With spring’s thaw comes the desire to hit the open road. We’ve explored all sorts of ways to scratch the road-trip itch—from wonderfully weird sights to see, to reimagined classics, with all the planning tips you could ask for in between. And while today there are few things more quintessentially American to do with a car than take a road trip, when automobiles first hit the market, very few people thought about traveling far distances in them.
But three pioneering early drivers changed hearts and minds by pushing early automobiles farther than anyone thought they could go.
The First Road Trip in a Private, Petroleum-Powered Automobile
Bertha Benz was a development partner to her husband, Karl Benz, who invented the Patent Motorwagen, the first vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. Karl was by all accounts a brilliant inventor and a terrible marketer: his attempts at showcasing their “horseless carriage” failed miserably, and so his wife stepped in. Bertha was also an investor in her husband’s pursuits, and she knew that if the automobile was ever to catch on, people would really need to see what they could do writes Jalopnik. So, in 1888, Bertha decided to demonstrate just how powerful the vehicle was, taking it on a 60-mile journey over the German countryside to see her mother. Bertha took her two teenage sons along for the ride, but didn’t tell her husband, who was famous for his perfectionism and might never have pushed the limits of his creation.
According to History.com, before Bertha set out on her journey, the vehicle had only been driven a few feet at a time. There were no gas stations, of course, so Bertha had to strategically plan her travels around acquiring a petroleum distillate which powered the car from apothecary shops.
During the trip, when the Patent Motorwagen’s capabilities came up short, Bertha invented solutions: she had a shoemaker add leather to the braking blocks, thereby inventing brake pads, writes Jalopnik. She also used her hatpin to unclog a fuel line and her garter to insulate a wire. When she successfully reached her destination, in fewer than 12 hours, the press was already buzzing about her and the automobile. Her husband Karl incorporated her inventions and took her notes, adding a low-range gear so the vehicle could get up steep hills, something Bertha had struggled with. Within a decade, writes History.com, Karl’s company was the world’s largest automotive manufacturer, and the name Benz, of course, still carries a lot of caché today.
The First Cross-Country Road Trip in the U.S.
Over 100 years ago, in the spring of 1904, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson set off for what would become the first cross-country road trip. Jackson, a restless doctor eager for a challenge, made a $50 bet in a San Francisco club room that he could drive an automobile farther than one had ever been. He soon departed from San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car for New York—an endeavor that took 63 days, countless repairs, and a good deal of money.
While most people at the time never traveled more than 12 miles from their homes, Jackson rounded up a former bicycle mechanic, Sewall Crocker, and a stray dog (whom he outfitted with driving goggles), and set out on a journey during which he somewhat unwittingly ushered in a new era in American transportation. Jackson and Crocker broke down for the first time just 15 miles after departing. They repaired countless blown out tires (remember, no interstates and in some cases, no roads) and at one point had to be rescued from quicksand by a horse, but they reached their destination and became the first U.S. automobile travelers to complete a cross-country drive, forever changing perceptions of what automobiles could do. “The Jackson-Crocker trip,” writes SF Gate, “excited people across the nation. It got people thinking about long-distance highways.” As for the bet, Jackson never collected his $50.
The First Woman to Drive Across the U.S.
Just six years after Jackson’s historic first trip across the U.S., Alice Ramsey, a 22-year-old New Jersey native, became the first woman to complete the journey by automobile. Ramsey’s trip was sponsored by the Maxwell-Briscoe Company, a popular automaker at the time. A representative from the company had noticed Ramsey, an avid driver, when she completed a 200-mile endurance drive a few years earlier, writes the Smithsonian. Maxwell-Briscoe offered the all-expenses-paid trip to Ramsey to show the world, “that a Maxwell could take anyone—even a woman driver—all the way across America.’
With photographers and a crowd present, Ramsey set off from New York City in June 1909 with three other women—her two older sisters-in-law and her teenaged friend. Notably, none of the other women knew how to drive, but they helped with navigation and car repairs. The journey took 59 days and covered 3,800 miles, and the highest speed they reached was 42 miles per hour—a speed they described as “terrific.”
Ramsey and her companions had to manually check the gasoline levels by sticking a ruler into the 20-gallon gas tank located beneath the front bench seat every so often or risk running out (which happened occasionally). Just as with Jackson six years earlier, Ramsey had to navigate roads that weren’t built for automobile travel, resulting in many repaired tires. There were no maps to speak of, and they instead relied on often outdated automobile guides that used landmarks for directions, writes the Smithsonian. West of the Mississippi, the group had almost no access to maps, and instead followed the telegraph poles: “At a crossroads, they would follow the poles carrying more wires, assuming that would take them to the larger population center,” writes America Comes Alive.
While some people along the trip were openly hostile to the group, preferring horse travel and fearing automobiles, the journey captured America’s attention. People would wait for hours for a glimpse of the group, the Smithsonian writes. Ramsey’s trip was a feather in the cap of automobile makers and demonstrated the possibilities of personal car travel. Ramsey made at least 30 more cross-country automobile trips in her lifetime, and she was the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Each of these three stunts helped Americans–and people all over the world–imagine a life in which automobiles featured prominently. We’ve now had just over 100 years of personal car travel (primarily) with vehicles powered by combustion engines, but we are on the cusp of another shift in how people think about car travel: soon, it seems, driverless vehicles will feature more prominently on our roads, and some industry insiders believe electric vehicles are ready to go mainstream. We’ll have our own driving pioneers–and even stunts–to watch and wonder at in the coming years as enterprising drivers demonstrate the abilities of driverless and electric vehicles to the masses.
And if you set out for the open road this season, take a minute to imagine the journey with no maps, no interstates, no cell phones, and perhaps channel one of these pioneering road-trippers to make your journey even more memorable.