It is one of the most recognized trademarks in the entire automotive universe, the three-pointed star of Mercedes-Benz. For almost 100 years, it has graced the hoods of some of the most significant vehicles of all time, including such legendary machines as the classic SSK, the race- and road-going Gullwings and most recently the McLaren SLR.
But what of its origins? What is the importance of its three points? It's actually quite simple, as the original three-pointed star was designed by Gottlieb Daimler to show the suitability of his engines on land, over the seas, and in the air. The first time the three-pointed star appeared on a Daimler vehicle was in 1909. In 1926, the Benz laurel was added to symbolize the union of the two firms. But by 1937, the laurel was gone and the three-pointed star graced the hoods of successive cars unadorned.
It was in this period that the Third Reich supported some of the greatest racecars of all time, the legendary Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows driven by the likes of Manfred von Brauchitsch, Rudolf Caracciola, Bernd Rosemeyer and Hermann Lang. They, along with Auto Union, simply dominated motorsport before World War II in much the same way as Ferrari had done in Formula One until recently. In the post-war era, Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, and John Fitch again returned the three-pointed star to motor sports prominence, especially at Le Mans.
With the Third Reich building up Hitler's Luftwaffe in the '30s, Daimler-Benz engines played an important part in advancing the aviation state of the art, especially in the form of the 1850-hp DB 605 inverted V12 engine, which powered the Messerschmitt ME-109, the first production models of which appeared in 1936. At its introduction, it was the world's premiere pursuit aircraft, not to be eclipsed until more than five years later by the P-51 Mustang.
In the aftermath of World War II, most Mercedes-Benz production facilities were in ruins, but production resumed with much vigor in those dark days and Mercedes-Benz was an integral part of West Germany's post-war economic miracle. In fact, the recovery of Mercedes-Benz was so rapid that it was able to return to racing, which led to the period where silver Mercedes SL (for super light) racers dominated all forms of racing in motorsport's second golden age.
What is not known by many enthusiasts of the brand is that while the cars of Mercedes-Benz had already re-established its reputation for engineering excellence by the beginning of the '50s, its cars still were not widely distributed in North America. Initially, Mercedes-Benz cars were imported by Max Hoffman from 1952 to 1957. To remedy this situation, Mercedes-Benz entered into a distribution agreement with the Studebaker Corporation in 1957 in an effort to improve availability, especially in the United States. The thought was that premium-priced Mercedes-Benz products could be sold side by side with more accessible Studebakers, thus Mercedes-Benz Sales Incorporated was formed.
Unfortunately, Studebaker's fortunes waned, and by 1965 Mercedes-Benz was forced to go it alone in North America (some Studebaker dealers ultimately became Mercedes-Benz dealers). Mercedes-Benz of North America (MBUSA) was established and thus started its rise to a level of unprecedented success in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Several memorable models from this period remain popular; "Pagoda" 230/250/280 SLs; graceful 1961-1971 two-door, four-passenger SE coupes; and of course, the German musclecars, the 300SEL 6.3/6.9 sedans.
Even great companies stumble, and for Mercedes-Benz it was the rise of the Japanese luxury brands, most notably Lexus, which has somewhat tarnished the three-pointed star in recent years, since many Mercedes-Benz models have been problem-plagued, especially the last-generation E-Class. But, with Dieter Zetsche (Dr. Z) now at the helm of the Mercedes-Benz brand, as well as over the entire DaimlerChrysler empire, and with a new Gullwing sports car rumored before the turn of the decade, expect to see Mercedes-Benz once again stand proudly at the automotive summit and usher in another era. The three-pointed star continues to signify excellence in automotive design and engineering.