Louise Sarazin and Bertha Benz: two women with “petrol in their blood”

Louise Sarazin and Bertha Benz: two women with “petrol in their blood”
January 2009
  • Louise Sarazin helped Gottlieb Daimler bring his invention to production standard
  • supported her husband Carl Benz in all his endeavours
In 1886, working independently of one another, Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler invented the automobile. But it would be another two years before the two men achieved the first breakthrough with this revolutionary product, thanks to crucial support from two women: in 1888, Bertha Benz undertook the first test drive – and car marketing campaign – in automotive history. And that same year, Louise Sarazin successfully promoted Gottlieb Daimler’s business operations in France and in so doing helped with circulation of the revolutionary new form of transport. For from that technology-loving country the German invention began its triumphal march throughout the world.
Louise Sarazin – an energetic businesswoman
The history of the automobile in France began with the sale of engines from Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft – and the cordial relationship between Gottlieb Daimler and Edouard Sarazin, whom the German inventor knew from his time working for the Deutz company. The Parisian lawyer followed Daimler’s activities with close interest: Sarazin visited him when he began experiments in Cannstatt on the high-speed petrol engine and was excited by the invention. “After Daimler and Maybach’s initial collaboration, Sarazin immediately recognised the significance of their achievements,” wrote Friedrich Schildberger, writing about the history of the automobile in France. The two men, who got on well together, agreed that Edouard Sarazin would import the new engines to France once they had been produced. With nothing more than a handshake, he acquired the conditional rights to market all future Daimler inventions on French territory.
So in 1887, Edouard Sarazin initiated talks with businessman Emile Levassor on building the Daimler engines in France. He was already acquainted with Levassor, and with his partner René Panhard, from his student days at L’Ecole Centrale. However, Edouard Sarazin then developed a kidney disease and died before the talks could be completed, on 24 December 1887 at the age of just 47.
He charged his wife Louise with continuing to spread Daimler’s invention in France: “In your own interests, and for the good of our children, I recommend that you maintain the business connection with Daimler. His invention is entirely trustworthy, and it will have a future, the magnitude of which we cannot begin to imagine today.” This may not have been the exact wording, but in any case Louise Sarazin wrote to Gottlieb Daimler, offering to continue her husband’s work in France. “You will now be looking for a new representative for France,” she wrote in her first letter. “But since I am familiar with all the negotiations that have taken place up to now, and am fully informed about all the details up to the present day, I am completely at your service to help with your work until you find a suitable replacement for my husband.”
In his reply, Gottlieb Daimler first expressed his dismay at the death of his friend, but also responded positively to Madame Sarazin’s business proposition: “As regards business matters, I am in no hurry to look for a new representative for Paris, and am glad to hear that you are fully acquainted with our business affairs and wish to assist me. I gratefully accept your offer. In addition, I perceive that you believe in my engine, just as Monsieur Sarazin did, and I can well understand that you would not like to see the fruits of your husband’s work pass into other hands. With these few lines, I wish to say that I hope to act as your husband would have wanted when I assure you that you will remain involved in the business, even if I am unable to say exactly how. At any rate, I shall not undertake anything in the near future without first seeking your advice.
Great trust between Gottlieb Daimler and Louise Sarazin
Shortly afterwards, Emile Levassor contacted the widow to ask if he should go ahead and build the engines under the Daimler patent as her husband had ordered. He received the answer to continue, and in February 1888 Louise Sarazin travelled to Cannstatt to take a closer look at Gottlieb Daimler’s invention. She was so impressed by the demonstrations that she concluded binding agreements with the German inventor on the sale of the Daimler automobile in France. She also brought a one-cylinder engine home with her. Schildberger interpreted the meeting thus: “ Generally speaking, she travelled home with the conviction that Daimler’s attitude and the state of technology would provide the necessary basis of trust to ensure a successful future.” He added: “The fact that Daimler clearly recognised the exceptional talents of this woman is an indication of how reliable his instincts were.
Although Emile Levassor’s response to Louise Sarazin’s plans was initially somewhat guarded, she eventually managed to infect him with her enthusiasm. In October 1888, they travelled together to Cannstatt and the visit proved a great success: Emile Levassor and Gottlieb Daimler quickly hit it off and over time developed a close friendship based on mutual respect.
On 5 February 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Louise Sarazin concluded an agreement that finally paved the way for the introduction of the automobile in France. According to this, Daimler would receive twelve percent of the purchase price for each engine produced under licence – or whose production was authorised – by Madame Sarazin. For her part, the Frenchwoman had assigned the rights to the Daimler patents to the company Panhard & Levassor for 20 percent, leaving herself with eight percent. The basis for the agreement was the assumption that around 30 engines would be sold in France per year, a figure, however, that was nowhere near being reached until 1891. “These agreements between Gottlieb Daimler and Madame Sarazin on the one hand, and between Madame Sarazin and Emile Levassor on the other, laid the foundations for the entire French automotive industry,” stated a commemorative publication by Daimler-Benz AG in 1950.
