Mercedes Benz cars, a brief history

by Harvey Williams

Mercedes Benz with its beautiful designs and precision engineering is in many ways representative of the great achievements of the German motor industry. However it has not always been plain sailing for Mercedes, they have gone through some very difficult times; one such occasion was quite recently, when there were so many concerns about Mercedes reliability that contract hire and leasing companies were reluctant to recommend Mercedes. There was some evidence of contract hire brokers switching potential Mercedes buyers into other marques, such as BMW and Audi. The Mercedes model that was most criticized in the motoring press was the M Class.

Various surveys at the time criticised Mercedes build quality; in 2003 The Consumer Association carried out a survey that criticised all the major German manufacturers, saying that they had all deteriorated, but Mercedes which they had previously considered best for reliability, was changed to average.

The Mercedes M class was placed last out of 142 cars surveyed by the BBC’s Top Gear programme in 2004. These were not good times for Mercedes but to their credit they have since made considerable changes, and gradually the Mercedes marque has once again become associated with dependability

In 1886 the world’s first automobile was invented by Karl Benz. He patented the vehicle and called it the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Benz was based in the German town of Mannheim.The car’s three wheels were little wider that today’s bicycle wheels. The ride was rather harsh and the occupants had no protection from the elements. Lights to enable the vehicle to negotiate the poor road conditions at night had not been thought of.

The Daimler Riding Car was invented by Gottleib Daimler and William Maybach, it had an internal combustion engine. In practice the vehicle was a motorcycle, it seems strange that the world’s first motorcylcle should be called a car. The engine had just one upright cylinder and was capable of a maximum of 13 Kilometres per hour. Due to it’s one upright cylinder, it became know as the Grandfather Clock engine. Interestingly Benz and Daimler were working in close proximity to each other, some 100 Kilometres apart but neither was aware of the other, or the work that they were carrying out.

The Grandfather Clock engine was installed in Daimler and Maybach’s motorised carraige which was launched in 1886. It had a top speed of 18 Kilometres per hour which was considered fast. This time the vehicle had four wheels, the worlds first car with four wheels. The car that Karl Benz patented had three wheels. At an exhibition in Paris in 1889 Daimler exhibited their “wire wheel” car. There was considerable interest in the vehicle, some say that it was seeing this vehicle on display that caused the birth of the French car indusry.

Karl Benz was by the 1980’s also manufacturing 4 wheel cars, in both 2, 3, and 4 seater versions. The stability of the cars were much improved by the system he had developed where each of the front wheels could turn on a different radius

Benz developed the two seater Velocipide in 1894, it had two seats and was capable of 20 KPH. He sold a large number; some 1200, which in those days was a considerable number. He had less success with his motorized bus; roads were still in poor condition, this combined with the vehicle’s narrow wheels made it quite impractical. It had probably not occurred to anyone at the time, that wider wheels would have made a big difference.

Daimler launched a belt driven car in 1896, now with two cylinders but still it could only achieve 18 mph. Daimler’s truck, a flat bed truck, was the world’s first. It was rather odd looking but nevertheless very popular in spite of it’s fairly limiting top speed of 11kph. They were used by German breweries for beer deliveries, some were exported to England. Also in 1896 Daimler brought out a vehicle capable of carrying loads of aything up to 500kgs. It had a rather strange appearance, looking a little like one of the covered wagons you would see in films portraying the Wild West.

The Dos a Dos car was launched by Benz in 1899 had a strange seat configuration; it had four seats two would face the rear of the vehicle and two the front. It was however fast at over 35 Kilometres per hour.

William Maybach took control of the company when Daimler died in 1990. A gentleman by the name of Emil Jellinek encouraged Maybach to make changes. Jelinek was succesful both in motor racing and in business and he felt that Maybach needed to be building cars that were more modern in appearance and faster. He also persuaded Maybach to adopt the name Mercedes, after his daughter.

The early 1990’s saw changes at Daimler; the cars were faster and the designs were more modern. The single seater 40 horsepower Simplex repalced the 35 horsepower Simplex, the new version was fast with a top speed of 80 kph. One of these vehicles is said to be the today’s oldest surviving Mercedes Benz.

The 18 horsepower Double Phaeton was launched by Benz in 1905,then in 1907 the six cylinder 75 hp Double Phaeton. Its top speed exceeded 94 kilometres per hour, very fast for its day. By now Benz was enjoying success in motor racing, as were Mercedes.

