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Bertha Benz and the First Road Trip: Background information when reading America for Beginners

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America for Beginners

by Leah Franqui

America for Beginners by Leah Franqui X
America for Beginners by Leah Franqui
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2018, 320 pages
    Jul 2019, 320 pages


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Bertha Benz and the First Road Trip

This article relates to America for Beginners

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Leah Franqui's novel, America for Beginners, centers on three people of diverse backgrounds making a road trip together across the United States. The term "road trip" conjures up a lengthy car journey across many miles, generally with a vague itinerary and unplanned stops as the travelers find places of interest to explore. Some feel it is the ultimate expression of freedom, the luxury to live life unplanned for a period of time. According to Travel & Leisure, one in four Americans enjoy this type of vacation every year.

Bertha Benz and Sons setting out on their expeditionThe first documented road trip is said to have been taken by Bertha Benz in August, 1888 when, without the knowledge of her husband Karl, she set off in his invention, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, to travel 60 miles from their home in Mannheim (in the southwest of Germany) to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Taking her two teenage sons with her to help push the under-powered vehicle up hills, the trip was far from leisurely. There were no roads, so the trio had to travel along wagon ruts, refilling with water every 12 miles or so and for fuel every 15-20 miles (they used benzine which they obtained from pharmacies along the way). The automobile broke down several times, requiring creativity to complete the journey; Bertha used a garter to plug a leaky valve and hairpins to clear a clogged carburetor.

Karl BenzBertha was a very capable woman who had, despite objections from her father, invested her entire dowry in Benz's horseless carriage project before their marriage in 1872, but as a married woman she was unable to apply for patent rights or act as an investor. Although the trip was ostensibly to visit her mother, her motive was that it would give her husband a morale boost by raising publicity for the vehicle that she ardently believed in and that she and Karl had invested everything they had into but was failing to catch the attention of buyers.

Her plan was a success, while some onlookers were terrified of the "smoking monster," others asked for a test ride and the press reported on the journey. As a result of the trip, Bertha was able to recommend technical improvements to the Motorwagen such as additional gears for climbing hills and linings to improve the effectiveness of the brakes; and the press coverage generated considerable interest in the horseless carriage and, soon, decades of poverty and ridicule gave way to success.Bertha BenzIn 1944, on her 95th birthday, Bertha Benz was awarded the title Honourable Senator by the Technical University of Karlsruhe, her husband's alma mater.

In America, road trips started to become the thing to do among upper-middle-class tourists as the roads improved around the turn of the 20th century. Automobile travel was limited at first to those of means due to both the expense of buying the vehicle and the cost of maintaining it. Time lists the gear early adventurers were advised to bring along, given the limited availability of help should something go wrong:

Those who made the first transcontinental drives between 1901 and 1908 hauled along ropes, blocks and tackle, axes, sleeping bags, water bags, spades, camps stoves, compasses, barometers, thermometers, cyclometers, first aid kits, rubber ponchos, tire chains, pith helmets, assorted spare parts, and sufficient firearms to launch a small insurrection.

By 1920 more were able to take advantage of this type of holiday and what we now think of as the Great American Road Trip began to take shape. As the cost of cars continued to come down and as the number of autos on the road increased, the number of services available to drivers followed, thereby making a car trip accessible to a larger segment of the population. A 2400-mile, cross-country highway, Route 66, was commissioned in 1926 and completely paved by the end of the 1930s; and in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act authorized creating a 41,000 mile network of highways, further encouraging families to hit the road.

Today the road trip is more popular than ever in America. Domestic travel is at an all-time high with 85% of vacations taking place within the country. Road trips are not only relatively economical but have many benefits such as flexibility, the ability to take along pretty much anything (including the family dog), and avoidance of "airport pain" (security lines, baggage fees, etc.).

Bertha Benz and sons set up on their journey
Karl Benz
Bertha Benz

by Kim Kovacs

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to America for Beginners. It originally ran in August 2018 and has been updated for the July 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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