What is it, exactly, that makes a Mercedes-Benz a Mercedes-Benz? The company did its very best to answer this question at its recent DNA Workshop this fall in Stuttgart, where a small group of journalists from a variety of publications were treated to three days of tours and lectures intended to lay bare every aspect of the company's German headquarters, and the company's design and manufacturing philosophies in general.

From the very beginning, this was a trip that felt more like a vacation than work. The evening of our arrival we toured and dined at the M-B museum, and learned a lot about the company's history. Mercedes-Benz actually began as two separate manufacturing companies, those of Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, who each invented the motor vehicle, independently of one another, in the late 1800s. The Mercedes brand name came from the young daughter of Austrian businessman Emil Jellinek, an early customer and promoter of Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG) who became instrumental in helping that company's product line evolve. The Mercedes-Benz brand as we know it today was formed after the First World War, when DMG and Benz & Cie. formed a syndicate to standardize design, production, sales and advertising in order to remain competitive in an unforgiving economic situation.

The Mercedes-Benz museum itself is located on the premises of the traditional DMG plant in Stuttgart-Untertukheim and has been attracting visitors since 1923. Exhibits include the very first motor-driven vehicles created by Benz and Daimler, a legendary Silver Arrow race car, the supercharged Mercedes 10/40/65 PS, a Mercedes firetruck, and one of the Pope's custom built Maybach limousines--or was it two? The extent and variety of the pristine, vintage vehicles is rather stupefying, but it was nothing compared to what was in store for our group the next day.

In the morning, we were greeted at our hotel by a fleet of 15 or so vintage concours-quality cars, which we actually got to drive through Stuttgart's morning rush hour traffic to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center on the other side of town. Founded in 1993, the Center is the authoritative source for all things pertinent to restoring and maintaining classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles. It's the place you want to take your vintage Benz for restoration or service, or to get information on any aspect of your car taken from a massive database about a hundred years in the making. Services also include the refurbishment and restoration of engines, transmissions, axles, steering systems and other assemblies not readily available to the average enthusiast. The Classic Center works closely with the Mercedes-Benz archive to ensure an end product as close as possible to its original state.

After we toured the Classic Center proper, we walked out the back into a wide alley lined by nondescript brick warehouses. Most were completely unmarked. Our guides took us into two of them. One was completely full of perfectly restored vintage vehicles of the same quality as those in the museum, and the other was full of race cars. If the museum was impressive, the array displayed in these "secret halls" was absolutely mind-blowing. We walked the length of each, stopping periodically when one of our guides would pull back a black cover to reveal some perfectly preserved, secreted-away example of automotive splendor. It was truly a unique experience, almost voyeuristic, and one I don't necessarily expect to repeat in this lifetime.

Later in the day we stopped at Gottlieb Daimler's early workshop in Cannstatt before continuing on to the Mercedes-Benz Customer Center for a production briefing. After being lectured on the company's upcoming model lineup and new technologies soon to be implemented as standard features on all Mercedes-Benz models, we were taken inside the production facilities for an up close look at how the cars are actually assembled.

Despite our opportunity the first day to look up Mercedes' skirt, as it were, and despite the dumbfounding experience of walking through of a fully functioning automobile factory, our final day in Germany was undoubtedly the most fun. After a briefing on brand design and technology at the Design Center in Sindelfingen, and the rare chance to have our pictures taken sitting inside the Mercedes-Benz SLR supercar, we were thrown the keys to a fleet of brand new 2004 vehicles, including two SLs, an S Class, a couple CLKs, and a diesel-powered E Class.

We spent the better part of the day zipping around the German countryside and terrorizing local autobahn traffic, then converged on Mercedes' test area at Malmsheim airfield for some hands-on demonstrations of some of the company's latest technological innovations. Two of the systems demonstrated were the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Active Body Control (ABC)--both standard equipment on all Mercedes models since 1999--which work together to keep the vehicle stable and actively offset any ham-fisted maneuvers perpetrated by the driver. These systems were demonstrated on both a slalom course and by driving over a wet, low-friction surface intended to simulate an icy road. On the latter test, we drove over the slippery surface with the systems disabled, promptly spun the car out of control (even at 40 km/h), then tried again with the systems activated. The difference was quite astonishing, as not one of us lost control of the car with the stabilization programs in effect.

The third system demonstrated is a relatively new technology, a pre-emptive safety system--fittingly called PRE-SAFE--that actively prepares the car's occupants if it senses an impending crash. This is done by closing any open windows or sunroof, repositioning the front and rear seats for optimum safety, and aggressively pre-tensioning the safety belts. The PRE-SAFE system was first introduced last year in the S-Class, and like ESP and ABC it will soon be implemented as standard equipment on all Mercedes-Benz models, from the C-Coupe to the SLR.

So, what is it exactly that makes a Mercedes-Benz a Mercedes-Benz? As we learned from our three days in Stuttgart, it isn't any one thing in particular. There is a lot of history here, more than most would dream, encompassing a long heritage of technological innovation. When you've been building cars this long and are as committed to product quality as Mercedes is, you have a lot of time to refine and improve your offerings. I can honestly say I was heartily impressed with the program the company put together for us, and have gained an appreciation for the brand I had heretofore not felt. Not only was the trip unequivocally informative, it was a lot of fun too--easily the most fun I've had in the last twelve months. It was definitely not your average press trip. Then again, as we've learned, Mercedes-Benz is definitely not your average carmaker.

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