Her name was Bertha, the wife of Mercedes Benz founder Karl Benz who took the experimental vehicle and travelled alone for over 100km.
While in South Africa the month of August is regarded as Women’s Month it is also the 130th anniversary of the first ever road trip by an engine-powered vehicle. And the driver was a woman.
Karl Benz built his first three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen in 1885 and by August 1888 he was building Version 3.0 of it.
Benz was using finance mostly provided by his wife Bertha, who was daughter of the wealthy Ringer family of Pforzheim, southwestern Germany.
He still regarded the vehicle as experimental and had never driven it further than around the courtyard of his workshop.
But Bertha saw things differently. She thought to herself that if her husband’s invention was to gain the recognition it needed… it had to be out there, showing the world what he had achieved.
So, at 5am on the morning of 12 August 1888 she and her two young sons – and without telling Benz -pulled the Motorwagen out of the workshop and started it, and she climbed aboard and went to visit her family in Pforzheim, 106km away.
Along the way she had to stop every 20km or so to ask local farmers for water to refill the total-loss cooling system and once at an apothecary’s shop to buy out his entire stock of a plant alcohol-based stain remover called ligroin, which the Patentwagen used as fuel.
That ligroin is now known as ‘Benzine’ in her honour.
At one point the engine’s suction-operated inlet valve got stuck, and several times she had to clear a blocked fuel line with a hatpin; the story goes that she even used one of her garters to patch up the ignition system.
She was on the road for more than 16 hours, arriving at her parents’ home late in the evening and immediately sent a telegram to her husband to let him know where she was. His reaction can well be imagined, given that he had never driven more than a few hundred metres at a time.
And a couple of days later, she drove back again. Why not, she said, she’d already proved it could be done.