Mercédès and Bertha: The Muse and the Mastermind Behind Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes and Bertha car brand today

Mercedes-Benz, Frankfurt Motor Show 2011, Frankfurt, Germany. Photo by Thomas Wolf,, Wikimedia Commons

They aren’t contemporaries. They never meet. But shy Mercédès Jellinek and determined Bertha Benz unknowingly team up to become the inspiration behind one of the most coveted automobile brands — Mercedes-Benz. An almost century’s old partnership between the two oldest automobile companies in the world, Mercedes-Benz is something of a mythic symbol of status and prestige, and the contribution of the women behind its existence is the stuff of legend. Because if not for Mercédès and Bertha, the cars that have become synonymous with reliable elegance may very well have never existed.

But what did Mercédès and Bertha do, exactly? Well…

Let’s go chronologically, shall we? And that means between Mercédès and Bertha, we need to start with Bertha.

Unveiling a hidden gem

Bertha Benz in her teens

Bertha Benz nee Ringer, Age 18, c. 1867

May 3rd. 1849. Germany. Bertha Ringer is born into a wealthy family in Pforzheim. Smart, pretty and quite the catch, everyone’s surprised when she falls for the awkward, shy but brilliant Karl Benz, a burgeoning — and poor — engineer. Bertha believes in him so much that she invests her dowry in his company two years before they marry. She continues pouring money into Karl’s ventures after tying the knot, backing the 1885 development of his groundbreaking gas-powered, motorized horseless carriage with an internal combustion engine.

the Benz Motorwagen

The first production Benz Motorwagen, 1888

1886. Germany. Introverted Karl’s business partners love his stationary gas-powered engine, but are wary of this motorized horseless carriage — “Don’t waste your time on motorcars” — and leave him with his Benz motorwagen. He patents it in 1886, receiving specification DRP 37435 and nobody bites. In fact, some fear it and although Karl continues perfecting his new vehicle, he’s no self-promoter and into the family garage the automobile goes while elsewhere in Germany, Gottlieb Daimler — the outgoing inventor of the motorcycle — is moving forward on his own horseless passenger vehicle.

But Bertha refuses to let her husband’s hard work go to waste.

Bertha's stop for ligroin

Stadtapotheke (City Pharmacy) in Wiesloch, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, the “first filling station” in the world. A Bertha Benz memorial is in the foreground. Photo by Rudolf Stricker, Wikimedia Commons

August 5th. 1888. Manheim. Bertha “steals” Karl’s motorwagen in the wee hours of the morning with her two teenage sons as her willing accomplices. Sure, the mom of four — their fifth, Ellen, is two years away  — leaves a note that says she’s going to her mother’s 194 km away but not that she boosted the car to get there, which the “thieves” push down the road so Bertha can start it without Karl hearing.

The route Bertha takes definitely gets her noticed, word spreads, she runs out of gas and convinces a pharmacist to give her ligroin to fill her tank, invents brake pads on the fly when the wooden brakes stick, unplugs a fuel line with her hat pin, gives test drives to curious bystanders, pushes the motorwagen up hills with her sons because it has no gears… basically, Bertha Benz encounters a slew of mishaps traveling the horse roads from Point A — her home in Mannheim — to Point B — her mom’s in Pforzheim — and keeps going. She’s driving where only horse and wagon have gone before, and displays some serious moxie in ensuring her husband’s motorwagen doesn’t sit forgotten in their garage.

Bertha knows with the right publicity, she’ll get people interested in Karl’s brilliant design and when she telegraphs him upon arriving at her mother’s to let him know she and the boys are safe, she discovers just how well her ploy works — he’s already heard about it in a time when the phone is only 10 years on the scene, the Internet isn’t even an idea of science fiction, and word of mouth LITERALLY means word of mouth.

Without Bertha, there would be no Benz

Bertha and Karl in an early Benz motorwagen

Karl and Bertha in an 1894 Benz Victoria. Photo by Fronteras, Wikimedia Commons

“Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.” Karl is acknowledged as the inventor of the first automobile and Bertha remains his most avid supporter, growing the auto business by his side where she stays until he dies in 1929. On her 95th birthday — 3 May 1944 — she celebrates by attending a ceremony memorializing her late husband with an honorary doctorate and bestowing upon him the posthumous title of Honourable Senator from his alma mater, Technical University of Karlsruhe. She passes away quietly at home two days later.

