By Vann Van Staden

Image: Bertha Benz

When anyone, anywhere in the world brings up any topic “automotive” related, they immediately attach some form of masculinity to the subject matter. Sure, just more than a century ago, women didn’t really form part of this industry, but in all fairness neither did men. It was only in 1886 when Karl Benz received the patent for his Benz Patent Motorcar, (this car is widely recognised as the first gasoline-powered automobile) yet, his wife Bertha, was right by his side and formed a vital part of the team. The inventor might have been a man, but it was indeed female power that pushed it to its limits. Karl used to take the 3-wheeled car for small drives at a time, not wanting to push the car out of its comfort zone, much to his wife’s frustration.
One day she and her boys sneaked out while Karl was sleeping, pinched the car and drove a whopping 104km in the Benz Patent Motorcar. On this voyage of hers, she not only clocked the longest distance travelled with a gasoline-powered car, but also solved a few of the engineering issues that were overlooked. On their way back from their trip, they ran into some ‘breaking’ issues, but Bertha knew exactly what to do. She made her way to the nearest cobbler and got him to cover the brake shoes with leather, and thus inventing brake lining for the first time. That was by no means her only feat on this journey, she also found innovative ways of solving small issues like unblocking the fuel line with a hat pin as well as insulating the worn-down ignition wire with the help of parts sourced from her trusty garter (of all things!).

Paving the way

Bertha wasn’t the only powerful woman in motoring history. In 1903, Mary Anderson invented the first fully operational windscreen wiper, paving the way for the future of safety on the roads. Florence Lawrence, another formidable woman, invented both the indicators and brake lights. This is just the tip of the iceberg. With that said though, this is the ‘good’ part of motoring and woman, the not so good part is where we have been the butt of many jokes. When there is a car parked terribly in the parking lot, people assume it was a woman, or if someone drives slowly, “it must be a woman”. It’s that specific remark that gets to me.

In 1905, speed queen Dorothy Levitt did an epic, record braking drive from London to Liverpool and back in 2 days, granting her the title of “Fastest Girl on Earth” – funny how no one heard that story about a man… just another stereotype we have to deal with.
In some countries we weren’t even allowed to drive at all. The shocking part is that this isn’t reminiscing about the past.

Image: Florence Lawrence

Image: Florence Lawrence

Up and till last year women in Saudi Arabia weren’t allowed to drive, that ban has since been lifted. But it has only been a small step in the right direction for them. There are still loads more laws and bans that would need to be lifted, but this was a big one and caused for major celebrations for Saudi female drivers. Across the globe, we went from backseat drivers and passenger to taking the reins and leading the way.

Image: Miss Dorothy Levitt, in a 26hp Napier, Brooklands, 1908. In 1903 she won her class at the Southport Speed Trials. In 1906 she broke the women’s world speed record recording a speed of 96mph. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Image: Dorothy Levitt

Shine Bright

To get to the more important part of women in the automotive industry, we move a little closer to home. Nope, not a local race car driver, engineer, designer, or even a powerful female MD to one of the most successful automotive brands in the world (even though we have some awesome ones here to pick from), we are looking at the modern-day heroine. Superwoman. Supermom. Here’s looking at you, you beautiful, empowered woman that hit the roads daily. Clocking thousands of km’s. Transporting precious cargo to school. Driving through the concrete jungles to work. Taking the family on adventures on the dusty Karoo roads. All of this while keeping our families safe. August might be women’s month, but for us, every day is woman’s day! We get to lay the foundation for future generations to come. Just like Bertha, Mary, Florence and Dorothy did for us.