The Mercedes Benz Museum

The development of functional, motorised transportation in the late 19th century lay in the hands of a triumvirate of visionary tinkerers funded by well-to-do industrialists and the occasional dowery. Listed according to their birth years, we have:

  • Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler, formerly Däumler, automotive engineer, 17 March 1834 – 6 March 1900
  • Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant, later Carl Benz, automotive engineer, 25 November 1844 – 4 April 1929
  • Wilhelm Maybach, industrial designer, 9 February 1846 – 29. December 1929

Daimler and Maybach, lifelong collaborators, advanced the development of the 1864 Otto internal combustion engine with the goal to build small, high speed engines for the transport of people and goods on land, water, and in the air. Parallel to their efforts, Carl Benz also worked on gasoline powered vehicles. His Benz Patent Motorcar of 1887 was the first automobile put into serial production. His wife Berta Benz née Ringer contributed actively to the design and functionality of his automobile through long-distance field testing, fuel line design, wire insulation, leather brake pads, and more. Berta also provided some of the early financing for the automotive endeavours of her then fiancé.

In 1926 Benz & Cie. and DMG (Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft) merged forming the Daimler-Benz AG.

Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz never spoke to each other.

Very few speak of Berta.

On our second day vacationing in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, we visited the second major automotive campus this historical city has to offer. Our approach to the Mercedes Museum was a little more convoluted than that to the Porsche Museum, but it included the bonus of a nice little sight-seeing tour by city bus through Bad Cannstatt, an important suburb of Stuttgart.

Looking back into the reception area with ticket sales & health pass check point, plus cloakrooms & lockers

Owing to covid-19 related health regulation, one could only do self-guided tours of the museum proper. The factory and workshop areas were off limit and none of the interesting special tours previously offered were available. Pity!

A view over a part of the vast Mercedes campus. Circles everywhere, inside and outside.

Past the reception desk, the multi-story atrium boggled the mind and it took some effort to overcome the initial disorientation. Three elevator pods raced between ground floor and top gallery, while images and slogans were flashed on gigantic concrete panels.

To reach an elevator pod, one had to pass through a further check point with a turnstile that was activated by a barcode on one’s ticket.

Up, up, and away …

… to be greeted by a horse?

Working in secret in Gottlieb Daimler’s greenhouse extension in Bad Cannstatt, the Daimler-Maybach-Duo introduced the world’s first motorcycle with a gasoline powered engine to the public.

1885 Daimler Reitwagen (riding car, replica). It deployed the so-called Daimler/Maybach “Grandfather Clock Engine”. Maybach, I read, used to ride it along the bank of the river Neckar from Bad Cannstatt to Untertürkheim.

But the 1886 three-wheel Benz Patentmotorwagen took pride of place in the museum!

Here’s the story of the world’s first automobile: Benz Patent Motor Car.

Gottlieb Daimler, on the other hand, focused for some time more strongly on boat engines. One of which propelled “Marie” the pleasure boat of Reichskanzler Otto Fürst von Bismarck, the German chancellor under sceptical horse-lover Wilhelm, who promptly fired the powerful “Iron-Chancellor” of his grandfather’s era.

Could a truck be far behind? The brewers loved this new convenience!

Let’s have a closer look at these beautiful early engines.

1889 Daimler V2, 1.5 PS, 565 ccm displacement
1894 Daimler 5 PS, 4-cylinder engine, 1728 ccm displacement – there was also a larger 12 PS version. Both were used in powerboats. 4-cylinder engine weren’t installed in road vehicle till around 1898.
1899 Benz 5 PS, 2-Cylinder, 1728 ccm, “Contramotor” with horizontally opposed pistons

Walking from the “Pioneers” level to the “Birth of the Brand” level, we encountered the lovely Maybach designed 1902 Mercedes-Simplex, the oldest Merc in existence today. With its 40 PS and a displacement of 6785 ccm, it could achieve an amazing 80 Km/h or 50 mph. The name Simplex referred to the ease of handling of this touring car.

Around the time of Gottlieb Daimler’s death, enormous concept changes in automotive design altered the industry forever. In the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft these changes were initiated by entrepreneur and honorary diplomat Emil Jellinek who wanted cars, he stated, not for today or tomorrow, but for the day after tomorrow.

Jellinek wasn’t only a passionate car and racing enthusiast, he also owned the most successful DMG agency in Europe. He sold so many Daimler cars that he got away with badgering the DMG engineers relentlessly regarding their designs. He felt that motor cars should no longer look like horseless stagecoaches that tipped over at the slightest provocation. Instead they should be purpose build for speed. Maybach implemented Jellinek’s ideas by extending the wheelbase and welding the engine directly on the pressed steel frame over the front axle to achieve a lower centre of gravity and a lighter car overall. The result was the 1901 Mercedes 35 PS, the first modern car, and the first ever “Mercedes”. It was named after Jellinek’s eldest daughter who he had nicknamed Mercédès and considered a good luck charme. The Mercedes 35 PS and the even further improved Mercedes Simplex released in 1902 were an instant success and became the foundation of Daimler’s enormously popular lines of luxury road automobiles and winning race cars, thus kicking-off the “era of Mercedes” according to the then chairman of the French automobile club Paul Meyan. DMG patented the Mercedes name in 1902 and papa Jellinek, believe it or not, changed his name legally to Emil Jellinek-Mercedes in 1903. The first time, he joked, that a father was named after his daughter.

