Road to Neverland

In the tyre tracks of giants…

Inspired by this risk-taking, adventurous woman, I picked up my own car and set out to recreate her journey. Back when Bertha left, getting out of town would have been tricky as there were no proper roads. Today, it was almost as difficult because there were so many. I found myself funnelled by a constant stream of cars onto a busy highway, and with roadworks forcing me to re-route, I soon lost my bearings.

Following my nose, I finally cut south-east, passing Ladenburg, which houses a collection of prototype cars and family heirlooms inside the Carl Benz automobile museum. A little further on, the ruins of a Renaissance-era castle and the old bridge of Heidelberg zipped by my windscreen. I continued, eager to reach Bertha’s first significant stop on her trip – Wiesloch.

Carl Benz Automobile Museum

The scent of freshly baked bread wafted through the air as I left the car (somewhat ironically, the town centre is now pedestrianised due to traffic congestion) and headed uphill. It was among these small cobbled streets, many hours after she set off, that Bertha arrived – a third of a way through her journey. By this point, what she needed was fuel for the car’s combustion engine. Thankfully, that was easier to come by than you might think. Ligroin was a popular petroleum-based cleaning solvent available in all good pharmacies. And so she stumbled into the Weisloch Stadt-Apotheke and asked them for every bottle they could spare – inadvertently making this town home to the world’s first filling station.

I stopped outside the building and was pleased to note that it was still a pharmacy to this day. Wandering inside via the modern-day entrance, I got talking to owner Dr Adolf Suchy, who led me through the backdoor into the original building. Suddenly I was back in the 19th century, the sharp tang of disinfectant mixed with the scent of painted wooden dressers, all of which were adorned with an alchemist’s stash of potions and mixtures in blue bottles.

Bertha Benz monument in Wiesloch where she made a stop to take in fuel at the city pharmacy, which is now dubbed “the first filling station in the world”

“Back then, people would use Ligroin for getting stains out of clothes,” explained Adolf, “and I’m sure she would have had a fair few from working the automobile by that point! She would have had to refill the water tank every few miles from streams to stop it overheating. Plus, the fuel line had got blocked, so she had to use her hatpin to unclog it.”

That wasn’t the only problem Bertha encountered – and solved on her journey. Speaking to a local at her (and my) next stop, the town of Bruchsal, I was informed of how she used her garter to insulate a hanging ignition wire, had a cobbler nail on leather break shoes she designed when the wooden blocks Carl had made wore out (simultaneously inventing the first break pads), and commissioned a blacksmith to repair a chain that broke. All this, and she still found time to chat to passers-by about the benefits of travelling by automobile, creating a storm of interest that spread by word-of-mouth across Germany and ensured that Carl’s invention would find an enthusiastic audience.

Before the day’s end – much like me – she neared the outer reaches of Pforzheim, her final destination. My car, despite being free from garter-made repairs, sputtered a little as the tarmac undulated on the approach. Bertha encountered the same issue – hills. Thankfully, she employed the help of her sons and coerced some onlookers to help push; it’s no wonder that on her return she insisted Carl add another gear.

No more than two hours after I left Mannheim, l had reached Pforzheim. Back in 1888 it had taken Bertha 15 hours to do the same trip. This was where she had finished her journey, but thanks to her clever marketing stunt we all now have reliable vehicles (with enough gears). So, with no mother to visit and now sat on the edge of the Black Forest, I decided to extended my road trip in her honour to see what other fantastical stories l could uncover on four wheels.

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