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The world’s first road trip

Bertha Benz driving the Benz Patent-Motorwagen

On Sunday 5 August 1888, says Bryan Appleyard in Engelsberg Ideas, Bertha Benz “cracked”. Her husband Karl, today remembered as the inventor of the automobile, had a “perfectly workable” prototype of his new Benz Patent-Motorwagen. But rather than getting out and selling it, he kept tinkering around in his Mannheim workshop, trying to make it better. What was needed, Bertha decided, was a “big gesture”. So she got her two young sons up at the crack of dawn, and took them out in her husband’s car on the “world’s first road trip”.

When Karl woke up and found out, “he was horrified”. The journey was “both illegal and blasphemous”: the Vatican had declared the automobile “a devil’s or witch’s carriage”, telling people not even to look at one, and the local authority had banned them from public roads. But Bertha’s trip – to her mother’s house 66 miles away – was a triumph. She effectively invented the petrol station, stopping at an apothecary to fill up with a form of gasoline normally used for cleaning, as well as the brake-pad, attaching leather soles to the rapidly eroding wooden blocks. And as she predicted, the trip opened people’s eyes to the awesome potential of her husband’s creation. “Before me,” Bertha later remarked, “no automobile existed.” She was right.