During the First World War both Benz and Daimler’s production were converted into producing materials for the war effort. The German economy suffered badly at the end of the war, there was a shortage of fuel and a heavy luxury tax had been placed on car production, inflation was starting to get out of control. The cost of a car became so high it was out of most people’s reach. A far cry from today where a luxury Mercedes can be found on contract hire from around 300 per month.

Benz found himself in a weak position and it is said that an approach was made by Daimler, with a view to merging with Benz, but it fell through. In 1924 with both companies suffering badly from the economic conditions, they signed an agreement and eventually merged in 1926.

When car production started again, the Mercedes two seater sports car was launched. It had a supercharged engine and a top speed of over 108 kilometres per hour. During 1927 Mercedes Benz started production of the Model S touring car, the S stood for sport. The vehicle had six cylinder and an amazing speed of over 160 kilometres per hour. 1928 saw the introduction of the SSK Sports two seater, it was designed for hill climbing races and was even faster at over 190 kilometres per hour.

In 1934 Mercedes Benz brought out the 500K. It was only for the very rich, with a price tag of 28,000 Marks. It wasn’t as fast as the SSK but could still achieve a very respectable 160 kph. It was a beautifully designed car; long and elegant with a tremendous amount of style.

The 540K was introduced out as the successor to the 500. It looked very similar but was faster at around 170 kph. Mercedes also launched the Mercedes Benz 770 a luxurious limousine in which many of Germany’s top industrialists would be chauffeured. The numbers of each model that were produced was low in those days; only around 120 of this model were manufactured and even in the case of the 540K, less than 120 were made.

Mercedes were accused of using forced labour and prisoners of war, for their manufacturing, during the Second World War. They had become part of the German war effort but of course it wasn’t a matter of choice; the British motor manufacturers were also part of the British War effort. The allied bombers, just as the German bombers targeted factories in Britain, heavily targeted the Mercedes manufacturing plants. At the end of the war, things looked very bleak for Mercedes; their factories lay in ruins, the machinery was damaged or destroyed and there was an extreme shortage of raw materials. Nevertheless in 1948 production was re started. 1951 saw the introduction of the 300 saloon, over 4500 were sold. The Mercedes Benz 300S convertible also went into production.

The 1950’s saw the launch of the famous Gull-Wing 2 seater hardtop, which took the motoring world by storm. Its distinctive Gull-Wing doors opened up into the roof. With the doors open they did look remarkably like a gulls wings, the design was far ahead of its time. Many were sold in America although it really was very expensive, believed to have cost around $10,000 at the time. Nevertheless a very good investment; a 1955 model was sold at auction in Sydney Australia in 2006 for $777,240 Australian Dollars, $720,000 usd. The Gull-Wing was succeeded in 1957 by the 300SL an open sports car also very much in demand in America. It was very fast with a top speed of just under 250 Kilometres per hour.

Mercedes were always striving to make their vehicles safer and even in the 1960s they were carrying out comprehensive testing on their cars, measuring how they performed in different conditions. Although it’s hard to believe, in today’s world where almost anything seems technologically possible, that the only method that Mercedes had for collecting their test data was to have another vehicle drive behind the test car, connected by a very long cable.

During 1963 Mercedes Benz launched the 230SL, the first sports car to have a crumple free zone. It was not particularly fast compared with some of the previous models; it had a top speed of less than 200 Kilometres per hour. It was however hugely popular selling, nearly 20,000 models. Mercedes had come a long way from the days when they were making just a few hundred of each model. In 1978 Mercedes Benz introduced anti lock brakes (ABS). In 1981 they were the first manufacturer to introduce the airbag. One can only speculate on the number of lives and serious injuries, those safety features will have saved over the years.

When Mercedes Benz launched the 190E in 1982, who would have thought at the time, that 638,000 would be sold over the course of the next eleven years. During the 1980s and 1990s Mercedes were enjoying considerable success. In 1998 the company merged with The Chrysler Corporation of America and Daimler Chrysler was formed. As is so often the case with these mergers/takeovers, it didn’t work out and Chrysler having initially invested $36 billion sold 80.1% of the company for $7.4 billion in 2007. The purchaser was Cerberus Capital Management.

This has allowed Mercedes Benz to get back on track and concentrate on their build quality. Now after their recent of ups and downs, they have restored their good name and reputation. Contract hire companies are no longer nervous about recommending the marque and the prestige that has always been associated with Mercedes Benz remains intact.

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