1928 Mercedes-Benz Type SSK (Super-Sport-Kurz, super sport short) sport-2-seater, 170 PS w/o compressor, 225 PS with compressor, 7065 ccm. It was was based on the earlier Type S car. Only 35 SSKs were ever built. This type S short version was specifically developed for mountain races to be more agile around narrow hairpin curves. It became tremendously popular and reenforced the increasing fame of the MB brand.
1937 Mercedes-Benz 540 K Cabriolet B, 8-cylinder, 5401 ccm, 180 PS, 419 cars were built
An understated ad campaign for a car show in London 😉
1939 Mercedes-Benz 320 Stromlinien-Limousine (streamlined sedan), 6-cylinders, 78 PS, 3405 ccm, 5097 cars were built between 1937 – 1942. The 320 sedan became a favourite of the (party) elite in which to cruise the Autobahnen in style and comfort.
1950 (also my birth year) Mercedes-Benz 170 S Cabriolet A, outfitted with a 4-cylinder side-valve engine with 52 PS & 1767 ccm displacement – photo credit Elisabeth von Buchwaldt

No, the museum did not move their exhibits outdoors! This is us, in June of 2014 in Hamburg, sitting in Achaz von Buchwaldt’s gorgeous Mercedes-Benz during a family visit. Their lovely 170 S original was based on a 1932 design by the Daimler-Benz AG’s Chief Engineer Dr. h.c. Hans Nibel who was not only responsible for the elegant lines and technical advancements of this particular Mercedes ikon, but he also designed the 1909 “Blitzen-Benz”, the 1930 “Grand Mercedes” Typ 770, and the 1934 “Silver Arrow” W 25 among many others. In the museum we found a slightly later version, although in a somewhat unfortunate livery and with a less smooth and pleasing front fender curvature.

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 S Cabriolet A, 6-cylinders, 2996 ccm, built from 1951 – 1955

Since we just mentioned something called a lightning (fast) Benz, we better focus on speed. First in line has to be the racer you see below. In 1911 it set a 142 mph/228 Km/h speed record on the Daytona sand track, which broke not only the land speed record, but was also faster than any train or aircraft of its time! This lighting fast racing car built by Benz & Cie. was driven by the American racer Bob Burman, whose record wasn’t broken till 1919. Burman took his Blitzen-Benz also to the inaugural Indy 500 in 1911, where he finished in 19th position. Racing in a Peugeot, Burman was killed five years later in Corona, CA, during a horrific accident that also killed his riding mechanic, as well as several civilians. His death was the impetus for his friend and racing competitor Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield and the race car designer Harold Arminius “Harry” Miller to create the Golden Submarine, a race car with an aluminium roll cage fully enclosing the driver.

1909 Benz “Blitzen-Benz” (Lightning-Benz) racing car, 4-cylinders, 21 504 ccm ! displacement, 200 PS, 142 mph

Chronologically, the next racing car that would eventually become a household name was the W 25, the first “Silberpfeil” or silver arrow. I suppose it was Nibel’s last design, as his life was cut short through a fatal heart attacking in November of 1934 when he was about to board a train at the Stuttgart main station to travel to Berlin.

1934 Mercedes-Benz 750-Kg-Rennwagen (racing car) W 25, 8-cylinders, 3365 ccm, 354 PS, 175 mph/280 Km/h

Would you like to know, why these racing cars have been called Silberpfeile, silver arrows, ever since a fateful race in 1934? Well, when the very first Mercedes-Benz W 25, ever so pretty in its white livery, arrived at the Nürburgring for its very first race in the 750 Kg formula, it was found to be too heavy. The mechanics then spent all night to sand it down to the shiny, silver metallic bare bones of the body, barely making the weight requirement – and going on to win the race! This first W 25 silver arrow was piloted by Rudolf Caracciola, Germany’s most successful formula racer of the 1930s.

We saw two further iconic Mercedes-Benz racing cars at the museum, one actual race car and one racing sports car, both from the mid-50s.

1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Rennsportwagen (racing sports car, original, first one off the line) on its personal flatbed transporter. 8-cylinders, 302 PS, 2982 ccm. Pilots for the Swedish GP: Juan Manuel Fangio & Sterling Moss

Another 1955 Mercedes-Benz wasn’t a racing sports car like the above 300 SRL, rather it was a streamlined formula racing car, the W 196 R below, sporting very pleasing curves. Mercedes-Benz used it in the F1 GP circus. It was quite fast and presented its most famous pilot, the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio, yeah, him again, with two of his five world championships.

