The Marque of a Winner - Forget stolid limousines, says Richard Williams, the Mercedes-Benz DNA is – and always has been – motor-racing

To Ian Fleming, they were "ruthless and majestic". A Mercedes-Benz, he decided, was just the sort of car that Hugo Drax, one of his early villains, would drive. As a young man travelling in Europe in the 1930s, the author of the James Bond novels had watched the Mercedes Grand Prix team crush all opposition, just as they had before the First World War and would do again with the masterful Lewis Hamilton.

Few cars radiate the qualities associated with Mercedes-Benz more impressively than the charismatic 1958 300SL roadster from the Gerhard Schnuerer Collection, expected to achieve $1.1-1.3 million in Bonhams Amelia Island sale in March. Its rakish bodywork and the advanced under- bonnet engineering unmistakeably evoke the purposeful aura of the cars with which Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss won just about everything going in the mid-1950s, when the Mercedes team re-emerged with another of those comebacks that tend to leave their competitors in the dust.

Above: The assembly line at the Mercedes factory
in Untertürkheim

The soul of a Mercedes-Benz might be less obviously on display than that of a Ferrari or an Aston Martin. Perhaps it is obscured by the ubiquity of the black limousines with the three-pointed star purring through the streets of the world's great capitals, their poker- faced chauffeurs ferrying industrialists and government officials from one rendezvous to another. Perhaps it is hidden by the sense of sheer mechanical competence that radiates from vehicles whose bloodline goes back to the very dawn of the automobile.

Anyone in search of that soul might start by examining the workers at the Mercedes factory in Untertürkheim, a suburb of Stuttgart. There were just a few hundred of them when the works opened in 1904. They were Swabians, local men noted for their diligence, tenacity and plain-spoken manner, a combination of virtues sometimes misconstrued by outsiders as stolidity, stubbornness and a preference for old-fashioned ways. All these qualities were brought to bear in the factory's cluster of buildings, including a forge, and a woodwork and upholstery department, where patterns of behaviour were established that, despite changes in technology, remain a part of the modern company's identity and its modus operandi.

Above: Replica of the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen – the world's first motor car Estimate: $60,000 - 80,000

Now separated only by a hyphen, Mercedes and Benz were once fierce rivals. In the 1880s, Gottlieb Daimler – whose cars would soon adopt the name Mercedes – and Karl Benz competed with each other to create the world's first road-going vehicle propelled
by an internal combustion engine. Daimler bolted one of his engines on
to a two-wheeled frame (held upright by stabilisers, like a child's bike); Benz installed one in a three-wheeled chassis. When Daimler's company went one better, building the first petrol-engined four-wheeled vehicle in 1890, Benz responded with the first petrol-engined truck.

Although their factories were only 90 miles apart in the south-west of Germany – Benz was located in Mannheim – the two men never met. But they continued to lock horns, even in the courts over a patented type of ignition (Daimler sued Benz, and won), and eventually the rivalry moved to the realm of speed competition, where both firms found highly promotable ways of demonstrating the excellence of their products to potential customers. Long after the two companies had been merged, and both men were dead, that competitive instinct survived, on and off the racetrack, through generation after generation.

Above: Benz 10hp Mylord Coupé c.1897. Estimate: $500,000 - 750,000 The Mylord Coupé features Benz's 'boxer' engine, which used horizontally opposed pistons to ensure good balance and smoother running.

Karl Benz had sent a car to compete in the very first motor race, from Paris to Rouen in 1894. Fifteen years later, the futuristically streamlined Blitzen Benz was taken to Brooklands, the world's first purpose-built racetrack, where it set a new world speed record of 124mph – considerably faster than any plane, train or automobile of its time.

Gottlieb Daimler died of heart failure in 1900, aged 65, having lived to see his firm license its engines to manufacturers in France, Britain, Austria and the United States, but not its racing successes. A year after his death, a new 35hp model was commissioned by the diplomat and entrepreneur Emil Jellinek, Daimler's distributor in France. "I don't want a car of today or tomorrow," he said. "It will be the car of the day after tomorrow." He ordered 36 of them on condition that the name was changed to that of his infant daughter, Mercedes.

Above: Benz 50hp Victoria Tourer, 1911. Estimate: $400,000 - 500,000
449.3ci T-Head inline 4-cylinder engine. Believed to be the sole known surviving 50hp Benz, this motor car was reportedly delivered to Titanic passenger, Charles Melville Hays.

The plans for Daimler's move to Untertürkheim, a small town on the
bank of the Neckar river noted mainly for its vineyards, was hastened when fire destroyed its original factory in neighbouring Bad Cannstatt in 1904. The blaze also incinerated the entire team of racing cars with which the company had intended to contest that year's Gordon Bennett Cup, the forerunner of today's Formula One Grands Prix.

In 1903, the team had burnished the company's image by winning the Cup on a circuit in Ireland with a car painted white, the German national racing colour, and driven by the Belgian ace Camille Jenatzy. Now the fire had ruined their hopes of retaining the trophy on home ground in front of Kaiser Wilhelm, who would attend the event in full military uniform, only to see the victory on a circuit in the Taunus mountains taken by a French team.

Above: Type 230 W143 Cabriolet B 1936. Estimate: $160,000 - 200,000
The company's first foray into the medium-priced family car market. The Cabriolet was a response to the Depression, which had hit the luxury car sector hard.

