Mercedes 220S Cabriolet

Palm Springs, California | C.1959

Photo Credit: Paul Fuentes

When people think of the first automobile, the name Henry Ford typically comes to mind. But it was actually a pair of German engineers that brought the first car down the proverbial assembly line: the co-founders of Mercedes-Benz.

In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler was absorbed in creating a mechanism that would propel a bike frame under its own power – in other words, the first motorcycle. Without any knowledge of Daimler, Karl Benz was also busy at work crafting his own version of an engine that would propel a three-wheeled “Motorwagen” which he would patent in 1886 – effectively claiming the invention of the first automobile.

But Karl’s work wouldn’t have been possible without his wife Bertha. She knew people would be skeptical of a horseless wagon and was determined to prove it could go the distance.

With Karl weary of showing off his new invention, Bertha hopped into the tri-wheeled vehicle with her two sons in the passenger seats – and without Karl’s knowledge – set out on a 67 mile journey to visit her parents.

The impromptu excursion made Bertha not just the first person to drive a motor vehicle but also the first roadside mechanic. As this was a prototype, she ran into a few problems along the way – but had a solution for everything. Spark plug failed to ignite? A garter wrapped around the plug did just the trick. Fuel line clogged? A hat pin was the perfect size to clean the line. No petrol stations yet invented? No problem, Bertha took a specific route to refuel at pharmacies with ligroin – a cleaning agent derived from petroleum.

Moving at a swift 10mph, Bertha completed the twelve hour trek (which takes about an hour today). Skeptics abound, the trip was the first major step to bringing automobiles into our everyday lives – though we’ve thankfully come a long way from garters and hat pins holding things together.

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