But did you know…

Mercedes-Benz is just the tip of the Bertha iceberg

Bertha plaque outside of pharmacy

Plaque outside “world’s first filling station.” Photo by 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

  • What Bertha did that fateful trip in 1886 made her the first person in the world — not woman but person — to complete a long-distance drive in a motor car. She traveled 130 miles round trip. First. Time. Ever.
  • The original path she took was officially approved as the Bertha Benz Memorial Route in 2008, and is considered a course “of the industrial heritage of mankind.” Along the 194 km of road, there are signs commemorating various stops along Bertha’s trek.
  • Although Bertha financed the development of the Benz Motorwagen, which would earn her patent rights today, married women of that time were not allowed to own a patent alongside their husband EVEN IF THEY PAID FOR IT.
  • The patent Bertha financed  — DRP 37435 — is known as “the birth certificate of the automobile.”
  • The Bertha Benz Challenge was first run along her road in 2011 and was open only to innovative, forward-thinking vehicles — hybrids, alternative fuels, electric, unique styles and designs — and is now conducted annually.
  • Every two years, Germany celebrates Bertha with a parade of antique cars along her route.
  • Outside of the pharmacy where Bertha stopped for the ligroin — which still stands to this day — there is a statue erected to commemorate her and her sons and it is officially recognized as the world’s “first filling station.”
  • Bertha noted all of the hurdles faced during that long drive — no gears, no brake pads, wheel issues, etc. She brought those home to Karl, showed him what needed to change and based on her notes, certain equipment is now standard on all cars.
  • In 2016, Bertha joined her husband in the Automotive Hall of Fame, making The Benzes the first and only married couple to earn that honor — Karl was inducted in 1984.

Without a “Mercédès” there would only be “Benz”

The Mercédès part of our tale begins with her father, Emil Jellinek, who has a thing for pushing boundaries and being, well, pushy. A wealthy self-made businessman — insurance is his game — and son of the famous rabbi Adolf Jellinek, he has a mansion in Nice, a home in Vienna, and names his first daughter the Spanish word for “favor”, “kindness”, “mercy”, “pardon” — Mercédès. Emil comes to believe her name is his good luck charm when his business thrives after her birth and as he becomes enamored by the new motorcars he’s seeing around Nice, and he purchases three off the bat, naming them all “Mercedes.” A fan of Wilhelm Maybach’s designs, he buys and sells more autos he again call Mercedes and starts racing cars under the pseudonym, “Mr. Mercedes.”  

Emil Jellinek racing as "Mr. Mercedes."

First Semmering Race on 27 August 1899. Class winner Emil Jellinek in driver’s seat of his Daimler 16 hp “Phoenix” racing car, seated next to him is Hermann Braun.

Emil becomes Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft’s (Daimler Motors Corporation, aka DMG), most influential and annoying client, strongly suggesting they make the Daimlers faster, stronger, promising he’ll buy several if they do. They comply and he sells one to Baron Arthur de Rothschild literally on the road after his revved-up DMG leaves the Baron’s car in the dust. He unloads the rest almost as quickly to other high-end customers. The word spreads and even after the death of DMG factory foreman, Wilhelm Bauer behind the wheel of the new faster, more powerful model, Emil demands they push their motorwagens further, convincing the company NOT to get out of racing, telling them that doing so is akin to committing “commercial suicide.” He writes to their offices, “If you do not enter, the conclusion will be drawn that you are unable to enter.”

DMG keeps racing.

Mercédès Jellinek when her father named the brand

Mercédès Jellinek, Age 11

Then on 2 April 1900 — not even a month after Gottlieb Daimler’s untimely death and before Mercédès’ eleventh birthday — Papa Jellinek forever immortalizes his demure little girl. He’s not looking for the car of today or even tomorrow. What he wants is “the car of the day after tomorrow.” He comes up with design ideas to help manage the issue of overturns with a powerful engine and higher speeds, and promises to pay 550,000 Goldmark ($257 million and some change in today’s U.S. dollars/ $226 million euros) in exchange for the following:

  • 36 cars designed to his specifications
  • Exclusive rights to act as selling agent for this new brand and its models
  • Name it Daimler-MERCEDES

The company agrees and goes on to patent the name with Emil legally changing his family’s surname to Jellinek-Mercedes.


