant. She knew her husband had been using a solvent Ligroin as fuel.

She marched into the apothecary in town and announced, “I want to buy all the solvent you have for cleaning clothes!”

We follow in her footsteps into the Stadt-Apotheke Wiesloch, into what is now called “the world’s first filling station” to meet owner, Dr. Adolf Suchy, whose wife is now the pharmacist. He points out the Bertha Benz monument and allows us to park one of the two antique Benz cars we are using for this drive, the black 1933 Mercedes-Benz 170, in front of his pharmacy.

The irony of our visit is that the sensational car trip Bertha Benz made in 1888 has brought too much traffic to the downtown part of Wiesloch. The town’s center is now a pedestrian way and traffic is not allowed where we have been driving with the special dispensation accorded Physician’s Money Digest.

It’s been a blast driving in the two cars that we’ve alternated as chase cars. The blue convertible is a very comfortable and spacious 1960 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE Cabriolet.

We’ve been puttering in our Benz automobiles along cobbled car-free streets not knowing we had been granted special permission but noticing the surprise when we came up on pedestrians. Now we know why.

We go on now to Bruchsal and photograph the Palace there; although, 125 years ago, Bertha stopped at the blacksmith’s shop, not the Palace, to have a chain repaired. She sure left her impact on this little bit of Germany.

We reach our destination, Pforzheim, Bertha’s mother’s hometown, where we find another memorial to Bertha’s ride in the main square. We photograph a replica of the Model 1 prototype in its town museum. Also, we find in another museum a celebration of all the cars used in the James Bond movies — an oddity that will still be there at the time of the forthcoming 125 Years Celebration in the fall of 2013.

We think — as we replicate in comfort this amazing journey taken by a woman under such hardships in 1888 — that James Bond would have found Bertha Benz too much to handle if she was ever staged as a Bond Girl!

It must run in the family. Bond couldn’t have handled Jutta Benz, Bertha’s great-great-granddaughter, any better either. Before we leave Mannheim we have dinner with Julia Luttenberger, the marketing executive for Mannheim, and Jutta, an articulate and interesting former history teacher. It is just the four of us with plenty of time to ask questions.

Carl died in 1929 and Bertha in 1944, but Jutta reminisces about the monthly family assembly they had for dinner after World War II. They all sat in the same fixed order: great-grandfather Eugen at one end and great uncle Richard at the other.

“I was five years old under the long table munching pretzels,” says Jutta. “I’d hear my great-great-grandfather say, ‘Richard, do you remember when we went off from Mannheim?’ and the same stories would come out. Richard died in 1955, then my great-great-grandfather had no one to chat to. He died, himself, in 1958. I was part of the monthly assembly till I was 14 but the meetings got longer and more boring so I’d leave and go to a friend’s house and dance rock ’n’ roll!”

What a memory for our own rock ’n’ roll car dance through German and automobile history!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.