By Leigh Dorrington
The Mercedes-Benz Museum at the company’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany is a depository of the history of the automobile, motorsport, commercial transportation and the Twentieth Century altogether, presented in one of the most modern museums in the world.
Two names, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, stand above all others in the company’s history. But there were many others, both known and unknown, who contributed to the history of the longest-established automaker in the world. They are also represented in the singular exhibits of the Mercedes-Benz museum, particularly in Mercedes-Benz’ long history of success in motorsport.
Daimler and Benz
Karl Benz patented a three-wheeled vehicle driven by a gasoline engine in Mannheim, Germany in 1886, the same year Gottlieb Daimler completed his motorized carriage in Cannstatt, Germany. The world’s first two automobiles came into being barely 100 miles from each other, built by men who had not previously met but whose names became synonymous with the development of the automobile—Daimler-Benz.
Although the companies founded by these men were not combined until 1926, both Daimler and Benz were early leaders in the new industry, contributing significant engineering innovations and advances in quality.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen was a three-wheeled vehicle with two tall wheels flanking the rear-mounted single-cylinder engine that drove the wheels by a leather belt and chain drive. A steering tiller directed the single front wheel, because Benz was not confident of the two-wheel steering designs available in the day.
Gottlieb Daimler’s motorized carriage was the world’s first four-wheeled automobile. It was a conventional carriage into which Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach installed a small high-speed engine.
Daimler and Maybach are credited with developing the world’s first small high-speed internal combustion engine to run on gasoline in 1883. The engine was a single-cylinder design, displacing 28 cu. in. and producing 1.1 hp at 650 rpm. The engine weighed 203 lbs.
Daimler and Maybach continued their development of the automobile with a motorized quadracycle that was displayed at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, and reportedly sparked development of the French automobile industry. Daimler and Maybach created a first two-cylinder gasoline engine, with the cylinders arranged in a ‘V’. This engine was still only 35 cu. in., producing 1.5 hp at 700 rpm, weighing 135 lbs. and powering the Daimler Motor-Quadricycle to a top speed of 11 mph.
Daimler also supplied the first four-cylinder gasoline engines to customers beginning in 1890. Two versions were offered: a 147 cu. in. inline-4 with 5.9 hp (shown) and a behemoth 371 cu. in. inline-4 providing 12 hp. Both engines were used first in boats. Four cylinder engines were not installed in road-going vehicles before 1898.
The 1893 Benz Victoria was Karl Benz’ first four-wheeled automobile. The Benz Victoria utilized a one-cylinder engine of 105 cu. in., providing 3 hp at 450 rpm. The first four-wheeled Benz was created using Karl Benz’ improvements on the kingpin steering system, permitting the two front wheels to assume different cornering radii and allowing the vehicle to negotiate bends more safely.
The Daimler Vis-à-Vis introduced in 1896 was the first automobile produced in any quantity, with some 150 examples built. The two-cylinder engine displaced 65 cu. in. and produced 4.6 hp at 740 rpm. This Daimler featured three inventions by Wilhelm Maybach—the ‘Phoenix’ engine, the spray nozzle carburetor and belt drive. “Vis-à-Vis” identifies the seating style, in which passengers were seated in front of, and facing, the operator.
The 1899 Benz Dos-à-Dos—seating passengers back-to-back—introduced the first two-cylinder horizontally opposed gasoline engine, the Benz “Contramotor”. The 105 cu. in. engine, rated at 5 hp at 940 rpm, is the great-grandfather of every “boxer” engine in the world. Top speed was 22 mph.
Other examples of early Daimler and Benz vehicles are fascinating both for the variety of styles represented and the mechanical innovations that progressed in rapid order. Included among these are examples of early Daimler trucks.
As visitors progress from an introduction to Daimler and Benz through examples of their earliest vehicles and innovations, another dimension of the museum reveals itself. The curved walkways connecting one level of the museum with the next provide a contextual history of the companies, the industry and the history of the Twentieth Century.