Meanwhile, the namesake little girl is doing what well-bred, upper-class ladies of that era do — ride horses, enjoy tea with friends, leave calling cards. Although she poses for a picture behind the wheel of one of “her” cars at age 17, she doesn’t drive, has no interest in the new motorwagens, and is incredibly shy about the attention shown her. The automobiles take off like mad, with Benz the Mercedes’ only true competition, and by the end of World War I as other “luxury” brands fail in an inflation riddled, shell-shocked Europe, DMG and Benz partner up to stay afloat, officially becoming Mercedes-Benz on 28 June 1926.

At the time of the Mercedes-Benz merger, Mercédès is in her late 30’s, living her life under the radar. Three years later, the well-bred young lady who inspires her father to change the family name, passes away before her 40th birthday of bone cancer and for a time, the Mercédès behind the brand is forgotten.

And today?

As of the end of 2018, Mercedes-Benz is the second most valued car brand behind Toyota. It sells 2.4 million units in that year alone, has seen year-over-year growth for the last five years and is found in every country around the world —

2-seat Mercedes-Benz Classic

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster, built in 1960’s. Photo by Lothar Spurzem, Wikimedia Commons

from two-seaters…

Alternative fuel Mercedes-Benz concept

Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive Concept at Mondial de l’Automobile Paris 2012. Photo by Overlaet, Wikimedia Commons

… to alternative fuels…

classic Mercedes-Benz truck

Mercedes-Benz LP333 (1960). Photo by Henrik Sandelbach, Wikimedia Commons

… to commercial trucks and beyond.

Just the beginning…

So continues the tale of Mercédès and Bertha — the icon maker and the industry launcher. Almost a century after the actions these two women put in motion forever bound them together, the brand they spawned — Mercedes-Benz — is still creating “the car of the day after tomorrow.”

Mercédès and Bertha

Mercédès Jellinek at age 15, Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Archives, and Bertha Benz, Wikimedia Commons

Not bad for a stubborn 19th-century housewife and a shy daddy’s girl.

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Autonomous Vehicle Theft: The Future of Carjacking

old school auto theft vs. autonomous vehicle theft

It’s 2034. You’re in the backseat of your driverless car, sleeping, catching up on some paperwork, cramming for a test, basically handing over the control of your smart auto to its mechanical brain. Out of nowhere, your car goes left instead of right, powers through the traffic light instead of stops and you sit helplessly as your high-tech, state-of-the-art self-driving wonder is taken over from miles away. Stealing a vehicle takes on a whole new meaning when it’s done by tapping into that artificial intelligence running your autonomous car’s brain. What do you do? And this goes beyond a question of design to law enforcement. After all, in this brand new world, what is being done about autonomous vehicle theft? Will there be a difference with how it’s handled today? Should there be?

A quick history of car theft

Let’s take a look at where “boosting” a motor vehicle started so we can understand where it’s going.

1888: All in the name of marketing

first auto theft for a good cause

Bertha Benz with husband, Karl, in one of his Motorwagens, the Benz Viktoria, model 1894

The first person to actually steal a car was Bertha Benz. Wife of Karl Benz, the creator of what many call the first practical gasoline-powered automobile in 1885 and co-founder of Mercedes-Benz, Bertha took the vehicle with the best intentions — viral marketing her notoriously shy husband’s invention. However, she still stole one of his “Motorwagens” from his shop in the dead of night on 05 August 1888 with the help of her two teenage sons without Karl’s knowledge. This first case of motor vehicle theft — what is sometimes called grand theft, auto — was harmless enough and actually benefited the automotive community by creating interest in this curious contraption traveling the countryside to the extent that others wanted one for themselves. A whole industry was born and as the horseless carriage became more the norm around the world, local communities saw this actual crime grow and began to wonder how to combat it.