The World Exposition in Paris
Daimler’s principal designs were shown at the World Exposition in Paris between May and October 1889 and attracted considerable interest. Subsequently, bicycle manufacturer Peugeot became involved in automotive design, using the Daimler engines from Panhard & Levassor. In the report on the World Exposition published in 1890, the high-speed Daimler vehicle engine was described as a “most remarkable design”.
Other businesspeople were of the same opinion. After the exhibition, other French engineering works offered to utilise the Daimler patents under licence. But Gottlieb Daimler kept his word. On 1 November 1889, he gave Louise Sarazin a written assurance that she alone had the rights to commercialise all French and Belgian patents, on condition that they featured the Daimler name.
After that, the relationship between the businesswoman and the French carmaker deepened, and on 4 May 1890 Louise Sarazin and Emile Levassor married. It was a stroke of luck for Gottlieb Daimler that the manufacturers Panhard & Levassor, and Madame Sarazin-Levassor held the Daimler licence in France. The business partners met regularly to exchange ideas. It was actually Emile Levassor who wasted no time in producing the vehicles. He was convinced that the speed of the automobiles would be the best form of advertising for Daimler engines. These proved hugely successful at the first competitive race in automotive history, held between Paris and Rouen in July 1894: of the 21 vehicles in the starting field, 15 successfully reached the finish line, and nine of these were equipped with Panhard-Levassor engines built under the Daimler licence – including a 3-hp Benz Vis-à-Vis. The success of involvement in racing was also seen as one reason for the degree of enthusiasm for the automobile in France, which in the early days was much greater than in Germany, the country of its invention.
It was the engine’s speed, however, that finally also proved fatal for Louise Sarazin-Levassor’s husband. At the Paris–Marseille–Paris race in September 1896, Emile Levassor was thrown from his vehicle near Avignon and seriously injured. He died from his injuries barely six months later, on 14 April 1897, at the age of 54.
Today, Emile Levassor is known in France as the ‘father of the automobile’. However, the contribution made by his later wife to the success of the invention is often ignored. Yet this businesswoman was the first Daimler licensee in France, a woman who believed in the success of the automobile, who convinced sceptics of the value of the revolutionary German invention, and who introduced Emile Levassor to Gottlieb Daimler. Such were her achievements – and while they must not be exaggerated, nor should they be undervalued.
Bertha Benz – steadfast supporter of her husband, Carl Benz
In Germany, too, it was a woman who helped the automobile achieve its first breakthrough, thanks to a remarkable feat. Bertha Benz, wife of inventor Carl Benz, made a trip in August 1888 with her two sons Eugen and Richard from Mannheim to her home town of Pforzheim. This would not have been anything unusual, were it not for the fact that she chose as her mode of transport the three-wheel Patent Motor Car, the world’s first automobile, which had been invented by her husband in 1886. This family excursion became the first long-distance trip in automotive history, as well as the first marketing measure for the new self-propelled carriage. Describing this pioneering journey, the preface to the American picture book Berta Benz and the Motorwagen points out that “with the greatest respect to its inventors, it was Mrs. Benz who first showed the world that the automobile had a practical future.”
Bertha was born in 1849 in Pforzheim, the daughter of master carpenter Carl Friedrich Ringer; she was to prove a driving force in the marriage.” This how the Internet site for the city of Pforzheim describes its famous daughter, the woman who played a key role in automotive history. This is perfectly true. If behind every great man there is a strong woman, the union of Carl and Bertha Benz on 20 July 1872 provides a great example of a such a team. If her husband’s early cars suffered engine failure the wife of the inventor of the automobile was at his side to help push. She encouraged her husband whenever he had doubts about the future of the motor car, and even used her dowry to provide a financial rescue for his vision of personal mobility. She was also the first person to test how well the automobile performed over a distance of more than one hundred kilometres between Mannheim and Pforzheim via Heidelberg, Bruchsal and Durlach – all without the knowledge of her husband, who probably would not have given his consent for such an adventure.
Bertha was energetic enough to focus all the family’s strength on the business and on earning money. She was firmly convinced of the future of the groundbreaking invention, and was often more optimistic than the innovative Carl Benz himself. He was well aware of how valuable she was to him.’” This description of the couple comes from a Daimler-Benz AG brochure to accompany an exhibition entitled Women and Automobiles in 1988. The website of Mercedes-Benz Germany writes of Carl Benz’s “ resolute spouse”, and adds that: “Without her strong will and unshakable faith in her husband’s success, the company Benz & Cie. would probably never have survived.
Bertha Benz’s first long-distance trip was also the first endurance test for an automobile and yielded the valuable lesson that mountain touring imposed special demands on the engine. At her insistence, the vehicle was given a second gear that was better suited to hill climbing.
In addition to the valuable, practical findings that led to further refinements to the new mode of transport, her daring exploit also represented the first publicity drive for the automobile. There were extensive press reports that focused public attention on the new type of transport from the Benz company, and shortly afterwards in Munich it was promoted using the slogan: “a complete replacement for the horsedrawn carriage.”