The 1889 World Exhibition in Paris drew many innovators and brought them together as collaborators. Both Daimler and Benz were represented at the exhibition and established important working partnerships in France and elsewhere.
For Daimler, one of the most valuable partnerships formed in Paris was with the pioneering French manufacturer Panhard-Levassor, which began manufacturing Daimler engines under a license agreement in 1889.
The First Modern Automobile
The first decade of the Twentieth Century was one of great discovery and change for the still-emerging automobile industry.
Electric and steam-powered vehicles both enjoyed early success—more so in America than in Europe—but gasoline-powered vehicles firmly established dominance between 1900-1910.
Both Daimler and Benz used competition to improve and establish awareness of their vehicles. The 1900 Benz 14 hp Rennwagen was powered by a 166 cu. in. horizontally-opposed two-cylinder engine good for 40 mph. This early Benz had an open cooling system, with water flowing through pipes fitted with cooling plates and partially vaporized in a condenser behind the seat.
The 1900 Daimler Phoenix racing car was a 23 hp vehicle powered by a 336 cu. in. inline 4-cylinder engine that produced 27 hp and a top speed of 50 mph. The engine alone weighed 660 lbs. Together with the high center of gravity and short wheelbase, these automobiles were very difficult to control. Following a serious accident in the 1900 Nice-La Turbie race, this led to the development of the first “modern” automobile.
The 1901 35hp Mercedes is considered to be the first modern automobile. The car combined a front mounted radiator and a lightweight engine mounted low in the chassis with rear wheel drive. The car was designed by Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, together with Daimler’s son Paul, and represented a major advance on the 1900 Daimler Phoenix Rennwagen.
Although it was developed initially as a race car, the 35 hp also entered production as the Mercedes-Simplex. “Mercedes” was the name Jellinek gave to the new car, after his daughter. “Simplex” described the relative ease of driving the vehicle in comparison with anything else on the road.
A 1902 Mercedes-Simplex 40 hp exhibited by the Mercedes-Benz Museum is the oldest Mercedes in existence. The car is powered by a 414 cu. in. inline-4, providing 40 hp at 1,100 rpm with a top speed of 50 mph.
Wilhelm Maybach was critical to the early success of Daimler and Mercedes. “In many ways he played a more important role than Daimler himself,” wrote one historian. It was Maybach who was responsible for invention of the spray nozzle carburetor, the modern honeycomb radiator and the four-speed gearbox.
Choosing a Direction
At this point visitors to the museum are given a choice of directions in which to proceed. Both are excellent choices. The first route leads visitors through a chronological history of Mercedes/Daimler and Benz history, culminating with a very special exhibit of racing cars.
The second direction leads through five galleries that exhibit a portfolio of the companies’ work over 125 years and now more.
The Mercedes-Benz Museum’s unique “double-helix” design—representing the dna of the automobile—enables visitors to cross over between one direction and the other at each level.
The museum displays 80 automobiles and 40 commercial vehicles, demonstrating the importance commercial vehicles have also represented in Mercedes-Benz history. The gallery structure makes it possible to observe an overview of the entire museum and spend additional time in areas of individual interest, all in one—very full—day.
Times of Change
Most enthusiasts will be drawn to the exhibit “Times of Change”, covering the years 1914-1945.
The difficult economic environment brought on in the aftermath of WWI left German automakers staggering. A 1923 agreement of cooperation between Daimler and Benz became a full merger between the two oldest automakers in the world in 1926.
Another significant development was the arrival of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche from Austro-Daimler in 1923. Porsche became Technical Director for the parent company where he oversaw the development of twelve new models in a five-year period.
Porsche’s influence was not a mere footnote in Mercedes-Benz history. The new models developed under Porsche’s supervision are among some of the most influential in the company’s history.
The first new model was the supercharged Model K, based on an earlier Mercedes design created by Paul Daimler. The Model K was billed as the fastest production automobile in the world.
The next new model was the mighty Model S, the automobile that would define Mercedes-Benz as a great manufacturer of sports cars.