1896: A baron’s ride is coveted

first auto theft on record

Baron de Zuylen de Nyevelt, 1907

The true first vehicle that was really stolen was the Peugeot owned by Baron de Zuylen in 1896. His mechanic decided to take it upon himself to take it out of the shop where it was being repaired. Luckily, both the thief and the car were found nearby.

1919: The U.S. takes a stand

the emergence of auto theft

1921 National Insurance Bureau Brochure, Courtesy of

The Dyer Act, aka the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, becomes the first federal law combatting the brand new world of stolen motorized vehicles in America. Enacted by the U.S. Congress on October 29, 1919, Dyer focuses on the interstate trafficking or transport of stolen vehicles — stealing a car and taking it across state lines. Punishment is an unspecified fine — more than likely to be based on the actual value of the car stolen — up to ten years in prison, or both.

1969: Introducing the VIN

one of the original VINs on a car

Old School ID, 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, Courtesy of

On January 1, 1969, The Department of Transportation, formed just a few years prior in 1966, requires all new cars imported into and/or sold in the U.S. to have a vehicle identification number (VIN). At this point, it is left to each manufacturer to decide how and where they want these to appear, which can cause confusion at times.

1980: Setting some standards

how to read a VIN for autonomous vehicle theft

Image Courtesy of “How to Decode a VIN Vehicle Number” by Jason Unrau for

1980: The universal 17-character VIN system is established.

1984: Divide and conquer goes on the road

cars chopped for parts

Photo Courtesy of

The “chop shop” starts showing up. Thieves steal a car, “chop” it up, and sell the parts that don’t have the VIN on them. So, the 1984 Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act is created, highlighting the need to trace and recover stolen motor vehicles and their parts. The Department of Transportation (DOT) reacts to the new law by mandating that the VIN now be displayed on the car’s engine, transmission, and 12 major auto body parts. This makes it more difficult to cut up the cars and get away with the theft.

1992: Grand Theft Auto gets hands-on

how car jacking can also be done for autonomous vehicle theft

Image Courtesy of “Keep Your Wheels: 11 Tips to Avoid a Carjacking” for

1992: Then came carjacking, the armed and forced taking of a car from an individual. The Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 makes carjacking and owning, operating and maintaining a chop shop federal offenses.

1994: “Somebody, stop me!”

added protection against vehicle theft

Bumper sticker with the blue car and eyes for wheels means your car is part of the watch program

The Anti-Car Theft Act is joined by the addition of the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This requires the Attorney General to work with the different States to develop a voluntary auto theft prevention program that has car owners signing a consent form that authorizes local law enforcement to stop the car when operated under certain conditions, such as at night, in certain urban neighborhoods, etc. Participants display a decal on their car showing they are part of the program. Carjacking is also addressed within the body of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act itself, proclaiming that should a death result from the action, it is a federal capital offense.

1996: The age of the database

databases incorporated to fight car and autonomous vehicle theft

Milwaukee motorcycle police officer Dennie Sanchez runs a computer check on a vehicle he stopped near N. 27th and W. Wright streets. Credit: Gary Porter

Welcome the Anti-Car Theft Improvements Act, which upgrades state motor vehicle department databases that contain titling federal and local law enforcement can access to determine whether the vehicle in that person’s possession is stolen or not.

21st Century: The future of vehicle theft

Incremental advances have been consistently made in federal laws and states have their own mandates that determine whether the stealing or tampering of a car is either a misdemeanor or felony. Since the last law was put on the books in 1996, auto theft has been on the decline, BUT…

With the advent of the Internet, the new crime of cyber-hacking has given rise to an even broader, more detrimental concern. What would happen in an autonomous vehicle theft? Carjacking in absentia means there has been no armed taking of the automobile, so it wouldn’t fall under the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992 — that outlines carjacking as taking a vehicle from an individual by force while armed.

In addition, the ability to virtually break into a car has led to terrorist concerns. Throughout the world, automobiles are used for suicide attacks and the ability to do so from afar has prompted some serious research on how to get in front of what has yet to but could happen. What, then, would that protection look like and how would law enforcement engage with, let alone track down, who took over your vehicle?

