The history of cars made a dramatic shift on a summer day in early August of 1888, when Bertha Benz got her two teenage sons into her “Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3” and took off for a 65-mile road trip through Germany, from Mannheim through Heidelberg to Pforzheim.
The original route of the world’s first long-distance automobile journey is now known as the scenic Bertha Benz Memorial Route, weaving in between picturesque villages and wine yards of the North Baden region. The most iconic destination along this so-called “dynamic monument” is the local pharmacy of Wiesloch (Stadtapotheke Wiesloch), which helped Bertha Benz when she ran out of fuel.
Since Carl Benz, who is canonized among the main inventors of the car, was not very successful at selling his horseless motorized vehicles, his wife Bertha decided to start her own adventurous marketing campaign by bringing her husband’s invention on the open road. Without letting him know anything about her advertisement project, she deeply impressed hundreds of people along the road. A motorized coach was a pretty rare sight in those days and people who not used to such curious machines were even frightened, though Bertha might not have been going any faster than 10 to 14 miles per hour.
Without having any technicians on board, she needed to solve various problems along the way. Every now and then she was forced to stop the vehicle and adjust or replace parts of the fragile construction. She used a headpin to clean a blocked fuel pipe and her garter to insulate a wire that had suffered from a short-circuit.
But another severe problem appeared: With no modern, 24/7 gas stations and standardized fuel qualities available, she needed to try different chemicals from local pharmacies to keep the hungry engine going (at 25 miles per gallon). Luckily, the Town Pharmacy of Wiesloch had some ligroin in stock, a petroleum spirit that was commonly used as an organic solvent in chemical laboratories. The unassuming 18th-century pharmacy went down in history as the first gas station in the world, as it fueled the first road trip ever taken. Today, in front of the building, a monument in honor of Benz still commemorates the local heroine.
When Benz arrived at her mother’s house in Pforzheim and returned back home to Mannheim three days later on a slightly different road, she was already famous, since the local—and later national—press enthusiastically reported on her journey. Thanks to her pioneering trip, her husband started to improve his invention (along with sales strategies), which rapidly became an object of desire in Germany and beyond.
Today the Bertha Benz memorial route is listed among Germany’s most scenic tourist roads. Not only fans of old-timers enjoy a ride through the beautiful landscape, but Mercedes-Benz also occasionally uses this iconic road to test its innovations. Indeed, some of the first autonomous vehicle prototypes were tested along this historical route.