Benz scored a significant overseas success in 1910, finishing first and second in the United States Grand Prize in Savannah, Georgia. In the last major European race before hostilities broke out in the summer of 1914, the Mercedes team – headed by Christian Lautenschlager, a factory test- driver – took the first three places in the French Grand Prix, a seven-hour race over public roads outside Lyon. Then, as the war in Europe neared the end of its first year, the American hero Ralph De Palma took his Mercedes to victory in the 1915 Indianapolis 500.

The ravages of Germany's post-war economic collapse and the ripple effect of the Wall Street Crash forced the two companies to create the first big merger of the country's automobile manufacturers. A new chairman, Dr Wilhelm Kissel, took over in 1926, and a brilliantly original designer, Dr Ferdinand Porsche, created the new company's range of SSK sports cars, supercharged dream-machines that swept to victory in the 1929 Tourist Trophy, the 1931 German Grand Prix and the same year's Mille Miglia, all in the hands of Rudolf Caracciola, a hotelier's son from Remagen who became the new idol of Germany's sporting public. When Adolf Hitler announced, on coming to power in 1933, that a national Grand Prix programme would take its place in his grand motorisation project alongside the building of an autobahn network and the creation of a 'People's Car', Kissel lobbied for a share of the budget.

The team he built set new standards in both technical and organisational terms. At Untertürkheim, more than 300 workers concentrated solely on designing and building the racing cars, constantly developing new technologies. Alfred Neubauer, the team manager, introduced the use of pit signals, brought military precision to the work of the mechanics, and colour-coded the drivers' helmets and the radiator grilles of the cars for easy recognition: white for Caracciola, red for Manfred von Brauchitsch, blue for Hermann Lang and British Racing Green for Richard Seaman, the young Englishman.

Taken on in 1937 as a reserve, Seaman triumphed in the 1938 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring – the year's biggest
race – and was leading the following year's Belgian GP in heavy rain at Spa when he crashed, his car catching fire and burning him so badly that he died the same night. He was the first of only three British drivers to represent Mercedes in Grand Prix racing. Stirling Moss was the second, winning his home race at Aintree in 1955 ahead of his team leader, Juan Manuel Fangio. The third is Lewis Hamilton, who now has 84 Grand Prix wins to his name, all of them powered by Mercedes engineering.

From an artisan's workshop to global partnerships, from flimsy petrol-driven cyclecars to an all-electric road-rocket, through world wars, economic crises, workers' strikes and boardroom battles, the story of Mercedes-Benz is the story of the modern world. And every car bearing the three-pointed star – from Hamilton's glittering F1 Rennwagen to the humblest A-class hatchback – carries a sliver of that history, a heritage beyond price.

Company ledger

Karl Benz establishes his first company with August Ritter in Mannheim. Ritter is unreliable, so Benz pays him off using the dowry of his wife, Bertha.

New Year's Eve, 1879
Benz gets his gas-driven two-stroke engine working for the first time. He has worked on his vision of a 'vehicle without horses' intensively since 1878.

October 1883
Benz & Co. Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik is founded with Max Kaspar Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger.

Internal combustion engine is invented, separately, in two locations: Benz produces a petrol-powered three-wheeler car and Gottlieb Daimler, with Wilhelm Maybach, a petrol-powered stagecoach.

29 January 1886
Benz patents his 'vehicle with gas engine operation' – the 'birth certificate' of the automobile.

5 August 1888
Bertha Benz becomes the first person to undertake a long-distance journey in a petrol-driven automobile, driving 100km to visit her mother with her teenaged sons – inventing brake pads along the way.

May 1890
Due to their frustrations with Benz's car obsession, Rose and Esslinger are replaced. Rose leaves Benz with the advice: "Don't waste your time on motor cars." With new partners, the company evolves into Germany's second-largest engine manufacturer and the world's leading producer of automobiles.

28 November 1890
Daimler establishes Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, with Max Duttenhofer and Wilhelm Lorenz. While Duttenhofer wants to produce stationary engines, Daimler prefers to focus on vehicle production. Unhappy with his contract, head designer Wilhelm Maybach leaves DMG in February 1891, but is secretly funded by Daimler to continue work.

March 1901
Emil Jellinek, long-time admirer of Maybach, promises to buy 36 automobiles if Maybach designs a race car for him. Considered the first modern automobile, the Daimler-Mercedes – named after Jellinek's daughter – is a racing sensation.

September 1902
DMG patents the 'Mercedes' brand name.

June 1909
DMG registers both a three-pointed and four-pointed star as trademarks. A three-dimensional star adorns the front radiator of vehicles from 1910.

DMG and Benz & Cie both hit by inflation and poor sales after WWI. They enter a joint venture in May.

June 1926
The world's two oldest automotive manufacturers are fused into Daimler-Benz AG, presenting their first product range at the Berlin Motor Show in October.

Second World War
Mercedes launched several successful vehicles, including the first diesel-run passenger vehicle, the 260 D Model, but also collaborated with the Nazi regime. Following the war, Daimler-Benz joined a German Industry Foundation initiative providing humanitarian aid for former forced labourers.

The company launches their 300 SL (Gullwing) model. Famous owners will include Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Alfred Hitchcock. The company breaks sales record with $1bn turnover.

Airbags are first introduced onto the European market, beginning with the 1981 S-Class.

Daimler merges with Chrysler in the world's largest cross-border deal – valued at $38 billion.

Lewis Hamilton starts driving for the Mercedes Formula One Team – going on to win five World Champion titles with the team.

Nico Rosberg wins the 2016 Formula One World Championship driving for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport.


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