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Benz's wife was a pillar of support

July 02, 2006|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

History says Karl Benz was many things: a wonderful idea man and a gentleman who took a single idea and nurtured it into something that would be remembered as simply astonishing.

But maybe that one day, a full 14 years before he was granted his first patent for a moving automobile, is the day to remember.

Benz thought he saw something in Bertha Ringer, a quiet but determined German woman. What he couldn't have imagined on that afternoon in 1872 when the two were married, was a partnership that would help plant the seeds for an empire.

What's the real secret behind Karl Friedrich Benz, a man often accepted as the inventor of the motor car? Bertha Benz.

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What's the real secret behind the foundation of one of the great auto empires? Perhaps it was Karl Benz's ability to draw strength from those around him.

If ever a man depended on the energy of his spouse to pull him through, Benz was that man. Historians say that to talk about Benz without mentioning Bertha is to tell only half the story; and the tale is a good one.

Karl Benz was born the son of an engine driver in 1844 in Baden Muehlburg, Germany, during a time of widespread innovation and emerging technologies. In Benz's backyard the first railway line had already started running through the country. Steamships, new production and industry were becoming a way of life.

Like many other inventors, Benz was on the cusp of a bursting movement. As a young man he worked for a number of different companies as a draftsman, designer and manager before forming his own mechanics firm in 1871 in Mannheim. Benz was a whiz when it came to manufacturing; he was hopeless when it came to finances. Bertha would be saving the day.

When it looked as if Benz was going to lose his shop to his business partner, barely a year after forming it, Bertha came along with a dowry prematurely cajoled from her parents. When Benz turned to the two-stroke engine in the hopes of powering a horseless tricycle, Bertha pushed him to continue, helping to finance the project by hustling jobs for her husband's shop.

He was the dreamer. She was the financer. The rest was history.

With a good bit of financial security, Benz's company would be successful designing industrial engines, but Benz wanted a "motor carriage." Unlike other designers who were developing and installing engines in an ordinary carriage, Benz wanted to produce not only his engine but the whole vehicle. And, at last, the partnership would really come to life.

In 1886, after many years trying to invent a new engine for a burgeoning industry, Benz registered a patent known as DRP 37435 - a three-wheeler with a four-stroke engine. It was ingenious. The vehicle was powered by a water-cooled gas engine. The rear wheels received the power by a pulley and belt.

The patent would be the official birth certificate of the motor car for a new business called Benz & Cie. What would follow would be the baptism of the automobile.

With Karl Benz desperately trying to convince the folks of Germany that his car was legitimate and reliable, his partner, Bertha, would take it to another level. She figured that the only way to convince people was to pull a public relations coup. Her idea was to load up her children into the vehicle and set off on a tour. On an August morning in 1888, two years into the patent, Bertha packed up their two sons and drove 60 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim.

By telegram Bertha let Karl know they had successfully completed the journey - the first long-distance trip by an automobile. As word spread, Benz's business would begin to boom, grow and change. He would not.

Benz wanted nothing to do with fast-running engines or vehicles other than motorized horse carriages. With competition having increased some 100-fold by the early 1900s, a company unwilling to roll with the punches was in danger of losing everything. Out of step and out of touch, he walked away. This time Bertha could not help.

He retired and Benz's company, under new leadership, flourished.

But he never forgot his accomplishments or his wife.

In his autobiography, Benz wrote: "In those days when our little boat of life threatened to capsize, only one person stood steadfastly by me: My wife. She bravely set new sails of hope."

After a number of years on a supervisory board with the automaker he helped form, Karl Benz died in his house in Mannheim in 1929. Bertha died in 1944 at the age of 95.

A legacy, and a partnership, never lost life.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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