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, www.foto-tw.de, 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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AB 516: Changing Lives One Temp Tag at a Time

Paper placard in place of permanent plate

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Kevin Mullin sponsored AB 516 on July 25, 2016, it wasn’t the first time the Bay Area-based Assemblyman and Speaker Pro Tempore had brought a bill of this sort to the Capitol. A news report on San Francisco’s KTVU 2 Investigates series in 2013 prompted the Northern California lawmaker to pursue something similar in 2014. It met with opposition from car dealers and the DMV back then and got no further than supposition. But a tragedy down in the southern part of the state, as well as growing law enforcement concerns, prompted a second try on the bill. Effective January 1, 2019, California once again joins many other states in requiring all motor vehicles to display a temporary license plate instead of simply taping a Report of Sale (ROS) on the front windshield.

Once again, you may ask? Yes, way back when California also had temporary paper plates displaying the ROS number in the rear vehicle registration plate holder (that’s actually what your license plate holder is called). This was discontinued sometime in the 1970s for reasons not completely clear, although these were flimsy affairs that disintegrated after the first car washing. That may be what led to the state simply getting rid of them altogether, however, without those clear pieces of temporary identification in lieu of permanent plates, several issues have been building in the state. These ranged from cheating toll plazas, committing petty and more serious crimes, and unsolved and untraceable hit-and-run injuries and, in some cases, fatalities. Conversely, consumer groups and civil liberty advocates have raised concerns over the adverse effects such easily identifiable temporary markers on a vehicle may have on lower income drivers.

But what does AB 516 really mandate? First, let’s understand how the license plate came about.

“elle ne doit jamais être cachée.”

The days of the first license plates

Champs Élysées, Paris, France in the 1890s

In Paris, France, the Department of the Seine laid down the first law requiring the owners of these new road locomotives motoring along the Champs Élysées and elsewhere to register and affix “an identifiable tag” to their car. The automobile was brand new at this time, remember. There were no such things as driving licenses or even classes on how to operate the things. Motorists were making up their own rules and getting away with, well, pretty much anything. With no way to prove that you owned any vehicle — bicycles included, actually — anybody could just come up, jump in and drive/ride it away and you couldn’t do anything about it. Laws specifically addressing this newfangled form of transportation had yet to be created nor penalties set for breaking said rules by the devotees of the high-speed (sometimes as much as 12 miles per hour) motorcar. Unlike horses, you couldn’t really put your brand on your metal ride, although horse-drawn carriages were required to have some sort of identification on them. Why not the horseless kind? Knowing that something had to be done, the Paris Police Ordinance of 14 August 1893 came up with just the thing.

In English, the regulation reads, “Each motor vehicle shall bear on a metal plate and in legible writing the name and address of its owner, also the distinctive number used in application for authorization. This plate shall be placed at the left-hand side of the vehicle — it shall never be hidden (French: elle ne doit jamais être cachée). Plates were created by the owners themselves and consisted of their initials and some set of numbers emblazoned in porcelain glazed metal.

Within three years, Germany had joined Paris and by 1898, the Netherlands was the first country to introduce nationally registered license plates — called “driving permits”  — that were sequentially numbered starting at the number 1. This changed in 1906, but it was the first government maintained system in the world.

vintage license plate laws come to life

Alice Huyler Ramsey, the 1st woman to drive across the U.S. in 1909, with one of the first plated cars

The United States followed suit in 1901 with New York requiring all owners to have plates on their cars. At that time, these were the owner’s initials on whatever material they chose and attached at the back of the automobile. Massachusetts became the first state to issue plates for the cars of their residents in 1903, stopping the practice of owners creating their own.

And the rest, as they say, is regulated and mandated license plate history.

What is AB 516 exactly?

AB 516 amends and adds various sections to the California Vehicle Code. It starts out by reminding lawmakers of the current rules regarding vehicle registration and plate requirements in the state of California. The bill then goes on to mention a variety of changes and additions that establish a system by which dealers and the Department of Motor Vehicles can coordinate getting a temporary license plate immediately printed and adhered to the motor vehicle before it leaves the lot. AB 516 clarifies that this mandate covers all vehicles (used included) that do not have an existing permanent plate on it.

