International Women's Day - Remarkable stories behind our collection

With Tuesday 8 March marking International Women's Day, the Museum's Learning and Engagement Team would like to share two remarkable stories featuring inspirational women behind our collection.

“Hexe! Hexe! Witch! Witch!” Come the cries through the tavern doors as children hide behind their mothers’ skirts and faces appear at every window. But the strange lady in soiled clothing riding what, at first glance, appears to be some kind of mechanical dragon (steam powered? clockwork?) and trailing two bedraggled boys holding buckets behind her appears not to care. Or at least, not to hear. Pulling up outside a chemist’s shop in rural Germany somewhere between Mannheim and Phorzheim, the lady seems not to notice her dishevelled appearance for she must obtain ligroin - stain remover. She must quickly refuel her motorcar as the light will soon fail and she must reach her mother’s house to complete the world’s first test drive over a long distance in her husband’s ‘borrowed’ invention. Meet Bertha Benz.

Born into a wealthy family in 1849, none could have foreseen the impact that little Cäcilie Bertha Ringer would have on the world. At the time of her birth, scientists agreed that women had lighter brains and were therefore incapable of logical thought and a university education was far out of reach. However Bertha, it seemed, was one of the lucky ones. Her interests in science and technology indulged by her carpenter father, she was enrolled in a girls’ school from a young age and hungrily gleaned all she could from her beloved papa about the workings of steam engines. The pain she must have felt upon discovering the line, ‘Unfortunately, only a girl again’ in her father’s scrawl onto a page of the family bible must have been terrible and it’s not hard to imagine that these words only fuelled her determination to make her mark on the world.

Fast forward to 1886 and Bertha is now a married woman. Not to a gentleman, as would have been preferred by her family, but to Karl Benz: inventor. Bertha had gone against her father’s wishes in marrying Karl but it was a love match and a meeting of minds. Together they went about bringing his invention - the horseless carriage - to life, even using Bertha’s dowry to finance Karl’s business ventures. By 1888 with a patent under his belt, Karl and his invention still hadn’t received the recognition Bertha felt they deserved. So she took matters into her own hands. She stole it.

‘Borrowed’ is probably a more accurate word for what she did as she snuck out without waking Karl. Having alerted the press to her endeavour, she then set out for her mother’s house over 60 miles away. Her journey wasn’t without mishap as she ran out of fuel and had to stop at the chemist’s for ligroin (thus inventing petrol stations). Resourceful Bertha even had to put her hat pin and garter to good use to make running repairs by the side of the road.

However on that fateful day, with the taunts of the villagers ringing in her ears, Bertha achieved the impossible - becoming the first person to test drive a car over a long distance and instigating the world’s first live marketing event. Thanks to her determination, the ‘horseless carriage’ gained worldwide attention, Karl’s company is still going strong over 130 years later as Mercedes Benz and a replica of this groundbreaking invention is in our Museum. Bertha’s story ended in 1944 but ever afterwards she has been known in her homeland as 'The Mother of Motoring'.

However, Bertha’s story of determination isn’t the only example of the impact of women on motoring heritage featured in the Museum. Search along our Time Road in the Edwardian period and on the wall you may find some rather violent advice for motorists - always carry a loaded revolver! These were the words of Dorothy Levitt: racing driver, water and land speed record holder, author and media sensation.

However, Bertha’s story of determination isn’t the only example of the impact of women on motoring heritage featured in the Museum. Search along our Time Road in the Edwardian period and on the wall you may find some rather violent advice for motorists - always carry a loaded revolver! These were the words of Dorothy Levitt: racing driver, water and land speed record holder, author and media sensation.

1905 saw Dorothy as a works driver for Napier. Initially taken on as a publicity stunt due to her beauty, she stunned the crowds by actually being rather good. By 1906, she was the proud recipient of a women’s world speed record clocking up 96mph and achieved a Ladies’ Record at the Shelsley Walsh Speed Hillclimb in a 50hp Napier, completing the climb in 92.4 seconds (12 seconds faster than the male winner).

These triumphs and her nickname of ‘The Fastest Girl on Earth', however, were earned in the face of taunts from her male racing counterparts. Dorothy liked to drive with her pet Pomeranian dog, Dodo, on the seat next to her. It is said that she turned up to a race meeting more than once to find that the male competitors had tied toy stuffed animals to their cars in an attempt to intimidate and humiliate her. It clearly didn’t work.

And so, onto the revolver! In 1909, Dorothy Levitt published her ‘chatty little handbook’ The Woman and the Car. This book claimed that lady ‘motoristes’ could not only drive but also fix their motorcars and featured many images of Levitt herself dressed in a smock demonstrating various techniques. Its pages also contained many useful tips including carrying a hand mirror to see what was behind - thus potentially pioneering the rear view mirror seven years before it was officially adopted by the motor industry. It also contained the tip for ladies to carry a revolver as one never knew who one might meet on the highway! Reassuringly, Levitt also proposed carrying a box of chocolates (so soothing on the nerves!) presumably to get over the shock of having just shot someone.

These empowering stories and more can be found amongst the Museum's collection. To inspire you before your next visit and celebrate International Women’s Day, the Learning and Engagement Team have produced a short video featuring three pioneering ‘motoristes’: Bertha Benz, Dorothy Levitt and the Belle of Brooklands, Kay Petre, whose blue Austin 7 is currently on loan to Coventry Transport Museum as part of their Women in Motorsport exhibition. We hope you enjoyed the video.