Inventors, men with a vision seldom look backwards. They live for today and for what they can achieve tomorrow. They make new cars to show off their ideas and ingenuity, and they will tell you that their best car is the one still on the drawing board.
Unlike most carmakers which eagerly put their names on their vehicles, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler named their cars "Mercedes" after the daughter of their best customer, Emil Jellinek. When the first of these Mercedes cars was raced at the end of the 19th century, Benz and Daimler were only interested in improving their cars and winning races. It probably never occurred to them that by parenting the world's greatest car company, they were driving into history.
Karl Benz founded Benz & Cie. in Mannheim in October 1883, and Gottlieb Daimler founded his firm, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Cannstatt in November 1890. The first 35hp Mercedes racing car was delivered to Jellinek on December 22, 1900, having been developed by DMG chief engineer, Wilhelm Maybach, who went on to found his own company. Eventually, Daimler and Benz who had been jointly marketing their cars, decided to formerly join forces.
Daimler-Benz AG was formed in June 1926, and since then the company has produced scores of different cars as well as vans, trucks, buses and special vehicles. While VW's Beetle and Golf cars may outnumber Daimler-Benz for the ultimate number of passenger cars produced, the Stuttgart company beats the Wolfsburger, and in fact any other car company, hands down for the length of its history. And only Ferrari, a comparative youngster, can match Daimler-Benz for the richness of its model range over the years.
Much credit is due to successive management boards at Daimler-Benz AG (now DaimlerChrysler AG) for their foresight in preserving and promoting the Mercedes-Benz brand through its heritage. The Mercedes-Benz Museum on the grounds of the Unterturkheim works, was a big investment that opened in 1986, and now an all-new, substantially larger museum is on the cards.
Unlike some brands, DaimlerChrysler AG believes in helping owners keep their classic cars alive and well. Thus, a program of full support, both from the factory and through the worldwide dealer network, is an important part of ongoing customer service. A new headlamp for a 1959 Mercedes 180, for instance, is still an off-the-shelf component and can be ordered through your local Mercedes-Benz dealer no matter where you live.
Central to this heritage-driven corporate strategy is the Classic Center in Fellbach, a suburb of Stuttgart, about 15 minutes drive from Unterturkheim. A large but unassuming building along semi-industrial Stuttgarter Strasse, the Classic Center is an oasis of historical knowledge and engineering skills largely forgotten in today's age of disposable and re- cyclable manufactured goods.
The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center was established in May 1993 and celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. "In the beginning, the Center's remit was simply to restore classic and historic Mercedes cars," explained Dr. Josef Ernst, Classic's PR Manager. "In that respect, we were competing with some well-known Mercedes restoration firms run by ex-factory personnel. But as things progressed, we found that when it came to very rare models, we had the advantage of total access to original drawings, and sometimes even the people who worked on a particular car when it was new.
"Being part of Mercedes-Benz, the Classic Center also has all the current resources of the factory development and testing departments at its disposal, and we can also call on the Research Department at Ulm," Dr. Ernst explained. "We have learned that the state-of-the-art metallurgy and laser measuring equipment used by the new car development department is invaluable to us when we are doing a critical restoration or re-manufacturing original parts. The business of restoring and maintaining classic cars has become a synergy between high-tech and originality."
Another unexpected spin-off from this link with the new car and racing departments is that testing of rebuilt classic motors is done alongside the current Formula One engines at Unterturkheim.
In the course of restoring an old car, it would not be unusual for most specialist companies to use modern equivalents of materials, which are hard to find today. "We go out of our way to use the original materials wherever possible," Dr. Ernst explained. "If that means finding someone who can work with that material, then that is what we will do, because authenticity is important."
Of course, there are instances where that is not always possible. While we were in the sales section of the Center, we noticed a 1959 Mercedes 190SL, the property of a Japanese customer, which looked just like the classic 190SLS racer. Apparently, there was a factory kit you could buy to turn the 190SL into the SLS version for racing. This contained parts like lightweight aluminum doors with no interior trim panels, an engine conversion that took output up to 190 bhp, a fly windscreen and so on. This particular car had all of that, albeit with just 170 bhp for reliability. The only non-original addition is the pair of new-look chromed roll-over hoops, fitted recently to meet current historic racing regulations. If originality is an issue, the question is how much you can restore a fire- or accident-damaged vehicle before it is no longer the original car? Recently, the burned-out wreck of a valuable lightweight Le Mans 300SL was returned to the Classic Center for rebuilding, and the space-frame chassis was tested and found to be too weak to be re-used.
The technicians found a manufacturer which makes the correct size and type of alloy tubing for the historic aircraft industry and have now made a dimensionally perfect new chassis thanks to computer-aided measurement methods. A new alloy body will be crafted for this car, again with the aid of modern technology, but the question for some purists would be whether or not the rejuvenated car can still legitimately bear the original chassis number?
This is a sticky issue for some and not for others. After all, in their heyday many racing cars were repaired after accidents on the track and rebuilt after fires. Some would have had engines replaced when the original motors blew up in a race or in testing, so under those circumstances, a car would already not have been strictly "original," even when new. On that basis, you can argue that a car rebuilt by the factory because of an accident or fire is still original, because there was a good reason for the work carried out. As the years go by, this legitimate repair work becomes part of the rich tapestry of history behind the car.
In this and many respects, the Classic Center is a fountain of knowledge for Mercedes enthusiasts, but the company now has to think far ahead, as the one scarce resource is the personnel who carry that knowledge around in their heads. We know from experience with several makes of car that the best workshop manual in the world cannot tell you all the tricks, shortcuts and specialist advice that comes from working on a particular car for years. Also, you cannot ask someone to write down everything he knows. The human memory often only dispenses an answer in response to a specific question, and you need to know the right questions to ask to get the full benefit of someone's experience.
Finding young people interested enough in old cars to pick up the baton and run with it as the next generation of classic vehicle technicians is not an easy task. This is because, unlike in most other technical jobs, the mechanics at the Classic Center have to be far more than just mechanics.
They travel with the cars they tend, demonstrating them, repairing them and maintaining them. More than that, they also have to do the job of public relations for both the cars and the company. In short, like the current generation of racing drivers, they have to be good all-arounders. Such people do not grow on trees, so if you think you might be the right person, do not hesitate to apply for the job. And not being fluent in German is not an issue. During our visit, we met a young American technician who is being groomed as a future candidate to fill such a post.
The commitment that DaimlerChrysler has made worldwide to its heritage is absolute, and the company is now in the process of establishing an infrastructure in the U.S. to support older Mercedes cars in an even more comprehensive fashion.