A History of Mercedes
When Daimler revealed the original Mercedes model in 1901, it caused a sensation and
set new world standards in motorcar design. In engineering terms, it was the best car in
the world. Ninety years later, the most modern Mercedes-Benz models are the S-class
sedans and the SL-class coupes; they, too, are cars, which the competition is struggling to
The significance of Mercedes and Mercedes-Benz models is that they have always been
as good as this. At regular intervals, new racing or passenger cars have appeared which
astonished the world. In 1914, it was the 274.6 cu in (4.5 liter) Grand Prix car, in the
1920s, it was the Porsche-designed super-charged sports cars, while in the 1930s, there
was the dominance of Grand Prix racing by the W25, W125 and W154 “Silver Arrows.”
After the Second World War cam the futuristic 300SL “gull-wing” coupes, the
phenomenal W196 and 300SLR competition cars and the mid-engineered Type C111
Wankel-engined prototypes. In and around all this was the succession of fine sedans,
trucks, buses and aerospace products, all built to the same standards and all enormously
successful all over the world.
More than anything else, the products have been remarkably consistent. I doubt if there
has ever been a bad Mercedes or Mercedes-Benz product – and most have been truly
outstanding. The three-pointed star trademark is one of the most famous and instantly
recognizable of the 20th century.
The story of Mercedes, however, does not begin in 1901, but in 1886, when Gottlieb
Daimler built his first ever four-wheeler motorcar at Cannstatt, in Germany. By 1890, the
Daimler-Motoren-Cesellschaft had been formed and Daimler cars were being sold.
Before this, however, the world’s first practical gasoline-powered machine – a tricycle –
had been built by Carl Benz at Mannheim, also in Germany, and for the rest of the 19th
century, these two pioneers were direct rivals.
Gottlieb Daimler died in 1900. A wealthy Austrian businessman, Emil Jellinek,
persuaded his successor, Wilhelm Maybach, to design an entirely new type of car on
more advanced lines. The new car was to be ready for the Nice Speed Week of 1901.
Jellinek would take delivery of the entire first production run and he would also choose
its name. Emil Jellinek was the fond father of a beautiful daughter. Her name, and that of
the new car, was Mercedes.
The brand-new four-cylinder Mercedes swept the board at Nice. It was faster, lower, and
more flexible and had better handling than any of its rivals – almost overnight it made all
existing designs obsolete. In a couple of years, there were no more Daimlers as all the
company cars were called Mercedes, and only a disastrous factory fire in 1903 could halt
their progress. After a move of only a few miles, from Cannstatt to Unterturkheim, in
Stuttgart, the advance continued.
Benz, in the meantime, was struggling, with outdated designs and a stubborn founder. It
was not until the end of the 1900s that the balance was restored. From then until the mid-
1920s, the Mercedes and Benz marquees fought bitterly for German (and European)
Both firms sold wide ranges of well-engineered and expensive cars, and eventually both
found that the best form of advertising was success in motor sport. Before the outbreak of
the First World War, Mercedes cars won the Grand Prix twice – in 1908 and 1914 –
while Benz produced the 200 hp “Blitzen” car, which took and held the World’s Land
Until the 1920s the rivalry continued with Daimler and Benz facing each other in
motorcar, commercial vehicle and aero-engine design. Daimler was based at Stuttgart and
Benz at Mannheim. Both wanted to win the long-term battle for supremacy. It was
Germany’s runaway inflationary period of the early 1920s, however, that changed
everything. Faced with imminent economic ruin, Daimler and Benz agreed in 1924 to
cooperate in certain respects. In 1926, they merged completely, giving birth to the
Daimler-Benz concern, and the Mercedes-Benz marquee.
In the meantime, Mercedes had started supercharging its cars, and Dr. Ferdinand Porsche
had joined the company to design a series of new models. For the next few years, there
were some worthy but ordinary touring cars in production – some Daimler and some
Benz inspired – however, it was the “blown” K, S, SS, SSK and SSKL models that really
made the headlines. Once again the three-pointed star was back in racing prominence,
this time with the famous combination of an overhead camshaft engine and a
supercharger, which could be clutched into or out of operation at the whim of the driver.