1955 Mercedes-Benz 2.5-l-Stromlinienrennwagen W 196 R, 8-cylinders, 290 PS, 2497 ccm, top speed 190 mph/305 Km/h

From the 1950s we moved on to more current F1 race cars.

1999 F1 West McLaren-Mercedes MP4/14, delicately sectioned to allow views of its innards.
Design: Adrian Newey, Pilot: world champion Mika Häkkinen
Precious carbon fiber

Actually, I was quite disappointed with the presentation of the modern race cars. The “banked curve” display was a cute idea but it crowded the cars and made it impossible to get close enough to study details.

Before visiting the gift shop (where I bought a snazzy flat cap in brown tweed. That type of cap is called Schiebermütze in German which sounds so much more dangerous in a glamorous sort of a way, don’t you think?) let’s have one more glance back to the early days of racing. In a display case we saw the sturdy sheepskin coat/cape that private racer Wilhelm Merck** used to wear.

Gorgeous victory cup in pure Jugendstil (art nouveau) design. It was presented to Otto Salzer for his win of the 1908 Semmering race. Salzer was a very successful factory racing driver for DMG and an engineering team leader.

** Selecting photos for this post, I became aware of the name Wilhelm Merck as a racing sports car driver in the 1920s. Curious to find out if he was one of “the” Mercks of pharmaceutical fame, I googled his name and found more than I expected. Namely Ernes Merck, who was literarily the poster child of the motor racing world in the roaring twenties.

Ernestina “Ernes” Merck née Ernestina Rogalla von Biberstein (1898 – 1927) was a racing sports car driver for Daimler. She was introduced to the world of automobiles through her husband, Wilhelm Merck, who sat on the board of Daimler-Benz AG and was a private or amateur race driver. Ernes was a natural talent, soon surpassing many of her male colleagues. In 1927 she finished the daunting and revered Swiss Klausen Pass Race, the most difficult hill climb in the world at the time, in 3rd place behind Caracciola and Hürlimann. She was the celebrity athlete and it-girl of her time, but shortly after giving birth to their son Peter, Ernes took her own life. I can’t help but suspect post-partem depression. The hugely successful Mercedes-Benz ad campaign based on a poster by painter Edward Cucuel shows (allegedly) a likeness of Ernes that Cucuel had painted earlier, “The Lady in Red”.

I found this image; photo credit not given. Description: Sporting elegance: The “Lady in Red” by Offelsmeyer Cucuel for Mercedes-Benz, created and published in 1928, is one of the most striking advertising motifs of the 1920s

WOMEN and MOTOR RACING is the title of one of the special tours currently not available. I found this article on the Mercedes website.

Another (partial) article is from the Luzerner Zeitung, 29.08.21 – excerpt from an article by Bruno Arnold, my translation. He doesn’t mention Ernes Merck, but explains how difficult a race the Klausenrennen was.

“Das Klausenrennen – The myth lives on virtually
Anyone who wants to thunder from Linthal to Klausen Pass in racing cars like those used by Caracciola, Stuck, Nuvolari and Co. can do so, exactly 100 years after the inauguration race – but only in the simulator.

The Klausen race, which was held ten times between 1922 and 1934, was by far the most famous and the toughest hill climb of its time. No other occasion fascinated spectators and racing drivers alike as much as this meeting of the contemporary racing giants on the 21.5 kilometer route between Linthal and the top of the pass.

With his Mercedes W 25 Rudolf Caracciola set an unbelievable record time in the last edition of the Klausenrennen in 1934 on the mostly unpaved road of gravel and cobblestones: the most successful driver in Europe at the time needed just 15 minutes and 22 seconds to climb 1237 meters and negotiate 136 hairpin bends.”

My husband contributed his US perspective about these early hill races by giving me data on the Pikes Peak Race in comparison to the Klausen race over a matching time period. The race length, road surface conditions, number of turns and elevation were very similar. Just like Rudolf Caracciola is intimately connected with the Klausenrennen, so does Louis Unser, patriarch of the Unser family of famous racers, own the Pikes Peak Race. Same sport, same era, different continent!

It was time to leave those fascinating cars and their stories behind.

Leaving the Mercedes-Benz Welt

The Mercedes-Benz Welt is the terminus for bus line #56. As we left the museum a bus was already parked at the stop, waiting for its scheduled departure time. As we waited with him, we discussed our dinner option. The driver asked if he might make a suggestion? He knew of a very good traditional Schwabian restaurant in old town Bad Cannstatt that was easy to find – he just didn’t remember its name. So he told us where to go and we found the “Restaurant zur Schreinerei” without much difficulty. They welcomed us graciously even without a reservation and we settled happily in their charming, wood-panelled Nebenzimmer (spare room). Their traditional dishes were delicious and we enjoyed very minute. Thank you, kind mister bus driver!!

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