Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


KARL BENZ built perhaps 25 automobiles between the granting of his 1886 patent and 1893, and Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 had a particularly adventurous life: In 1888, Karl’s wife Bertha and her kids took this Motorwagen on what was likely the first automotive road trip.


Bertha Benz, 1849 – 1944, wife of Karl Benz, portrait c. 1871. By the turn of the century, Benz wrote his given name Carl, in the French fashion of the day. This and other images from Bertha Benz Memorial Route.

This 1888 drive encouraged artist Leo Bestgen in 2002 to fashion a Wunderkabinett in Frau Benz’s honor. In 2011, her adventure inspired two Daimler-Benz craftsmen to fabricate a marvelous one-third-scale model of Motorwagen No. 3. Last, you can bid on a full-size operating Benz Patent-Motorwagen replica offered by Gooding & Company at its auctions in Pebble Beach, California, August 15 and 16, 2015.


Likely the world’s first auto motoring itinerary: Mannheim to Pforzheim and return, August 1888.

Frau Benz’s adventure took place in early August, 1888. Bertha wanted to visit her mother in Pforzheim, 64 miles from the Benz Mannheim home. Without Karl’s knowledge, she and their two teenage sons, Eugen and Richard, headed off on Motorwagen No. 3.


Benz Motorwagen No. 3.

This particular Motorwagen was appropriate for their trip; unlike No. 1, it carried an additional front bench seat. Bertha said later, “… the two boys and I hatched a real conspiracy. We left early in the morning and had already traveled a couple of hours before daddy woke up.”

A blacksmith in Bruchsal helped mend the Motorwagen’s chain drive. Bertha cleaned out a fuel line with a hairpin and insulated an ignition wire with a garter. In the town of Wiesloch, a couple miles south of Heidelberg, she refueled at a Stadt-Apotheke, the town pharmacy, with a couple liters of ligroin, a petroleum-based cleaning fluid.


Weisloch’s Stadt-Apotheke was, in a sense, the first gas station/convenience store. It’s still there along the Bertha Benz Memorial Route.

The trip to Pforzheim took the better part of the day. After a visit of a few days, Bertha and the boys returned to Mannheim by a different route. On the return trip, leather linings of the brake blocks were renewed by a shoemaker in Bauschlott. For part of the drive, Bertha offered each son a stint at the tiller (steering wheels were to come later). When their trip became known (and boosted Benz sales), she said with obvious pride, “So I was the first one to show that daddy’s automobile was also good for long distances.”

Leo Bestgen’s art often illustrated my monthly R&T “Tech Tidbits” column. For a June 2002 item on Wunderkabinetten, Leo translated Bertha’s adventure into a charming shadow box.


Benz Patent-Motorwagen Wunderkabinett, by Leo Bestgen, R&T, June 2002.

As I noted in Leo’s Art, “I’m not surprised by the dog chasing Bertha and her Patent-Motorwagen. The cowboy encouraging her on? He’s part of the wizardry and charm of Leo Bestgen, rest his soul.” This was one of Leo’s last R&T projects; he died of a heart attack in 2002.

In 2011, two craftsmen in the Sindelfingen model-making shop of Daimler-Benz AG completed a one-third-scale model of Motorwagen No. 3. This work of art was the product of two and a half years of research and fabrication.


Craftsmen Manfred Liebig, left, and Gerhard Pieger show their model to Jutta Benz, Bertha’s great-granddaughter. This and other images from Mercedes-Benz Classic.

Gerhard Pieger and Manfred Liebig began with digitized measurements and hundreds of photos of an actual Motorwagen in a museum. Then they researched the differences between this museum example and Bertha’s machine.

Next, the model makers chose proper materials, steel for the chassis, gray cast iron for the engine, for example, ash wood for the body, fir for the brake blocks. They fabricated the smallest parts themselves. Said Liebig, “On the wheel rims you find square nuts of a kind that were used back then in carriage-making but which no longer exist today.” Noted Pieger, “Everything had to be true to the original.”


Pieger and Liebig became Motorwagen experts in building the one-third-scale No. 3.

The Benz Motorwagen was powered by a single-cylinder horizontally mounted engine producing perhaps 0.9 hp at 400 rpm. A heavy flywheel rotated horizontally, this orientation chosen to minimize gyroscopic effect on the car’s steering. The cylinder’s intake used a slide valve; its exhaust, a conventional poppet valve. See my Otto engine for more on these details; also there’s a video of a full-size replica Motorwagen firing up and in operation.


Part of the patent for the Benz Motorwagen, 1886.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the automobile in 1986, Daimler-Benz built a series of functioning replicas of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. When Phil Hill drove a Patent-Motorwagen replica for R&T in 1986, I recall his saying a slight downhill gave an almost fearful rush of speed (remember those leather-lined brake blocks).


Phil Hill and his son Derek, then 11 years old, motored along at 12 mph in one of the replica Benz Patent-Motorwagens. Image from R&T, December 1986.

Last, at the Gooding & Company Pebble Beach Auctions on August 15 and 16, 2015, one of these Patent-Motorwagen replicas is offered without reserve. Gooding is estimating it may fetch $90,000 to $120,000. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Michael Rubin
    July 24, 2015

    Ah, Leo Bestgen. Working with him could only be described as pleasure. Used his artistic services with many clients from Anheuser-Busch to Michelin.

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