Louise Sarazin – biographical details
A complete biography is not available.
1886: Under the terms of an agreement, Edouard Sarazin protects Daimler’s German-registered patents of 1886 in France. Of particular importance for the history of the automobile in France is the patent taken out in Germany on 29 August 1885 for a “vehicle with gas or petroleum engine”, which Sarazin registered in France on 27 December 1886.
1887: Edouard Sarazin dies on 24 December 1887 at the age of 47. Before his death, he advises his wife Louise to maintain the business relationship with Gottlieb Daimler.
1888: Louise Sarazin reaches an agreement with Gottlieb Daimler that she will continue business operations in France.
In February, Louise Sarazin travels to Cannstatt to find out more about Gottlieb Daimler’s invention.
The company Panhard & Levassor is contracted by Louise Sarazin to build the Daimler engines as agreed with her husband.
In October, Louise Sarazin and Emile Levassor travel to Cannstatt for a meeting with Gottlieb Daimler.
1889: On 5 February 1889, Gottlieb Daimler and Louise Sarazin conclude the agreement that paves the way for the introduction of the automobile in France: Daimler is to receive 12 percent of the purchase price for each engine built under licence or authorised by Louise Sarazin. For her part, she assigns the rights to the Daimler patents to Panhard & Levassor for 20 percent, leaving herself with eight percent.
The World Exposition is held in Paris between May and October 1889, at which a Daimler automobile is exhibited.
On 1 November 1889, Gottlieb Daimler gives Louise Sarazin a written assurance that she alone shall have the right to commercialise all French and Belgian patents, on condition that they bear the Daimler name.
1890: Louise Sarazin marries Emile Levassor on 4 May 1890.
1891: In France, the sales target of 30 engines per year specified in the agreement of 1898 is reached.
1897: On 14 April 1897, Emile Levassor dies at the age of 54 following a racing accident.
Cäcilie Bertha Benz – biographical details
1849: Cäcilie Bertha Ringer is born on 3 May 1849 in Pforzheim, Germany, the daughter of master carpenter Karl Friedrich Ringer.
1870: On an excursion to Maulbronn, Bertha Ringer meets the mechanical engineering graduate Carl Benz.
1872: Bertha and Carl Benz marry on 20 July 1872 in Ladenburg.
1873: 1 May 1873: Birth of their first child, Eugen.
1874: 21 October 1874: Birth of their second child, Richard.
1877: 1 August 1877: Birth of their third child, Klara.
1882: 2 February 1882: Birth of their fourth child, Thilde.
1888: First long-distance automobile journey. In August, Bertha Benz and her sons Eugen and Richard drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back in a Type III Patent Motor Car.
1890: 16 March 1890: Birth of their fifth child, Ellen.
1929: In the harsh winter of 1928/29, Carl Benz contracts a bronchial inflammation of the lungs from which he never recovers. He dies on 4 April 1929 at the age of 84 at his home in Ladenburg.
1944: On the occasion of her 95th birthday on 3 May 1944, Bertha Benz is made an honorary senator of the Technical University in Karlsruhe. Two days later, on 5 May 1944, the automotive pioneer dies in Ladenburg.
Posthumous recognition
1963: The first “Bertha Benz Fahrt” – a reliability rally for classic cars – was organised in 1963 to mark the 75th anniversary of the pioneering journey. Since 1988, it has been held every two years. The joint organisers of this museum on wheels are the Allgemeine Schnauferlclub e.V. (ASC) and the Mercedes Benz Veteranen Club von Deutschland e.V. (MVC).
2005: In 2005 her name was given to one of the new streets near the central railway station in the ULAP exhibition park in the district of Moabit, Berlin Mitte.
2008: In 25 April 2008 the secondary school in the town of Wiesloch was renamed Bertha-Benz-Realschule Wiesloch in honour of the automotive pioneer. At the official renaming ceremony there was a re-enactment of the historic refuelling scene at the town pharmacy – still in existence – and featuring a replica of the Type I Patent Motor Car with Bertha Benz’s great-granddaughter, Jutta Benz, who then drove the vehicle through the town to the school.
On 3 May 2008, a sculpture created by local artist René Dantes was officially unveiled in Pforzheim. It stands in a central position on the town’s Waisenhausplatz, and shows the stylised figure of a woman at the wheel of the Patent Motor Car.


Automotive pioneer: Bertha Benz, here seen in a youthful portrait, helped prepare the ground for the expansion of motorised vehicles.
Key figure in automotive history: After the death of her husband, Louise Sarazin-Levassor continued running his business with Gottlieb Daimler and played a significant part in the success of the automobile.
Outing for two: Bertha Benz sits beside husband Carl Benz in an 1894 Benz Victoria model.
Part of the route of the long-distance journey undertaken by Bertha Benz and her two sons in August 1888.