In 1888, Bertha Benz performed to show that Motorwagen was ready to market. Fast forward, and Germany is still the land of premium cars and car culture.
At the edge of the Black Forest in southwestern Germany, Edgar Meyer turned to a medieval route the width of an ATV. Vines curled overhead and drooped over discreet garden gates, while birdsong and the hum of Meyer's vintage BMW were the only sounds. He drove through the busy town of Dossenheim, but was alone in this peaceful little lane. Getrentacar.com joined him to draw down history.
The path is a slight detour off the Bertha Benz Memorial Route, a theme driven by Meyer. But based on the retired salesman, it is the closest thing to experiencing the rudimentary carriages. Bertha and her teenage sons met in August 1888 as they embarked on the first road trip in the original petrol-powered car of life.
Much of Bertha's 194 km round trip between the Benz family home in Mannheim and her mother's place in Pforzheim reflects the courage of automotive pioneers. Her ride, taken without the knowledge of her spouse Carl Benz, was the Benz Motorwagen No 3, which was patented in 1886, the year agreed as its debut.
Bertha had invested her dowry to finance the work of her beloved. The Motorwagen was struggling, barred from Mannheim’s roads by skeptical government officials. So taking the prototype out for an illegal spin was a radical declaration that it was ready to market. It was also a sign for Carl, willing to give him the courage to proceed.
"It wasn't only Carl who invented the motor car; it was the team of Carl and Bertha. They both believed in the Motorwagen and were working on it together," said Meyer. He researched and mapped the route — which loops through the various cities, towns, and villages that Bertha visited.
In an era before road maps and GPS, Bertha had only rivers and railroad tracks to lead her to her mother's house. Imagine her jostling over blackened cobblestones in a buggy with wooden wheels and a 2-hp, four-stroke engine. Realize how brave she was, and a little nuts, too. That's the reason her plan succeeded.
Exploring Germany's place in automotive history brought us to the industrial heartland of the south. We were road-tripping through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria — the states where Germany's luxury carmakers are based — visiting an extraordinary concentration of car-culture attractions and museums. "When you dissect a country from a different mindset, like automotive history, you're discovering it anew," Meyer said as we navigated the countryside. That’s the adventure.
Bertha's road trip boosted the era of the automobile. Motorwagen No 3 had gone into production, instead of ending up in history's dustbin in 1888. And by 1900, Benz & Cie had become the world's largest automaker.
Today, Germany is still the country of premium cars and car culture. More than half of passenger vehicles destined for abroad, and almost two-thirds of all luxury cars sold worldwide, were German-designed in 2016, according to a 2018 study by the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The question is: why?
You could say something was in the air across Europe, referring to mechanization taking hold of 19th-Century early industrialized Britain, France, and Germany. Meanwhile, the inheritance laws in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, which divided family farms into ever-shrinking parcels, made agriculture unprofitable. Generations had to get creative in earning a living. When Carl Benz graduated, he found himself surrounded by fellow inventors within a region that was, by his time, a hotbed of entrepreneurship and heavy industry.
Certain classic German traits may have influenced the success of the automakers, too — qualities such as passionate fervor and attention to detail. For instance, at the Technoseum in Mannheim, a life-sized diorama of an authentic Porsche factory car-assembly line from 1990 reassembled piece by piece — right down to the bottles of beer workers received during shifts. If that isn’t Detailverliebtheit, what is that? Gottlieb Daimler — founder of Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG), today Daimler AG, creator of the Mercedes-Benz brand — and his lifelong business associate Wilhelm Maybach coined the corporate motto "Das Beste oder nichts" (The best, or nothing).
A tour guide from Audi's heritage museum in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt mused. "Not to say all 82 million of us are like this," said another from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, "but German people are very industrious and strive for this." The German auto industry was shaped by the ebb and flow of companies that started and ended, merged and demolished, always fighting for top engineering talent.
Corporate rivalries have alternated between fierce and forgotten. In 1926, Benz, based in Mannheim, and Daimler, based in Stuttgart, finally merged their companies. However, allegiances are as well-entrenched as ever. A tour guide in Mannheim, only somewhat in jest, quipped, "If you don't want trouble here, just don't say Daimler invented the automobile".
Shifting rivalries that shook up the status quo were not necessarily a bad thing. Often they had the effect of spurring innovators on. The head archivist of the Porsche AG, Frank Jung, explained that the typical automotive pioneer in southern Germany was a Tüftler (tinkerer), which was doggedly improved through trial and error. "After all, if you aren't striving for perfection, there’s no need to tinker."
In Germany's automotive heritage museums, you can understand how these inventors followed the Motorwagen with a longer list of automotive firsts. These included Daimler and Maybach's carburetor, which used gasoline as fuel; Daimler's first Mercedes 35 PS, which introduced the shape and concept of the modern car in 1900; Porsche AG's iconic 1948 Porsche 356, inspired by the simplicity of the German Bauhaus design. BMW's first electric concept car, the 1972 BMW 1602e; the 2019 Audi A8's advanced AI-assisted self-driving. And on and on.
Apart from a burst of French inventiveness in the 1890s, German manufacturers remained at the forefront of the industry. They have done it through ingenuity and shaped car development in every successive era. Heidbrink said: "Innovation and luxury have always gone hand in hand".
Audi AG employees volunteer thousands of ideas for improvement annually. Many of these proposals are implemented at Audi Forum Ingolstadt, the global headquarters and the main assembly plant an hour north of Munich.
People here clearly share a visceral passion for cars that make them, improve them, but also enjoy them and the drive. Mark Twain wrote in his extensive travels to Germany that the southwest of the country is the perfection of the beautiful. The view from the windshield was of precision-edged farmland, yellow rapeseed fields in full bloom, low mountain ridges and occasional patches of thick forest interspersed with castles, and medieval villages brimming with wood-beamed Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered houses). Compact, scenic, well traversed by the Autobahn and secondary carriageways, it is a landscape tailored to road tripping and an excuse for Germans to appreciate their inventions.
Winfried A Seidel, who used the proceeds from the creation of Veterama, a classic car and auto parts market, to open the Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz in Ladenburg, where the Benzes eventually settled, confirmed that cars are rooted much deeper in German culture than just to transport. "We are a nation of collectors, and I see a lot of precious cars on the road," he said. On our way from Ladenburg to Munich and the headquarters of the BMW Group, we followed a short section of the Romantische Straße (Romantic Road), Germany's classic, about 350 km long scenic drive through Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.
And after visiting the showrooms of the BMW Welt and its attached BMW Museum in Munich, the thrill of wringing every RPM from rented Volkswagen Tiguan on the mighty Autobahn was the most fun we've had behind the wheel in years. To our surprise, speed limits have been introduced into the national road system.
It was fascinating to see a new legal limit appear, not on any road sign, but directly on the Tiguan dashboard. More than a century after Bertha Benz invented road tripping, the Germans seem to be still perfecting the drive.
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