In the 1930s, though, Daimler-Benz not only went from success to success on the
racetracks, but it brought in a series of technically advanced production cars. Between
1934 and 1939, of course, there was the magnificent period in which Mercedes-Benz
(and Auto-Union) cars took complete control of Grand Prix racing. Between 1934 and
1937, the Grand Prix cars had supercharged straight-eight engines, the last of all being
408.8 cu in (6.7 liter) monsters with up to 646 bhp, while the 1938-1939 cars had V12s of
up to 485 bhp. Because of their bodywork, they were known as the “Silver Arrows,” and
they made a mockery of all the regulations hopefully devised to limit speeds and power
At the same time, the group’s passenger cars were transformed. On the one hand,
Daimler-Benz went purposely “down market,” so that it could sell many more cars, and
on the other hand, revolutionized the engineering used. Out went the heavy, high, crude
old models, and in came small, light, low and technically advanced machines. Daimler-
Benz was among the first to adopt all-independent suspension, to produce rear-engined
sedans, and even found time to sell a few mid-engined sports cars (the 150H models).
At the same time, there were the 370K/500K/540K sports tourers, with supercharged
eight-cylinder engines and 100 mph (160 km/h) performance, and even more enormous
and exclusive – the Type 770 “Grosser” limousines and cabriolets, which no ordinary
individual could possibly afford.
Then came the Second World War, and because Daimler-Benz built thousands of superb
inverted V12 aero-engines, its factories were prime targets for bombing. By 1945,
destruction was almost total. However, it was something of a miracle that rebuilding was
so complete and so successful by the early 1950s.
Once back on its feet, commercially and economically, Daimler-Benz carried on where it
had left off. It began the 1950s by introducing the new 300 series, a splendid “flagship”
which carried on for some years, followed it up by the advanced racing “space-frame”
300SL coupe, which introduced “gull-wing” doors to a startled world, and confirmed its
return to technical preeminence in 1954-1955 with the sensational and almost entirely
successful W196 Grand Prix cars and 300SLR racing sports cars, which shared the same
basic design. At the end of 1955, however, Daimler-Benz withdrew from racing, and has
never returned to it.
Since then, of course, Daimler-Benz has concentrated on making more, better and
increasingly supreme passenger cars, trucks and public service vehicles. Having
introduced its first pressed-steel unit-construction body shell in the mid-1950s, it refined
and improved the design, the styling and the detail, with every model change.
There were new overhead camshaft engines, redesigned swing-axle rear suspensions, fuel
injection, and many other features in the 1950s. Prestigious and sumptuously trimmed
cars like the 220SE coupes kept one sector of the market happy, while the “pagoda-roof”
230SL/250SL/280SL sports car took over for the 300SLs with great aplomb in the 1960s.
In that decade, not only was the original “S-class” range of models introduced, but also
from 1963, there was the gargantuan and enormously sophisticated Type 600 Limousine
and Pullman model. To bridge a marketing gap and to extend sales possibilities even
further, a new medium-capacity V8 engine came along in 1969, while a silky new twin-
overhead camshaft six-cylinder engine followed it a few years later.
Just in case the new Wankel rotary concept became viable and fashionable, Daimler-
Benz carried out a development program. All that we saw of this was the mid-engined
C111 research model, which proved not only that Daimler-Benz’s three or even four-
rotor Wankels were the best in the world, but that its 1969 chassis designs were the equal
of any currently to be found on race tracks.
Whereas the 1960s saw a huge proliferation in terms of models and body styles, the
1970s were dominated by considerations of vehicle safety, of fuel economy and of
keeping abreast of world market legislation. The Daimler-Benz range is noted for its
incredibly safe and sure-footed behavior, rather than for ultimate performance. Also, the
company found time to start selling station wagons (the T-Wagens) for the first time, to
develop the G-Wagen cross-country vehicle, and to announce that it would be selling a
much smaller and more fuel-efficient range of cars.
Performance may have had to give way to safety and environmental considerations, but
that has not meant the arrival of dull Mercedes-Benz products. There is nothing remotely
ordinary, for instance, about a 500SEL S-class sedan with its smoothly profiled and
spacious body style allied to a 130 mph (208 km/h) top speed, and there are few sights
more impressive in the roughest rallies in the world than that of a V8 engined lightweight
500 SLC coupe battling away with the best rally cars in the world.
In general terms, I am now convinced that Daimler-Benz can make the best cars in the
world, just as Daimler did in 1901, and I have no doubt that in the 21st century, it will
continue to do the same.