Prelude. Seduced to the Right of Way.
In 1886, working independently of one another, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler invented the automobile. The male-dominated world of the time was initially sceptical, however, and did not see any future for this self-propelled carriage. The steam railway alone was considered the new mode of land-based transport. Only through the enterprise of two strong-willed women did this revolutionary invention make its breakthrough. And time and time again, it was women who accomplished pioneering feats with the motor car, thereby changing the world forever.
Women, the fairer sex, the ones who shouldn’t get their hands dirty, and who don’t know the first thing about business, let alone about engineering. This commonly held view of women in the late 19th century could hardly apply less to Bertha Benz und Louise Sarazin. On the contrary: they were the vanguard of the automotive revolution.
Bertha Benz and the maiden long-distance car journey
Bertha Benz firmly believed in her husband Carl’s dream of a ‘horseless carriage’. She was always encouraging him, and giving him new resolve when he longed to give up on seemingly unsolvable problems. But that’s only half the story. The daughter of a well-to-do master carpenter also used her dowry to support her husband’s plans, and even helped out in the garage. She painstakingly wound countless induction coils by hand for the engine ignitions.
On 29 January 1886, Carl Benz filed a patent for his ‘petrol-driven vehicle’. But success eluded him at first. No one wanted to buy the world’s first motor car. Whereas the engineering genius was plagued by self-doubts, his visionary wife continued to believe in the future of the automobile. Demonstrating her unshakable courage and determination, she took the Benz patent motor car on its first long-distance journey – from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back again – in August 1888, without the knowledge of her husband and accompanied by their sons Eugen and Richard.
This made her the first person in automotive history to go on a long-distance journey. The trip also represented the motor car’s first endurance test and its first promotional drive. Out of necessity, Bertha Benz also became the world’s first car mechanic. Along the way, she had to use a hatpin to unblock the clogged carburettor, and she insulated a burnt-out wire on the camshaft using one of her garters. Once safely back in Mannheim, she told her husband the car needed one more gear for hills.
With so much girl power involved, it’s no wonder one of the first people to buy a ‘Benz’ was also a woman – a teacher from Hungary. As she could not afford the car on her own, she shared her excitement with a colleague, who helped out with the purchase.
Louise Sarazin and the breakthrough of the combustion engine
Gottlieb Daimler, too, owed the breakthrough of his fast-running vehicle engine to a woman – a Frenchwoman to be precise, Louise Sarazin. In 1888, she assumed responsibility for selling Daimler engines in France. Her husband had recently died and had asked her to continue to distribute Daimler’s invention in France. Gottlieb Daimler put his trust in her, and he was repaid handsomely.
Louise Sarazin held her own in the male-dominated business world, and worked hard to persuade people of the new engine’s merits and its possible uses in private transport. In February 1889, Daimler and Sarazin signed a contract that finally sealed the introduction of the automobile in technology-loving France. An astute businesswoman, Madame Sarazin encouraged the series production of Daimler vehicle engines. Which is why the worldwide success story of a wholly German invention actually began in France.
Mercedes and the motor racing triumphs
Impressed by the self-propelled carriages, the male-dominated world demanded ever faster and more powerful vehicles and out of this was born a passion for racing. A woman’s name led the field in the burgeoning arena of motor sport – Mercedes. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft introduced this name for their cars in 1900 at the request of the Nice-based Austrian businessman Emil Jellinek, who sold Daimler cars and registered them for racing events. It was a term of affection for his eldest daughter. To this day, Mercedes-Benz is still the only automotive brand which has a girl’s name.
The first car to bear this evocative Spanish name, the Mercedes 35 PS, created a sensation in March 1901 at the Nice Racing Week. And not only because it won several races at a canter thanks to its superior engineering, but also because of its exceptionally elegant design, which more than did justice to the name. Mercedes means ‘grace’ or ‘gracefulness’ in Spanish. Regarded as the first modern car, the Mercedes 35 PS with its progressive vehicle design became the model for the entire automotive industry. Paul Meyan, who was then general secretary of the French Automobile Club, said after the Racing Week: “We have entered the era of Mercedes.”
Ever since, the Mercedes name – which was changed to Mercedes-Benz in June 1926 after the merger of Daimler and Benz – has been both an expression and a commitment of the brand. Like no other automotive manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz understands how to unite the feminine attributes of beauty and elegance with the masculine qualities of performance and engineering.
The first driver’s licence and the first speeding ticket
And even beyond Benz and Daimler, it was women who were writing automotive history. The first person ever to pass a driving test was the French duchess Anne d’Uzès in 1898. She was also the first person to be fined for driving too fast. In the Bois de Boulogne near Paris, she drove at 15 km/h instead of the 12 km/h that was allowed. “At first, I didn’t want any of these vulgar, rackety motor cars. But then I discovered what great fun it was to drive one,” said the Duchess. The first German driver’s licence was issued to Amalie Hoeppner, who passed her driving test in 1909 in Leipzig.
The first women’s car clubs were established as early as the late 19th/early 20th century. Their members held meetings to plan joint car journeys and to discuss how the car could be made safer and more comfortable to drive. In this way, the so-called fairer sex had an influence on engineers and designers right from the start.
Clärenore Stinnes and the first round-the-world car journey
The first round-the-world journey in a car began on 25 May 1927 in Frankfurt. Behind the wheel was the industrialist’s daughter Clärenore Stinnes, who was then the most successful female racing driver in Europe. She was accompanied by a truck, two mechanics and the man who would later become her husband, photographer Carl-Axel Söderström. After two years and one month, she crossed the finishing line in her Adler Standard 6 at the Avus track in Berlin. Her car had 46,758 kilometres on the clock.