One of the bill’s most notable additions to the code is section 4456.8, which reads: “If the vehicle does not display license plates previously issued by the department, the dealer or lessor-retailer shall attach the temporary license plates issued by the reporting system.” AB 516 also makes it possible for First Line Service Providers (FLSP) to assist with this issuance of temporary license plates and keeping the dealership in compliance. (For the full text of AB 516, click here.)

pre-AB 516 dealer placard

Currently, a newly purchased vehicle leaving the lot displays the dealer info in the area where its permanent plates will be installed. AB 516 means that instead of the dealer ads you’ve become used to seeing, you will instead be faced with something akin to this temporary tag:

the precursor of AB 516

A now discontinued California temporary tag from the 1970s

The year won’t read 1971, of course, but 2019 and beyond. Although, based on the concerns raised by the lack of easily visible temporary identifiers on vehicles, a car still sporting a dealer placard from 1971 and no permanent plates isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility. Steve Jobs was notorious for never having a license plate on his car, for example. He would turn in his lease right before he’d have to get a plate and he just kept turning cars over, never moving from temporary to permanent. Stopping every new looking car to check whether their temporary registration is expired is, admittedly, perhaps not the best use of time for law enforcement, so those who simply have figured out a way of getting around having to get new plates can do so without incident for, yes, years.

However, there is a whole other group who use this to their advantage in less “convenience” based ways. The lack of clear identification makes it basically impossible for law enforcement to trace and track that automobile should it be involved in then leave the scene of any infraction.

And that is why AB 516 was created.

The genesis of AB 516

It was a late summer Saturday night in 2013 when Michael Bonanomi, 35, grabbed a sandwich on the notorious stretch of Ventura Boulevard known as Coldwater Curve. He sat down on the curb to eat it near one of the most dangerous bends in Los Angeles. At 11:42, Michael finished his dinner and started walking across the street. No, he wasn’t in the crosswalk and none of the witnesses — of which there are many — dispute that. They also all agree that a white Mercedes-Benz came traveling eastbound and slammed into Michael. The 35-year-old ad man and musician went flying up, landing first on and severely denting the hood of the car, smashed the windshield, then was dragged almost a full 100 yards — the length of a football field — before he finally fell off.

The white Mercedes-Benz never stopped. The white Mercedes-Benz never slowed. The white Mercedes-Benz had no license plates. The white Mercedes-Benz and its driver have never been found.

Michael died at the scene.

All witnesses could tell the police to help in identifying the car was that it had black paper plates reading “Encino” in yellow. And Michael’s death led to his family offering a $50,000 reward for information on the hit-and-run driver and a movement.

California had already recognized that it was taking a beating with toll evasion at a cost of $15-19 million a year. But Michael’s tragedy shined a light on the more devastating reasons for pushing for AB 516 and was, in many estimations, the final straw. The hit-and-runs — there were two others that same night under similar circumstances — child abduction/Amber alerts, theft, and more to the equation were becoming easier to get away with due to the lack of clear identifiers. After all, if someone commits a crime in or using a vehicle that has no plates, how can police track it down unless witnesses or automated license plate readers (ALPR) are able to see the Report of Sale (ROS) posted in the windshield?

current RS location

Reintroducing a bill that would change the fact that California was the only state not requiring these special license plates on vehicles became a priority and AB 516 was born. A petition was created on change.org with Michael Bonanomi as its face. While it garnered just 750 signatures, the concerns over the lack of recognition on vehicles were now shared by the DMV and dealers all over the state, and Governor Brown signed it into law. And upon announcing AB 516’s ratification, Kevin Mullin gave credit to the happy-go-lucky musician’s legacy.

“I’d also like to thank the family and friends of Michael Bonanomi, who was fatally injured in the 2013 hit and run accident in southern California, for bringing this issue to my attention. The car that struck and killed Michael only had paper dealer plates and to this day, the driver has not been located. While this law will not bring Michael back, in the future it will go a long way in making sure that an offending vehicle and its driver are easier to identify and bring to justice.”

What now for AB 516?

the home of AB 516 — the California capitol

As mentioned, January 1, 2019, is the date when AB 516 goes into effect. Dealers will need to ensure these sturdier, highly visible temporary license plates are on all vehicles that do not already have a permanent one. A heavy sigh of relief has gone up from all those whose concerns led to this change, but there is also a lot of worry about low-income individuals and the backlash they may incur. And it all comes down to the reason so many are happy about AB 516 — the ability for law enforcement to easily see the temporary plate on the back. Opponents’ concerns? If these are expired, what happens to the driver?

The hope with AB 516 and the continued assistance FLSPs offer dealerships is to make complying with this and all vehicle laws more seamless and efficient. Doing so is not just for their business partners, but consumers so that any lingering issues and hurdles to success will decrease, not multiply.

In preparation for the AB 516 rollout, Vitu, makers of DMVdesk, created a website that serves as a resource for dealerships to help their F&I departments and staff fully understand the requirements and implementation of this new program before that January 1, 2019 deadline hits. Visit catemptag.com to sign-up for free training seminars, read through FAQs, ask your own questions, and much more — all offered to inform and support everyone affected by this new law to help them get ahead of and feel completely prepared for the impending change. AB 516 is a new way of doing things in California, and it will be interesting to watch what it will mean in the long run for the DMV, dealers, consumers and the Golden State as a whole.

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