The Mercedes-Benz Museum is a Quick Trip Through Their History
Photography by Andrey Smazhilo
Class. No matter which modern Mercedes-Benz car you choose, class comes standard. And there is a certain reason why: for many years now, all of the German marque’s cars have been built with an extreme level of attention and thoroughness, which has also affected the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
One of the people responsible for us driving cars today is Karl Benz, a German engineer, who was supposedly sick and tired of observing horse muscles work in front of him while riding in a carriage. Additionally, a coachman was necessary to handle the reins, so Mr. Benz decided to construct a vehicle that was self-powered and could also be controlled by anyone. He built his first motorwagen in 1886. It was a three-wheeler powered by a single-cylinder 954cc four-stroke engine that produced less than one horsepower, but thanks to its low weight of about one hundred kilograms, this first car was able to travel up to ten miles per hour.
Since then, the company has always pursued new technologies, and if anyone thought that Porsche or Subaru were first to use a flat engine, well, you’re wrong. Mr. Benz patented the contramotor, as he named it, approximately a decade after he built his first car, in 1897. A couple years later, this engine went into production in a Dos-à-Dos model, producing five horsepower at 940 rpm, which seems funny today but was a lot at the time given the engineering.
Prior to their merger, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) had to switch to production of typewriters, and Benz & Cie. started making bicycles instead of marine and aero engines (due to Germany’s armistice agreement). But World War I had a profound effect on all of Germany, and Benz & Cie. and DMG eventually merged into Daimler-Benz AG. From 1924 to 1926, Benz managed to produce approximately 25,000 bicycles just before merging with DMG.
The late ‘20s and early ‘30s were somewhat special all around the globe. Initially, it was an era of excess, and even today the scarlet-red Mercedes-Benz 500K Special Roadster seems a little bit too bright. Only twenty-nine of them were made, and each one was exclusive and individually bodied. It was a car for the wealthiest and most powerful people of the era. Those who preferred being driven by a chauffeur could choose the Mercedes-Benz 770K. Hence, no matter if you preferred to drive the car yourself or be chauffeured, you, and your Mercedes-Benz, would stand out in a crowd. They were among the most expensive and most technologically advanced cars of their age.
Speaking of technology, Mercedes-Benz’s development can hardly be imagined without motor racing. There is an unsubstantiated legend about how the ‘Silver Arrows’ got their name. For a very long time the German national racing colour was white. But allegedly, during the 1934 Grand Prix season, Mercedes-Benz entered a car that weighed 751 kg, a paltry kilogram more than permitted by the regulations! Thus, the mechanics sanded down the paintwork, reducing weight and exposing the bare, silver shining aluminium body. The W25 was permitted to race and later picked up the Silver Arrow nickname.
Whether it’s true or not (it doesn’t seem to be), Rudolf Caracciola won the 1935, ‘36, and ‘38 Grand Prix seasons, driving a Silver Arrow. After WWII, Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1954 and 1955 Formula One championships driving a silver Mercedes-Benz W196 and Sir Stirling Moss took a win at the 1955 Mille Miglia rally in the famed #722 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.
The 300 SLR is notable for another reason too. A hardtop version was designed to compete in the 1956 racing season but unfortunately, the car never raced because Daimler-Benz ended racing activities at the end of ‘55 season. Would you like one as your company car? For this, you should have been Rudolf Uhlenhaut, head of the company’s Test Department, who drove this car on a daily basis as a test bed for new technology.
Another gorgeous example of German engineering is the Mercedes-Benz 230SL, nicknamed ‘pagoda’ for its concave hardtop. This was the among the first of the ‘luxurious’ Mercedes. While there were performance variants, it was more about arriving in elegance than arriving as quickly as possible. Classy? But of course.