Protection against cyber-jacking

cyber attack for autonomous vehicle theft

Vehicles used as weapons of terror appear to be on the rise. From disenfranchised individuals driving down crowded sidewalks to radicals using them as bombs, the humble motorcar has taken on an ominous feel of late. It’s not surprising that self-driving and highly connected autos make many wonder just how vulnerable their inner workings will be to tech-savvy terrorists or simple car thieves.

While there have been instances, in testing, of white hat hackers infiltrating cars in order to demonstrate how these automobiles might be taken over, the actual use of a vehicle in a terrorist attack by virtue of cracking its computer code has yet to occur. However, preempting that is key and such minds as American University Computer Science Professor Nathalie Japkowicz are working with others to do just that.

The best defense is a good (computerized) offense

While there is legislation currently considered to protect us in the not-so-distant fully autonomous future, anti-theft technology is being pursued right now. Professor Japkowicz — along with Adrian Taylor of Defence R&D Canada and Sylvain Leblanc of the Royal Military College in Canada — has designed a way to detect unusual activity in a car’s computer system. The trio is using machine learning, noting that anything out of the norm within an operating system may signal a cyber attack. The goal is to take this information and create the tools needed to address these security threats to connected vehicles before they turn into action.

In Washington, D.C., American University’s computer science department is currently focused on what they are calling “vulnerability management.” This entails “detecting attack during normal system operations.” We’ve discussed many ways cars are now more open to outside interference by the mere fact that there are a vast number of ports of entry into a car’s operating system. Whether it’s through telematics or that cool new infotainment experience, there are all of these little ways your high tech vehicle can be infiltrated. By paying attention to changes in normal computer behavior, the hope is that this will immediately signal a need for cybersecurity experts to step in and, at the very least, investigate the issues arising in the automobile.

As Professor Japkowicz and team engage two machine learning techniques to gain insight into activity that is out of the norm — Long Short-Term Memory and Gated Recurrent Units — they hope to provide the automotive industry with the tools to battle and evade such attacks. Newer cars are far more vulnerable than older models to any sort of cyber invasion with more computerized capability than ever before. From the simple USB port on your dash to the intricate framework of autonomous driving, the number of ways to enter from the outside has heightened exponentially and the challenge is to now shut each and every one of those areas from outside interference. That, in itself, is a lofty task especially as more cars coming off the assembly line are outfitted with more advancements, more bells and whistles, and more connectivity than ever before.

Take for example the recent slew of Tesla thefts in England. Thieves have been hacking into key fobs to unlock a Tesla, start it up and drive it away. Tesla reacted by offering an optional “PIN to Drive” feature, helping owners disable “Passive Entry,” and making a signal blocking pouch in which to keep your key fob available. This has helped, but those owners who don’t use any of the tips may find themselves losing their vehicle thanks to those who are technically proficient enough to become part of the New Age of Car Thieves.

Sidebar: “What if…?”

Although virtually accessing self-driving cars is the biggest concern of both vehicle manufacturers and the tech industry — not to mention what all of this means to your insurance premiums — this got us to thinking…

Imagine you’re slowing down to a stop for a pedestrian crossing the street when the front door lock is jimmied — either manually or digitally— and someone slips inside to take control. Autonomous car theft is consistently viewed from a high-tech, cyber-hacking standpoint, but what about good, old-fashioned carjacking? Without a driver, some skill with either an actual lock-pick or rudimentary hacking knowledge may very well turn that fully autonomous dream into a vintage nightmare. Hmm…

Tracking the hacker? Not so easy

hackers for autonomous vehicle theft

While more than 90% of all new cars have a black box installed to assist with determining issues when a crash happens, finding the hacker who cracked your automobile’s computer code is very difficult. They range from networks of people who work together to solo infiltrators writing self-erasing code, fake web addresses and more. Since there is no physical evidence of the break-in — only virtual — investigations can sometimes take years before the perpetrators are found. So, where does that leave you comfortably sitting in the backseat of your self-driving vehicle that is suddenly taken over and driven to…? Well, you get the point.

For now, all of these incidences are virtually nonexistent, but tomorrow? As someone once said, “Tomorrow is another day.” However, that “day” is fast approaching.


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