TCS Daily


Bertha's Muscle Car

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 31, 2006 12:00 AM

This is the true story of two very famous names, and about a name that should be more famous: Bertha -- the mother of the road trip.

By reliable estimates, there have been some 10,000 different makes of automobiles brought forth over the last 120 years of motoring history. In the United States alone, there have been around 3000 makes.

Most of these makes long ago faded into automotive history. Some names still jog the memory -- Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Packard, Nash, Cord, Hudson, Duesenberg, to name a few.

Others are lost in the mists of time -- Earl, Kearns, Metz, Standard, Unic, Crouch, Enfield-Allday, American-Electric, John O'Gaunt, and two of my French favorites, the ASS (yes, folks, the ASS) and, for the timid motorist in the early days, the Hurtu. (The French, of course, did not pronounce it "hurt you," and the car stayed in business from 1896 to 1929.)

But two motoring names -- both German -- that were instrumental to the birth of the automobile remain very much in the active vocabulary of the automobile industry today: Benz and Daimler.

Early automotive archaeology uncovers many pioneers -- Cugnot, Trevithick, Serpollet, Bouton, and the Austrian eccentric, Siegfried Marcus, for instance; but the real beginning of practical production automobiles goes back to Germany 120 years ago and the two names mentioned above.

Indeed, it was exactly 120 years ago this week that Karl Benz applied to the German government for a patent on his three-wheeled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

Patent number 37435 was issued in November of the same year and Benz & Co.'s "Patent-Motorwagen" became the real father of all motorcars. While other engineers, tinkerers and adventurers were basically trying to mate an engine to a horse-drawn wagon, Benz, the son of a railroad engine driver, set out to design a new piece of mobile technology, dedicated from the ground up for self-propulsion.

Although it may have looked carriage-like at first sight, largely because of its wheels, it was a unique vehicle incorporating many cutting edge achievements of the industrial age -- a tubular steel frame, a water-cooled radiator, electric ignition and, of course, a single cylinder four-stroke engine.

But Benz was a bit of a slow burner. His business backers were reportedly furious at his continued fiddling and failure to market his creation. In the two years after the patent was issued, he built only three cars. His wife, Bertha Ringer Benz, was not pleased. She believed in her husband and, more importantly, believed there was a lot more to this car thing than he envisioned.

Benz had made only very short trips around Mannheim in his vehicle while continuing to perfect it. Bertha would recharge the batteries for the ignition at night as she pumped the treadle of her sewing machine, which had been hooked up to a generator.

Bertha proved to be a bit of generator herself. Very early one August morning in 1888, while Karl was off tinkering somewhere, she hauled one of the three wheelers out of the shop, gathered her two sons, Eugen, 15, and Richard, 14, and embarked on a truly historic road trip.

She had not told Karl, but she had decided to drive his vehicle from their home in Mannheim to her hometown of Pforzheim, about 60 miles away. This is a very quick drive today over the superb German roads. Back then it was an epic journey, especially since the vehicle, with its tiny 8/10 horsepower engine, could barely get out of its own way. Its top speed on the flat was about 10 miles an hour.

Bertha's sons were frequently employed pushing the Motorwagen up hills. The world's first gas stop was made in the village of Wiesloch, where a bottle of "ligroin" (usually used to clean clothing) was purchased at an Apotheke, or drug store, and poured into the car's tank before the amazed eyes of the proprietor.

A weary, dusty but decidedly unbowed Bertha finally reached her parents' house in Pforzheim shortly before sundown of a long summer day. She then sent a telegram informing her stunned husband of her successful journey.

Talk about buzz! Bertha's road trip quickly became shrouded in legend (Did she really clean the fuel line with her hairpin?) as tales of it spread across Europe and the car was shown at exhibitions in Munich and Paris.

An encouraged Benz continued making improvements to his cars, soon switching from three to four wheels. His 3 horesepower Viktoria, of 1893, was especially popular. It was capable of a speed of 11 miles per hour. By 1900, Benz had sold more than 2500 cars and his reputation for quality automobiles was firmly established all over the world.