The Model S, with a 6.8-liter (414 cu. in.) straight-6 engine, produced 120 horsepower—that increased immediately to 180 hp when the supercharger was engaged by pressing the accelerator. A production Model S won the first German Grand Prix on the new Nürburgring circuit in 1927.
Porsche left Mercedes-Benz in 1928. Development of the Model S continued with the team of Hans Nibel, who became Technical Director after Porsche’s departure, to the SS, SSK and SSKL that all rank among the most dominant and beautiful sports cars of all time.
Nibel’s team also developed a new supercharged 3.8-liter straight-8 engine, an engine that would power the Type 380, the car that would become the predecessor to the legendary 500 K and 540 K. Examples of these extraordinary automobiles are exhibited at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, and were featured in a 2010 special exhibit within the museum titled “Mercedes-Benz Super Sports Cars”.
Following the second world war, Mercedes-Benz led the recovery described as the “Postwar Miracle” of the German economy, aided by the American European Recovery Program also known as the Marshall Plan after U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall who initiated the assistance.
Typical of this early time was the Daimler-Benz Waiblingen Ordnance Rebuild Shop, whose activities were limited to repairing Allied Jeeps!
Mercedes-Benz’ post-war recovery began when production resumed in 1946 on the Type 170, a pre-war design that had once been the company’s smallest car. Mercedes-Benz pioneered diesel-powered automobiles in the 1930s, and the post-war 170 Diesel proved a valuable asset in the fuel-starved post-war years.
But it was the 300 series that re-established Mercedes-Benz as a producer of well-engineered luxury automobiles in the post-war years of the 1950s-1960s.
The 300 series was offered as an opulent sedan, limousine, coupé and various cabriolet models, powered by an in-line six-cylinder engine displacing 183 cu. in., with 125 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. These and the smaller 220 series were the first Mercedes-Benz many people today ever saw. The 220 was designed around a 134 cu. in. straight-six with 130 hp at 4,800 rpm and a four-speed gearbox.
When there were no funds to develop all-new engineering in the 1950s, Mercedes-Benz racing chief Alfred Neubauer led creation of the 300 SL sports cars based on the 300 series running gear in a purpose-built lightweight space frame tubular chassis. The additional strength provided by the side rails of the tubular chassis also presented a problem for later production, accounting for the unique overhead-opening “gullwing” doors.
The 300 SLR coupé exhibited in the museum was developed to be the ultimate road-going 300 SL. Borrowing from the dominating 300 SLR racing cars, the 300 SLR coupé provided 310 hp and a top speed of more than 173 mph. Production plans for the 300 SLR were scrapped after Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing after 1955, but not before M-B racing engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut made good use of one of only two prototypes built.
Other exhibits detail more recent Mercedes-Benz leadership in safety, efficiency and the environment.
But after viewing the 300 SLR, most readers would hot foot it directly to the final exhibition, that displays well over a century of dominating racing cars produced by Daimler, Benz and Mercedes-Benz.
One exhibit hall displays contemporary championship-winning Mercedes-Benz representing Formula 1, Le Mans, Indianapolis, the DTM German Touring Car Championship—even truck racing.
But for the initiated, it is the counter-balance of great racing cars from an earlier era that closed, seemingly forever, with Mercedes-Benz’ withdrawal from racing after the successful 1955 season that have drawn us to the museum.
This is a hall of immortals. The 1955 Mille Miglia-winning 300 SLR sports car “722” driven by Sir Stirling Moss with co-pilot Denis Jenkinson is sometimes described as the most important automobile in the world.
The 1952 Carrera Panamericana-winning 300 SL did much to establish Mercedes-Benz with post-war American buyers, and is the same design that won the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Tucked to the inside of the track are a pair of Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix cars driven by 1954-1955 World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio and Moss. The W196 Grand Prix car was designed to new rules for 2.5-liter cars beginning in 1954.
