The Ur-Road Trip

The Ur-Road Trip

I'm coming up for air briefly while the people for whom I've been madly writing a brief finally look at it before we get it ready to file next Monday. Between this unaccustomed spurt of paying work and the rigors of the holidays, I've scarcely had time to draw a breath for many weeks.

In the meantime, my husband sent me this story, linked by Instapundit or someone, about the first private cross-country jaunt in a self-propelled vehicle. In 1888, Bertha Benz of Mannheim, Germany, sneaked out of the house with her two teenaged boys to pay a visit to her sister and new niece 65 miles away in the Black Forest. Why sneaked? Her husband assumed she would be taking the usual train, but she'd decided to test-drive his new-fangled Patent Motorwagen (yes, that Benz): a 200-lb. steel vehicle that produced 2/3 of a horsepower at 250 rpm from a one-cylinder engine. (For some reason, it delights me to read that the German for "Imperial," as in "Imperial Patent Office," is "Kaiserlich" -- meaning "super-kingly.")

This model had a fuel tank, a dashboard, and brakes. It didn't have what you'd call off-road tires, having been driven only on city streets to that point. Ms. Benz prudently stuck to the hard old Roman Roads when she could, especially the Via Montana or "Mountain Road" once she left her home in the Neckar River Valley. She refueled at drugstores. Late-nineteenth-century Germany had a oil industry, which produced mostly kerosene, but also threw off by-products including a substance called "ligroin," traditionally used as a stain cleaner. The drugstore where she stopped now boasts of being the world's first self-serve filling station.

The travelers had some trouble on steep grades and had to ask a farmer to push them over one pass. When she got home, Ms. Benz asked her husband to install a second set of reduction gears so the engine could keep running at an efficient speed while the car slowed down. So was born the stick-shift.

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