Meanwhile, unknown to Benz, another German engineer, Gottfried Daimler, was entertaining his own dreams of self-propulsion. Daimler was an engine man, interested in powering whatever wheeled vehicles were at hand without the aid of horses. His first automobile, "built" within a few months of Benz's in 1886, was an Amerikanisch style carriage, ordered from a prominent maker and then fitted with his proven engine and belt-drive running gear.

Daimler's engines were something else. The few internal combustion engines around at the time were hissing, coughing things that turned over at a top speed of about 180 revolutions per minute. But thanks to something called hot tube ignition and a cleverly designed exhaust valve, Daimler's first engine (1883) was in effect the first "souped up" engine, running at 600 rpm and capable of running as high as 750 rpm.

With his partner, the ingenious Wilhelm Maybach, he built, in 1885, the "Single Track," an enormous and truly scary-looking motorcycle (the world's first Hog!), constructed of iron and wood and incorporating a half-horsepower air-cooled internal combustion engine of very advanced design. It was an improved version of this engine that was bolted onto the carriage a year later.

Daimler's engines, thanks largely to Maybach's imaginative engineering, became ever more powerful and reliable. But curiously, Daimler had to be goaded, largely by Maybach, into making vehicles designed from the ground up to be motor cars rather than motorized wagons or carriages. Then he had to be convinced that he should make his cars faster. Daimler had a hard time envisioning self-propelled vehicles going much faster than horse-drawn ones. He didn't think drivers would be able to control anything faster.

Plagued by illness and eventually forced to sell out his stake in his own company due to bad business decisions, Daimler seemed destined to fade into obscurity. But with Daimler gone as well as the brilliant Maybach (who had left because of a contract dispute), Daimler Motors was bereft of its technological brains and heart. The two friends, working on their own, continued to develop important motoring advances, including the atomizing carburetor, which would essentially reign until the wholesale advent of fuel injection.

In 1895, at the insistence of a group of British industrialists interested in licensing Daimler engines, both Daimler and Maybach were brought back into the fold. The company moved from triumph to triumph. But the ailing Gottfried Daimler died in 1900, the same year that Maybach completed the design and building of a truly superb automobile that would permanently enshrine not only Daimler's name but eventually that of Karl Benz.

This was the mighty Mercedes.

A magnetic, energetic man named Emil Jellinek, a Czech diplomat and businessman who was utterly smitten by automobiles, personally steered many of his wealthy friends into the purchase of Daimler cars. He had joined the board of Daimler in 1900 and he incessantly urged that the company build a faster, more powerful car to rise above growing competition.

The result was a four-cylinder, 35 horsepower car with a striking pressed steel frame that most enthusiasts point to as the true "forefather of modern motor cars." The car was capable of a then astounding average speed of 35 miles per hour. It ran good and it looked good. And Jellinek knew a good thing when he saw it.

He secured sole sales rights for the car in France, Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the United States. But there was a bit of sticky business. The French firm of Panhard-Levassor had earlier acquired a license for Daimler cars in France. Jellinek had raced a 24-horsepower Daimler back in 1899, dubbing the car "Mercedes" after his eldest daughter. So he began selling this powerful new Daimler car under the name Mercedes.

The car sold very well and acquired a world-wide reputation. So much so, that in 1902, Daimler Motors decided to adopt Mercedes as the name for all private cars it built. Only commercial vehicles -- trucks and buses -- would continue to be called Daimlers.

The success of the Mercedes shocked Karl Benz out of a technological lethargy that had seen his company merely massaging older, proven designs. To compete he came up with better, bigger engines and more modern "car like" designs. One such was the famous 200 horsepower "Blitzen Benz," a four-cylinder (!!!) car which achieved a speed of over 140 miles an hour at Daytona Beach in 1911.

Benz soon moved to 6 cylinder cars and in the early 1920s began developing ever more reliable and powerful diesel engines. In 1924, the Daimler and Benz companies began merging interests, and in 1926, Daimler-Benz was formed.

Soon Mercedes-Benz cars became a byword for high quality and performance. Strange as it may seem, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, two of the greatest pioneers of the automobile, working in the same country at the same time, never knew each other, although they are believed to have met once, briefly.

Karl Benz died in 1929, having lived long enough to see the growing reputation of the merged companies. Bertha Benz, the woman who proved cars were definitely the way to go, died in 1944.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS Contributing Editor.

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