Near Stuttgart, Germany in Untertürkheim within what
is now DaimlerChrysler's main factory sits the Mercedes-Benz Museum. Arriving at
Untertürkheim does not bring the excitement that you get nearing Maranello. There are no
Mercedes-Benz flags in the shop windows nor do you see the Mercedes name bandied about,
yet when you arrive at the factory gates there is no mistaking the fact that you are in
the presence of some very serious automotive minds. Mercedes might lack the flair of
Ferrari but certainly is more than a match in their record of success. To get to the
museum you must use a special bus that takes you from just outside the factory to the
museum's main entrance. The museum itself is a modern glass and steel structure that
displays around 100 cars. Admission is free and the cars you'll see span the
history of the automobile, for it was near this site that the very first gas-powered
automobiles were built. Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Wilhelm Maybach strove to harness
the internal combustion engine into a practical vehicle for personal transportation. Here
you will see the results of their labour. The museum has a small store and a cafe. The
store has a number of items such as die-cast cars that cannot be purchased anywhere else.
Mercedes-Benz is very proud of the fact that they invented
the first practical automobiles and upon entering the museum that is what you'll see. Be
sure to grab one of their wireless radios for a description of all of the exhibits. The
museum has angled floors that lead you up through the museum and the cars are arrayed in a
more or less historical order. The displays are very straightforward and not as
descriptive as those are in the Galleria Ferrari. The thinking may be that the cars stand
on their own merit or that you should have picked up a radio!
There is also a display of current
models including the cute "Smart Car" which was originally the result of a
partnership between Swatch and Daimler-Benz. The 58-mpg car has won numerous awards in
Europe and can be purchased in many "mouth watering" colors. If a computer can
be called an iMac then this car should be called an iCar. A number of governments are
using this car as a basis for car-sharing plans. SwissAir has a program for first-class
passengers to use this car at their destination while returning it to the airport upon
their departure. The Smart Car is only 2.5 meters long and has excellent visibility
combined with a very small turning circle and a semi-automatic transmission. The car has a
top speed of 85 mph, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 10.2 seconds. The Smart Car features a
state of the art Tridion alloy safety framework, ABS braking and a rear mounted Mercedes
manufactured 599cc suprex-turbocharged 3 cylinder in-line petrol engine complete with
catalytic converter. But the main reason I was visiting the museum was Mercedes' racing
cars, especially the Silver Arrows.
In 1879 Karl Benz founded Benz & Co. Rheinsche Gasmotoren-Fabrik
which produced stationary engines used in factories all over Europe. The building of
stationary engines allowed Benz to pursue his real interest in the automobile. In 1886 his
first vehicles were seen by incredulous citizens on the streets of Mannheim. Benz himself
had no appetite for racing cars, which he considered a waste of time. It was his opinion
that 30 mph was all that was prudentgiven the conditions of the roads in Europe.
Nevertheless his two sons, Eugen and Richard had other ideas and a few modified cars were
made. Soon Benz racing cars were seen at all of the major races. In 1910 Benz scored a 1-2
at the American Grand Prize with David Bruce-Brown and Victor Hemery driving. A 200 h.p.
"Blitzen-Benz" claimed the historic mille record of 228.1 km/h with a flying
start in 1911 at Daytona Beach. This record, set by Bob Burman would stand for 13 years.
In 1923 Benz conceived the famous Tropfenwagen which was the first mid-engined racing car
the world had ever seen but by then Benz would soon become part of Daimler-Benz and the
car would not be further developed.
After years of experimentation in various
motorized vehicles Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft was founded in 1890 to produce engines
for industry purposes but Daimler and his chief designer Maybach also had their eyes
set on further developing a Daimler automobile. They had none of the reservations towards
racing as their contemporary Benz. It was Daimler engines that propelled Panhard &
Levassor cars to victory in the first city-to-city events but it was an
ex-Austro-Hungarian diplomat by the name of Emil Jellinek that convinced them of the
benefits of racing their own cars to publicize their engineering qualities. Jellinek also
contributed the Mercedes name to the Daimler cars figuring this non-German sounding name
would be more popular with the French buying public. His demands for ever more powerful
cars were initially met with bemusement back at Cannstatt but his constant prodding soon
Mercedes scored major victories over French teams at the
French Grand Prix in 1908 and 1914. World War I stopped racing in Europe but the following
year in the United States they scored a victory at the Indianapolis 500 with Ralph de
Palma. Directly after the war Germany was banned from racing but soon was allowed back.
