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Bobbie Kalben: Singing the Praises of the Amazing Frau Benz

The custom license plate on Bobbie Kalben’s Porsche Cayman is no vanity plate. The name on it – “Cacilie” – refers not to the car’s owner but to a woman with a place in motoring as vital as it is obscure: Cacilie Bertha Benz, who, back in 1888, invented nothing less than the car trip. Bobbie Kalben, a familiar figure at ProFormance, is determined that we don’t forget what motorists owe this exceptional woman.

Bertha Benz – The Forgotten Genius of Motoring

Cacile-bertha-benz-license-plate
Tribute to an exceptional woman:
Cacilie Bertha Benz

Sorting out Cacilie’s place – or Bertha’s, as she went by that name – takes some backtracking. Her husband Karl Benz was a resourceful engineer justly celebrated for inventing the motorcar. Karl patented his motorized carriage in 1884, but hadn’t sold many of them, since he didn’t know how to promote his invention. It took Bertha Benz to figure that out.

Bertha Benz’s achievement fascinates Bobbie Kalben, a retired insurance actuary who regularly plies the track at ProFormance. “Bertha struck me as one of the many women in history who have been forgotten,” says Bobbie. “Like they say, ‘Anonymous was a woman.’”

The Ride that Started It All

The machine that started it all: the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen

Bertha’s dowry financed Karl’s invention. But Bobbie points out that Bertha Benz’s mind was the real asset that helped make the Mercedes-Benz name. Whether or not her inventive genius equaled Karl’s, her marketing skills left him in the dust. It was Bertha who figured out how to generate first-class publicity for Karl’s invention by taking a long car trip, something which had not yet been tried anywhere. A truly long ride would prove the car a useful machine and not just a novelty.

Early one summer morning in 1888 Bertha piled her two teenage sons in the motorwagen and set off from Mannheim for her mother’s house, 100km (60 miles) away in Pforzheim. Today that journey wouldn’t warrant a second thought, but at that time it was an impossibly long distance for any motorcar.

Inventing the Car Trip and More

The first obstacle Bertha encountered: no places to gas up. The Benz car was fueled by ligroin, a petroleum distillate often used as a cleaning solvent. Bertha stopped for a few liters of it at a pharmacy, thereby inaugurating the world’s first filling station (the pharmacy, which still stands, bears a plaque honoring Bertha’s accomplishment).

The pharmacy in Wiesloch, Germany where Bertha Benz
fueled up on her historic journey
Photo: Rudolf Stricker via Wikimedia Commons

Bertha Benz’s ride was a procession of innovation. Finding that the car’s wooden brakes weren’t up to the job, she had a cobbler cover them in leather, thereby inventing brake pads. She used a hatpin to clear a clogged fuel line and her garter to insulate an ignition wire, moves that seem to proclaim a distinctly feminine independence and ingenuity.

A Woman at the Wheel

Independence was the subtext of the trip: Bertha notified neither local authorities nor her husband of her planned drive. On that August morning she and her sons had pushed the car away from the house to avoid waking Benz when they started the engine. Bobbie: “When she got there she wired her husband to tell him she was fine!”

For her drive home Bertha chose a longer route to squeeze even more publicity from the stunt. Moreover, she took notes for improvements to the car. At her suggestion he added improved brakes and a low gear for hills.

It worked – orders for the new machine took off, and within a decade Benz was the world’s largest automaker.

134 Years Later – Another Woman at the Wheel

Bobbie Kalben and her Porsche “Cacilie”
Photo: karlnoakes.com

While Bobbie Kalben is keeping the memory of Caecile Bertha Benz alive, she’s thoroughly enjoying her own motorwagen, a Porsche 718 Cayman GTS. She has always loved sports cars, but only recently decided to purchase one as a way of starting a new chapter in her life after her husband’s passing.

“I jumped in with both feet,” she says, joining the Porsche Club and then coming to ProFormance for track days. “It’s a new social situation, new friends.” She’s also taken an interest in the mechanicals of her ride. A ladies’ night at Stew’s Self-Service Garage started Bobbie learning about the care and feeding of a German sports car.

“The things I want to do, there’s no point in waiting, I’m trying to enjoy the moment. In Germany they have a Bertha Benz memorial route.  I’d love to drive it one day.” Meanwhile, Bobbie Kalben does her part to publicize one woman’s journey in motoring while making her own, and having the time of her life doing it.

Watch a dramatization of Bertha’s famous ride:

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