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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Indulge/  A history of Mercedes-Benz

A history of Mercedes-Benz

From Karl Friedrich Benz's first drive of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine in Stuttgart and Benz Patent Motorwagen to becoming an icon in performance motoring today

Argentine Formula One legend Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes-Benz in 1954. Photo: DaimlerPremium
Argentine Formula One legend Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes-Benz in 1954. Photo: Daimler

Stuttgart is not on the regular tourist trail. But like many other mid-size German cities, it has its schloss, a lovely town square and beer garden (with sauerkraut and wurst) as well as the obligatory malls.

Yet, not far from the historic town centre is the Benz-strasse (or Mercedes-strasse) on the eastern edge of Stuttgart—the road connecting the suburbs of Cannstatt-Mitte and Unterturkheim. It was on this road that Karl Friedrich Benz drove the first ever vehicle with an internal combustion engine, and in 1886 received a patent for an “automobile fuelled by gas" for the Benz Patent Motorwagen.

Founding days

There are several fascinating facets to the history of Mercedes-Benz, the first being that Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, the two men most closely associated with the foundation of the auto maker, never met. Each founded his own company—Benz & Cie in 1883 and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1890.

Daimler’s main engineer was Wilhelm Maybach, a man whose name Daimler AG—now the parent company of Mercedes-Benz alongside a number of other automobile makers—appropriated for an entry into the hyper-luxury car segment a decade ago before subsequently retiring the marque.

In 1926, partially on account of the economic crisis in Germany following World War I, the two companies merged to form Daimler-Benz AG. Though Gottlieb Daimler had died in 1900, the efforts of Maybach and his fellow engineers in making their company’s products world famous ensured that Daimler got top billing in the naming of the new auto maker.

In 1927, soon after the creation of Daimler-Benz, the company was close to yet another German car company—Bayerische Motoren Werke, better known as BMW. In the 1930s, the two companies’ chairmen sat on each other’s board. Daimler-Benz actually made the car bodies of Munich-based BMW, and while attempts to merge the two firms failed in the 1930s, the former came very close to buying the latter in post-World War II West Germany.

There are claims and counterclaims about the role Daimler-Benz played in World War II, including allegations of using slave labour during the war. The company built several road vehicles for the Nazi war machine, but its most famous contribution was an aircraft engine, the DB 601. This 1,000-1,500 horsepower engine was the power behind Germany’s most used fighter during the war, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

A little over a decade after the war, in 1958, Daimler-Benz bought a controlling stake in Auto Union. A large development team was established at Ingolstadt, where the company developed a new four-stroke engine. Volkswagen bought Auto Union in 1965 and inherited the Ingolstadt facility, and subsequently revived the company’s older name—Audi.


The “Mercedes" in today’s Mercedes-Benz has an interesting history. Emil Jellinek, a rich aristocratic Jew from the Austro-Hungarian empire and a diplomat for the empire in Nice, France, started selling cars to the rich and famous of Europe who spent their summers in the French Riviera. In 1889, his daughter Mercedes (named after the Spanish term for gift) was born, and Jellinek began to name everything after her, from his villas to his cars; at the age of 50, he even changed his name to Jellinek-Mercedes.

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Mercedes Jellinek behind the wheels of a Mercedes Grand Prix racer in 1906. Photo: Daimler

In 1902, DMG filed an application to copyright the Mercedes name, and all the cars built by DMG and later Daimler-Benz and Daimler today bear that name.

It is, however, ironic that Mercedes Jellinek did not share her father’s passion for automobiles. After World War I decimated the aristocracy of Europe, Mercedes Jellinek, married with two children, was found begging on the streets of Vienna, Austria. More ironic is the fact that Adolf Hitler was often seen in German propaganda films riding in a car named after the daughter of a Jewish businessman.

Mercedes made a strong comeback after World War II, partially because many of its plants survived severe damage and thanks to the leadership of Wilhelm Haspel and Walter Hitzinger. While the famed Silver Arrows were winning races before the war, no one expected them to be on the front of the grid soon after it ended. By the early 1950s, Mercedes was already winning races such as the famous Mille Miglia race in Italy, and the 300SLR race car, based on the famous 300SL “gullwing" road car, was the one to beat.

But the most catastrophic incident in motor racing history led Mercedes-Benz to exit racing for nearly five decades. At Le Mans in 1955, Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300SLR crashed into Lance Macklin’s Austin Healy, causing a fiery disaster that took the life of not only Levegh, but also more than 80 spectators.

Mercedes did not return to the top echelons of motor sports till 1995, when it started supplying engines to the McLaren Formula One team. In 2010, it bought out Brawn F1, the reigning champions, re-entering the top level of motor racing as a factory outfit. In the interim period, however, Mercedes-Benz achieved success in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) and in the World Sportscar Championship where “prototype" racers were all the rage, and in 1990 even hired a young race driver called Michael Schumacher.

The logo

The three-pointed star on every Mercedes was born much after the company—in 1921, in an attempt to create a new trademark. The company also trademarked a four-pointed star, but it was the former that was and is still used (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or Nato, currently uses the four-pointed star logo).

The circular Benz logo with a laurel wreath around it was adapted into the merged company in 1926, with the Benz name in the centre replaced by the three-pointed star, and Mercedes and Benz making it onto the logo (take a close look the next time you are beside a Mercedes-Benz).

Later years

Daimler-Benz did make some questionable corporate decisions, not least of which was an ill-fated merger with American car maker Chrysler in 1998. Two different management cultures, different cars as well as the American company’s sinking fortunes led to the partnership being dissolved in 2007; Chrysler was reincorporated into Daimler AG.

During this period, it was acknowledged by some inside the company that Mercedes-Benz had lost its way, and its product portfolio and quality suffered. Rival Audi and its parent Volkswagen Group had read the Chinese market well before the competition, and BMW (which also had a more or less ill-fated association with the Rover Group was on the upswing thanks to new products such as the new Mini.

Mercedes-Benz was being outsold. Even in India, first BMW and then Audi started to eat into its share. The Stuttgart-based company had been selling cars for more than two decades longer than the competition in India, but it not longer had the product portfolio to compete.

Globally, and in India, this is not the case any more.

Over the past two years, Mercedes has started the process of completely rejuvenating its product line-up.

Starting with new sports utility vehicles such as the MLClass and the GL-Class, the company also brought in the new entry-level A-Class and B-Class cars. In the past few months, the company has launched a refreshed E-Class, a brand-new S-Class, and several cars from its AMG performance brand, and will soon launch the new front-wheel drive sedan, the CLA-Class, and the baby sports utility GLA-Class .

The Museum

Not far from the Benzstrasse is the Mercedes-Benz Arena football stadium. Opposite it is the nearly triangular Mercedes-Benz Museum, which itself is right in front of the main entrance to Daimler AG’s headquarters.

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Replica of a riding car in front of the Gottlieb Daimler Memorial in Bad Cannstatt. Photo: Daimler

Mercedes-Benz is not the only car marker in Stuttgart—the other, Porsche, even appropriated the city’s coat-of-arms into its logo. The Mercedes-Benz museum and the equally interesting Porsche Museum on the northern edge of Stuttgart are two very good reasons to visit this city.

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Published: 27 Jun 2014, 09:52 AM IST
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