‘Only a girl’ didn’t stop the determined Bertha Benz

Review: Vivien Horler

The Woman at the Wheel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

In 1896, just 10 years after the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in the streets of Mannheim, Germany, by inventor Carl Benz, South African crowds welcomed the automobile – a Benz Vilo – to our shores.

The Velo, short for Velocipede, was a very different vehicle from the original Motorwagen which is depicted on the cover of this fictionalised piece of history.

For one thing it had four wheels, rather than the Motorwagen’s three, and was more powerful, but it still used a type of tiller for steering rather than a steering wheel (invented in France in 1894).

SA’s first Velo was put through its paces on a field in Pretoria before President Paul Kruger, and a century later I was present at the same field when Mercedes-Benz celebrated a century of the marque in the country.

According to an author’s note at the end of The Woman at the Wheel, in 1893 Benz invented double-pivot steering which solved the challenge of steering four-wheeled vehicles, and in 1894 Benz & Co built 1 200 Velos, which became the world’s first production car.

But The Woman at the Wheel is about the development of the Velo’s predecessor, the Patent Motorwagen, and about Carl Benz’s battle to get the concept of a “horseless carriage” accepted as something that was neither a joke nor the devil’s handiwork.

But it is mainly about Carl’s wife, Bertha, a staunch supporter of her husband, who several times helped to keep Carl’s pioneering efforts on the road.

Even after Carl had demonstrated the vehicle in Mannheim and at a show in Paris (where he wasn’t allowed to drive it), there was widespread scepticism as to its general usefulness.

This led, in 1888, to Bertha famously driving the Motorwagen on its first extended test drive, 106km from Mannheim to her hometown of Pforzheim, in single a day – a feat that would have been impossible with a horse and carriage.

(Ironically, since the Motorwagen did not have a wheel, Bertha was technically not “the woman at the wheel”. But hey, she was behind Carl’s efforts all the way and it’s a good title.)

The vehicle ran on ligroin, also known as benzene, which was used as a dry-cleaning agent and could be bought at pharmacies. This was handy as there were, obviously, no fuel stations along the way.

Today Bertha’s feat is commemorated by the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, unveiled in 2008, which traces her journey.

Bertha was born to a middle-class family in Pforzheim in 1849, the third of nine children of a master builder. By the time she was 10 there were seven children, but only she seemed interested in her father’s work.

He also worked as a building inspector, and would occasionally take her with him when he appraised structures. How things worked, why they worked, and the importance of good foundations fascinated her.

Her two older sisters spent their time working on their trousseaus, which meant being cooped up in a room, stitching. She was entirely uninterested.

One day she wandered into her father’s empty study, keen to see his records and understand how he worked. She came across an inscription in his handwriting in the family Bible, recording the births of his children. Next to her name was written: “Unfortunately, only a girl again.”

Bertha was devastated.

Years later she met the impecunious inventor Carl Benz at a picnic and was charmed by his determination to invent a “horseless carriage”. He spoke to her as an equal, explaining his ideas and his concepts and she blossomed under his attention.

He entered a partnership with a man in Mannheim, which ended in disaster, a pattern which was to be repeated throughout their lives. By this time Bertha and Carl were engaged, and she persuaded her father to donate her dowry – and her future inheritance – to help Carl to start again.

They married and she moved to Mannheim, living with Carl in a tiny flat off his workshop.

Life was not easy. Various disasters befell them, with further partnerships collapsing. Bertha wondered if they should move to America, like her older sisters had done. But single-minded Carl, with her unrelenting support, pushed on.

With virtually no resources, Carl was not the man her parents had hoped for as their daughter’s husband. And yet Carl and Bertha had a generally equitable partnership, unusual for marriages in the late 1890s.

In his autobiography Life Journey of a German Inventor, he wrote: “Only one person stayed next to me in the little ship of life in the days when the sinking was approaching. That was my wife… Brave and courageous, she hoisted new sails of hope and support at a time when no one else believed in the dream.”

SA author Penny Haw’s story is not only one of steely determination to get things done, but also a tale of friendships, the joy of children, and the love of dogs.

This a gripping read about a world when if you didn’t have a horse and carriage – most people didn’t – you walked everywhere, but it is also a tribute to a woman who believed in her husband’s dream and did all she could to support it.

And she proved to herself and those around her that “only a girl” meant nothing.

Footnote: Extraordinarily, as late as 1890, Carl Benz’s partners, Max Rose and Friedrich Esslinger, with whom Carl had had a typically troubled relationship, sold their shares in Benz & Co. As he left, Rose told Carl: “Don’t waste your time on motor cars.”

In the following nine years Benz & Co became the world’s leading automotive manufacturer.

And, in case you’ve wondered about the Mercedes part of the international brand, here’s the story. In 1924 the devastating effects of World War I on Germany saw Benz & Co enter a joint venture with its competitor, Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft. Two years later the new company unveiled the first Daimler-Benz models at the 1926 Berlin Motor Show under the name Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes was the name of the daughter of Daimler-Benz designer and entrepreneur Emil Jellinek.



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