The AVUS motorway in Berlin had its first organized race in 1921. The 1st German Grand
Prix was held in 1926 on this course and the race was won by an unknown German driver with
an Italian sounding name, Rudolf Caracciola. The circuit featured two long straights
joined by a pair of banked turns and was to host some of the fastest races ever held. In
the Eiffel Mountains another circuit was being built, the Nurburgring. The inaugural event
was also won by Mercedes but with the onset of the Depression, Mercedes withdrew from
racing. This did not stop a semi-private team led by Alfred Neubauer with Caracciola
driving to claim the Mille Miglia, becoming the first non-Italians to win the grueling
In 1932, the Association
for International Automobile Racing (AIACR) sanctioned a new international 750-kg racing
formula. The regulations stated that the weight of the racing car may not exceed 750 kg
excluding fuel, water, grease, oil and strangely tires but not wheels. The race length of
a Grand Prix was a minimum 500-kilometer. After much discussion the decision was made at
Untertürkheim to build a new 750-kg Grand Prix racing car for the 1934 season. Behind
locked doors and barbed wire fences the work was started to build cars that would forever
change the face of automobile racing. Hitler's Germany sponsored two teams to compete
under this new formula, Mercedes and Auto Union. Each firm split an annual grant of
450,000 Reichmarks with additional bonuses for certain results. This money would only
cover a small portion of the vast sums required. The Silver Arrows would soon rule the
We waited again. Then they came.
Far away in the distance we
heard an angry, deep-throated roaring - as someone once remarked, like hungry lions
impatient for the arena. A few moments later, Manfred von Brauchitsch, red helmeted,
brought a great, silver projectile snaking down the hill, and close behind, his teammate
Rudolf Caracciola, then at the height of his great career. The two cars took the hairpin,
von Brauchitsch almost sideways, and rocketed away out of sight with long plumes of rubber
smoke trailing from their huge rear tyres, in a deafening crash of sound.
The startled Pressmen gazed at
each other, awe-struck.
"Strewth," gasped one
of them, "so that's what they're like!"
That was what they were like.
Initially the overall responsibility for Mercedes' racing
efforts was held by Dr Hans Nibel but after his untimely death from a stroke in November
1934 that duty was assumed by Max Sailer. During their peak years of 1937-38 the team was
divided into three main departments, headed by Fritz Nallinger who was in charge of
Design, Rudolf Uhlenhaut of Construction and Preparation and Alfred Neubauer of the Racing
Department. The Design department was sub-divided into two main sections, Engines under
Albert Hess and Chassis under Max Wagner (who ironically, while at Benz, was involved in
the design of the mid-engined Tropfenwagen.
Until the outbreak
of World War II the silver cars of Mercedes battled their fellow Germans at Auto Union
while Alfa Romeo, Maserati were left with the scraps, save those rare occasions when a
driver of the caliber of Nuvolari could beat the formidable German teams. In the hands of
drivers such as Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Luigi Fagioli, Hermann Lang
and Dick Seaman Mercedes won three European Championships titles with only the 1936
championship being lost to Auto Union and their brilliant driver, Bernd Rosemeyer.
Mercedes also competed in European Hillclimbs as well as in World speed record attempts.
After the end of World War II the Daimler-Benz
factory lay in ruins. All of the companys efforts were geared to resurrecting their
automobile business. There was no budget or time for racing. Once the manufacturing of
automobiles and trucks were restored and sales began to grow Mercedes looked again to
racing as if to prove to the world that the Silver Cars were back. After returning to
sports cars in 1952 attention was focused on returning to Grand Prix racing and in 1954
they were back on top of the racing world with Juan-Manuel Fangio. The next year saw them
win the World Title again, besides adding a second Mille Miglia. Having proved their point
they withdrew from major racing and were absent for almost 30 years.
With Grand Prix
racing becoming more specialized Mercedes-Benz returned in the 1980's to German Touring
and Endurance Sports Car racing. Later they would return to single seaters in both the
United States and Europe as engine suppliers. In 1998 they won the World Championship with
McLaren. Taking an equity stake in the British team demonstrated their commitment to
racing on an ongoing basis. Today they compete in the CART, Le Mans and Formula 1 series.