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
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.
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.
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
“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
- 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 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.
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.
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 —
… to alternative fuels…
… 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.”
Not bad for a stubborn 19th-century housewife and a shy daddy’s girl.