A history of Mercedes-Benz in three cars

Written by Simone | 4th December 2019

The internal combustion engine, brakes on all four wheels of a car and the airbag; there’s only one company that could be responsible for these innovations. Here’s a short history of Mercedes-Benz in three truly innovative cars. 

Benz Patent-Motorwagen

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen was a lovechild of power couple Karl and Bertha Benz and is credited with being the first practical automobile. 

Karl Benz got his mechanical engineering degree at the budding age of 19. Clever as he was, he had already invented a number of parts in earlier ventures which he patented individually, while designing what eventually became the production standard for his four stroke-engine. The speed regulation system, the ignition using sparks with battery, the spark plug, the carburettor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator can all be attributed to him. 

Together with bicycle repair shop owners Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger, Karl and Bertha founded the company Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik (a.ka. Benz & Cie), for the production of industrial machines, in 1883. Financed by Bertha Benz, the company was able to patent Karl’s “horseless carriage” passion project in 1885.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen was the first automobile entirely designed to generate its own power and it is widely considered to be the first modern car. Karl’s fondness for bicycles shines through in the design of the vehicle. With its three wire wheels and engine between its rear wheels, one would hardly recognise it as a car today. 

Just as resourceful as her husband, Bertha was able to resolve some of the cars teething problems after taking the vehicle on a 104 km trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim to “visit her mother”. What Benz really wanted was to test the car in the field, reassure her husband that there was a future for his invention and get the attention of the worldwide media to drive business results. She succeeded in all her goals, and invented brake pads along the way. The trip would be key for both the technical developments and sales of their invention.

Benz Patent-Motorwagen

Mercedes 35 HP

Now we’ve got the origins of the ‘Benz’ name covered, let’s see where ‘Mercedes’ comes into play. Emil Jellinek, a successful businessman with a need for speed, ordered his first DMG (Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft) car in 1897; the ‘Phoenix Double-Phaeton’. Happy with his purchase but eager to go faster, he consequently ordered more vehicles and started promoting and selling the DMG vehicles amongst the elite of society. 

Jellinek became very involved with DMG, often to the exasperation of DMG’s designers. One of Jellinek’s most widely-reported remarks was: “Your engineers should be locked up in an insane asylum.”  It may surprise you that a lot of Jellinek’s suggestions were actually taken under consideration. Eventually, Jellinek got behind the wheel himself and started entering (and winning) racing competitions under the pseudonym of his daughter’s nickname: Mercedes.

In 1900, Jellinek made a deal with DMG’s lead engineer Wilhelm Maybach: for 550,000 Goldmark, Maybach would design a revolutionary sports car for Jellinek, to be used during the Nice races: the Mercedes 35 HP. The car beat everyone by a mile, reaching a record speed 60 km/h and hitting international newspapers. 

In 1902, DMG decides to use the Mercedes name as the trademark for its entire automobile production and a year later, Emil Jellinek changes his name to Jellinek-Mercedes. “This is probably the first time a father has borne the name of his daughter,'' Jellinek-Mercedes quipped. In 1926 DMG merged with Benz & Cie., taking on the name of Daimler-Benz and adopting Mercedes-Benz as its automobile trademark. 

Mercedes 35 HP

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing”

After roughly 50 years in the business, Daimler-Benz hit a rough patch Although sales were stable, the company had cultivated an image of manufacturing solid but staid automobiles; hardly the nifty luxury brand it is known as today.

This all changed after Daimler-Benz decided to reenter the racing world in 1952, after a twelve-year hiatus started by WWII. To compete, the company built the Mercedes-Benz W194, which quickly became known as the "Gullwing" on account of its upward-opening doors. The Gullwing’s great success in the races sparked the idea to build a toned-down Grand Prix car, tailor-made for racing enthusiasts: the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.

Even though the 300 SL was one of the most expensive cars on the market, it became an overnight sensation. Amateur road racing was taking off, and wealthy, upper-class U.S. drivers were eager to give it a go. The Gullwing became their number one choice. Several famous owners – including Ralph Lauren, Pablo Picasso, Sophia Loren and Frank Lloyd Wright – solidified the Mercedes-Benz reputation for style and elegance. 

Model David Gandy with Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL’s iconic status became official when the car was named the “Sports Car of the Century” by a panel of experts during the AutoRAI motor show in Amsterdam in 1997.


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