It is hard to imagine that at the beginning of the 20th century there were hundreds of automobile manufacturers worldwide, each vying for technological and commercial supremacy. Today, only a fraction of these remain. Some merged with others and some were transformed into new entities. Others belong to the annuls of time.

During this almost six-score period, the firm of Daimler-Benz, and its geneological tree, has remained constant. This century and more of motoring and technological heritage is preserved, celebrated and on display to the viewing public at the Stuttgart-based Mercedes-Benz Museum.

The sizeable museum is spread out over three floors and covers the period of time from the earliest motor vehicles built independently by Daimler and Benz, up through the late '80s and long past the firm's 1926 merger. Special exhibits may be on display, but particular emphasis will always be given to the company's long and rich heritage. The exhibits do not include post-Chrysler-merger vehicles.

Upon entering the museum, one can put a deposit on a hand-held audio device that provides a recorded message at stations around the museum or refer to placards at various exhibits to fill in the details. I highly recommend the audio device.

The first vehicle is a copy of the wooden-framed motorcycle built by Gottleib Daimler in 1885 to use as a platform to test the four-cycle engine developed with Wilhelm Maybach in Daimler's greenhouse workshop (more on the shop later). The original was destroyed in a workshop fire in 1903. Word to the wise; don't make your motorbike out of wood.

The next items are two automobiles of sorts, built in 1886 by Daimler and Benz but independent of each other.

The three-wheeled Benz "Patent Car," unlike the four-wheeled Daimler horseless carriage, was built from the ground up as a motorcar. Once again, this is a copy; the original is at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Daimler's contemporary vehicle was a carriage minus the draw bar to which horses would ordinarily be lashed.

Moving forward in time is the Daimler wire-wheel car, which was on display in Paris, and the Benz Viktoria. The story goes that Benz proclaimed "Viktoria" upon developing the vehicle's king-pin steering system.

The Benz Velo, the next display, is an example of the 381 cars built between 1894 and 1899. It is rightfully said to be the first production Benz.

The remainder of the ground floor, aside from the cafe, continues the story of the separate companies as they developed new technologies and applied them to vehicles.

Most interestingly is the story of how Daimler cars became to be known as Mercedes. Leipzig-born businessman Emil Jellinek, a distributor, friend and good customer of Daimler's, promoted and sold the vehicles to Europe's elite. In 1900, after placing an order for several cars under the condition the cars were named Mercedes, after his favorite daughter, the brand Daimler-Mercedes was born. Later in 1902, the name was legally registered.

Key vehicles in the ground-floor display include the Mercedes Simplex, a technologically advanced car that incorporated a low center of gravity, low-pressure air-filled tires, and a four-speed transmission linked by a spring-pressure clutch. The Simplex is said to be the first modern car. The actual Mercedes Simplex Touring Coach owned by the Jellinek family is on display.

Cross-town rivalries are represented with the Benz Parsifal of 1903, which was first shown in 1902 in Paris, and said to be a response to the Simplex.

Moving up the ramp, competition begins to take shape by way of the companies' race cars. First is the Benz Rennwagen of 1899 (check out that snazzy radiator), followed by the Daimler "Phoenix" race car, one of 5 built. The Phoenix name could be due to the fact that Count Eliot Zborovski once raced the car, but for 31 years the car was used to power a sawmill in England before being sent to the museum in 1969.

Despite a reticence to race, Benz cars would prove their mettle in time trials, and an early hero is the Benz Lightning, built in 1909. In the same year, it would establish a world's record at Brooklands (the famous UK pre-war track,) followed by two other world records, the last of which held from 1911 until 1919.

Other important racecars in the collection include the Mercedes that won the 1924 Targa Florio, the W125 of 1937 that scored 27 wins, and the W154 that won 6 major races in 1939.

It doesn't take a history scholar to figure out that worldwide racing and auto manufacturing would become low priorities for several years from 1939 through the early '50s, when such an extravagance would again become acceptable.

The immediate post-war era is represented by the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Panamericana, the 1954 Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 W196 "Monoposto" (piloted by Fangio to a driver and manufacturer championship) and the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 R Streamline, which came in 1st and 2nd at the French Gran Prix.

Racing would then be of little interest to Mercedes for decades, but the company made a splash in the late 1980s with its 190 2.3 touring car program, its C9 Group C Racing Sports Car (Le Mans and World Sports Car champion) 1994 Penske Mercedes PC 94 Indianapolis, and 1999 McLaren Mercedes MP4-14.

The rest of the second floor is inhabited by "ordinary" cars that make up the company's pre- and post-war period: the 1935 Mercedes-Benz belonging to Emperor Hirohito; the 1931 Mercedes-Benz 770 owned by German emperor Wilhelm II while in exile; and the 1965 Mercedes-Benz 600 Landaulet used by Pope Paul VI.

Owing to the company's long and rich history, the company announced the future construction of an all-new Mercedes-Benz Museum. The new museum is scheduled to open concurrent with the 2006 World Cup matches, to be held in a dozen cities throughout Germany.

About the Museum
The Mercedes-Benz Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM and is free of charge. The electronic audio tour is available in German, English, French, Spanish and Japanese.

An online virtual tour can be experienced at http://www.daimlerchrysler.com/classic/ using conventional web technologies, and with 3D panoramas.

Gottlieb Daimler Memorial
No portrait of history would be complete without the recognition of the geniuses and madmen who have enriched the world through art and invention, usually by their own initiative and with their own resources.

In 1882, Gottlieb Daimler purchased a villa in Cannstatt, with a greenhouse, where he and Wilheim Maybach could work on their projects away from the curious eyes of others. However, curious eyes alerted the authorities on the suspicion that the two men were up to no good, probably counterfitting. After a cursory inspection, the men resumed their work, which included developing an engine to be used on a wooden motorbike, and a four-wheel horseless carraige.

Today, only the garden greenhouse and attached workshop remains and serves as a memorial to the men and their early motoring work.

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