What is that intriguing little horseless carriage in the photo? Its been erronously said to be a common tricycle. Not so. It is the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. This marvel is the world’s first production automobile, the first vehicle designed to be propelled by an internal combustion engine.
Bertha Benz, wife, mother, and lively mind, financed the motorwagen’s development process. She also was determined that it would be noticed by the wider world. She gathered her two teenaged boys and drove it on the first long distance road trip. Imagine heading out onto wagon ruts, determined to reach her childhood home. The motorwagen did not have gears that could propel it up hills so the boys would get off and push it. The carburetor clogged; Bertha cleaned it up with her hat pin. She used a garter to insulate wire and she fueled it with ligroin, a substance bought from a local pharmacy. The brakes wore down so she rolled up to a shoemaker. She asked him to nail leather on the brake blocks, thus inventing brake linings.
I examine the black spoked wheels of the mini motorwagen. The metal against my fingertips brings memories. First I see in my mind my brother Frank’s sporty little Spyder automobile. Just out of high school, he packed a bag, grabbed his Newfoundland dog and headed cross country. That black dog barely fit into the front seat! First south then East, through the Cascade mountains, then Eastern Washington’s dryer sagebrush country and into the colder Tamarack and pine country of Idaho and its steep mountain pass, rolling toward Montana. The pair’s destination was Saint Paul, Minnesota. Before brother reached Mom and I, one of the Spyder’s steel spoked wheels blew. Small town Montana did not have English car parts on their shelves so they spent three days waiting for a new tire to arrive.
What is it about being freed from high school classrooms and halls? Around that time I struggled through my final year. A young co-worker came home with my Mom one afternoon. We got to talking and between us dreamed up an excursion. A bicycle excursion. First of all, neither of us had a bicycle that was more than just a muscle and pedal machine- no speeds to assist us on strenuous hills. Something in the both of us needed to head out, to be free of older, demanding adults. Mom’s co-worker, Mary, agreed to hop onto a one speed, not that sturdy bike. I had a newer, sturdier bike- again, one speed. What did we agree to do on that afternoon? That the following Saturday, even if there were rain, hail, and tornadoes, we’d head to Stillwater, Wisconsin. That destination was a thirty mile distant spot on the map. We’d heard that our route would be back roads threading through farm country. We’d studied a map. Of course we hadn’t seen mention of long, leg crunching hills on the paper. Stillwater is a town on the Saint Croix river. We did make that journey. At one point we steered around a turtle. We ate squashed sandwiches and stopped at a farmhouse, bravely inquiring whether we could have a drink of water. That farm’s driveway was long, the question only asked due to our deep need. We made it back to my St. Paul home after dark. By then we were dampened by an evening shower. Exhausted but delighted with our crazy journey, we slept well that night.
Yes, one small model rains memories on my head. The old Dodge pickup that brothers drove to the county dump, the red Farmall tractor that Dad cut hay with, the dirt bikes, even the banana seat Schwinn that first taught me the thrill of wind in my snarled hair. Propulsion, human ingenuity, the wonder of mechanical parts fitting together perfectly. I hear the tick tick of Bertha Benz’s combustion engine, I hear it brought to me via our modern wizard, the computer.