The W196 straight-eight GP engine was made up of two, 4-cylinder blocks with camshafts driven from the center. A revolutionary desmodromic valve train eliminated the need for valve springs and allowed for higher rpm.
Other features carried over from the 300 SL sports car into the W196 GP car were Bosch fuel injection and a space frame chassis design that provided both light weight and exceptional strength.
With typical thoroughness, Mercedes-Benz developed both open-wheel and fully enclosed streamlined versions of the W196 GP. The W196 was good for than 184 mph, or 300+ km/hr. The open wheel and streamlined variations were selected—like a tire choice—as each was best suited to a given GP course.
The W196 won five of seven races entered in the 1954 Grand Prix season, beginning at the French GP at Reims in July, and five of nine races in 1955.
Only a few meters behind are the pre-war W154, W125 and W25 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars of the 1930s—cars that gave rise to the name “Silver Arrows”. Earlier German race cars were painted nationalistic white, but the dominating GP cars of the mid- to late-1930s carried a simple silver finish. Apocryphally, the change was made to save the weight of the paint!
But the lasting change was to remake Grand Prix racing. With the direct support of the German government, Mercedes-Benz—and Auto Union—destroyed the competition and saw off venerable marques like Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Bugatti from GP racing. Streamlined versions of the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars were also used to set records on German autobahns.
Earlier racing cars include the 1924 Targa Floria-winning Mercedes driven by Christian Werner, examples of the 115 hp Mercedes that finished 1-2-3 in the 1914 French Grand Prix and the Mercedes 140 hp Grand Prix car developed by Paul Daimler that won the 1908 French Grand Prix.
The white 1909 Blitzen Benz—bullet-shaped at both ends—represents the six cars built with 21.5-liter, four-cylinder engines enlarged from Mercedes’ Grand Prix cars for the purpose of setting records. Frenchman Victor Hémery set a record of 126 mph (200+ km/hr) at the Brooklands track in England in 1909 with the first Blitzen Benz.
At least one of the Blitzen Benz also raced in America, where first Barney Oldfield (131.72 mph in 1910) and then Bob Burman (140.87 mph in 1911) set Land Speed Records at Ormond Beach in Florida.
One more surprise still waits as visitors complete a tour of the early racing cars on exhibit.
Before descending the escalator to the exit hall, the visitor suddenly comes face to face with the enormous, silver Mercedes-Benz T80 record car—a piece of Mercedes-Benz history most have never heard of, or knew existed.
Both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union set a series of speed records on German autobahns in the 1930s, while British and American teams took the Land Speed Record to 200 mph, 300 mph and nearly 400 mph with aero-engine specials at Daytona Beach and Bonneville in Utah.
The Mercedes-Benz T80 was the result of Grand Prix driver Hans Stuck’s desire to take the absolute Land Speed Record for Germany in a German-built car. The T80 was designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and utilized a Daimler-Benz DB 603 V-12 aircraft engine tuned for over 3,000 hp. The T80 is 27 feet long and weighs nearly three tons.
Any attempt on the record was prevented by the outbreak of WWII.
As one of the last objects seen as visitors depart from the modern museum, which opened in 2006, the sight of the T80 suspended from the wall is symbolic of Mercedes-Benz bold history.
Mercedes-Benz Museum Information
The Mercedes-Benz Museum is located on the campus of Daimler AG company headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The facility is open daily from Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm. Ticket prices are 8 Euros for adults and free for children under age 15. Parking facilities are provided in the museum’s car park, although visitors arriving via a classic car may park directly in front of the main entrance of the museum.
For additional information about the Mercedes-Benz Museum, visit Mercedes-Benz-Classic.com/Museum or call +49 (0)711 17 30 000.
[Source: Leigh Dorrington]
Another great Dorrington article!
I visited the Museum with my brother this past summer and it was outstanding. It is definitely worth an afternoon as it not only traces the history of Mercedes Benz, but it does a tremendous job of showing the impact of the automobile and motorized transport on the world over the past 125 years. Don’t miss it if you’re in Stuttgart!