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Origins

Mercedes-Benz is known today as a major producer of luxury cars.  It is one of the "German Big Three" luxury brands, along with Audi and BMW, and is one of the best-selling luxury automakers in the world.  It has reached this point by building on a long tradition of technological innovation, going back to the first petroleum powered car, known today as the Benz Patent Motorwagen.   Over the decades, Mercedes-Benz has developed into a brand known for building what one reviewer called "rolling bank vaults, crammed with enough technology to make a stealth fighter nervous."  Being known for such high-tech, high quality vehicles, Mercedes cars became the rides of choice for powerful people from dictators and crime bosses to heads of state, celebrities and even Popes.  It all began, though, with a German engineer named Karl Benz. 

In 1879, engineer Karl Benz patented a gasoline powered two-stroke piston engine.  His next goal was to create a light weight powerful engine, as he put it, "a dwarf in terms of weight, but a titan in terms of power."  Having built an engine to his liking, he established Benz & Co. in 1883, and then set about developing a vehicle.  The resulting automobile, built in 1886, had a rear-mounted four-stroke engine and rear-wheel drive. It was constructed of steel tubing and woodwork ran on and three wheels.  Because there was no good solution for steering a four-wheeled car, the Motorwagen had only one front wheel. 

In 1888, Karl's wife, Bertha Benz, drove the Motorwagen about sixty miles, making her the first person to drive a car over any significant distance.  Her trip brought attention to her husband's invention and spurred some early sales.  She also made suggestions to Karl on how to improve the Motorwagen, including brake linings and the addition of a second gear for climbing hills.  Eventually Benz found a solution for the problem of steering four-wheeled cars by inventing double-pivot steering.  Applied to the Velo, which went on to become the first production car, this brought the world one step closer to a truly modern automobile. 

Meanwhile, another German company, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Motors Corporation), founded by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, was making its own advancements in the automotive field.  Daimler Motors investor Emil Jellinek requested that the company make a more modern, safer car to be named after his daughter Mercedes.  The resulting car, the Mercedes 35hp, featured a drop-chassis, with the carriage set between the wheels.  This differentiated the Mercedes 35hp from the horseless carriages that preceded it, with their high centers of gravity.  The new design led to a racing win in Jellinek's adopted hometown of Nice, France.  In 1902, Daimler trademarked the Mercedes name.  Later, Emil Jellinek would change his own name to Emil Jellinek-Mercedes. 

The next major development for Daimler Motors was the supercharged engine.  Gottlieb Daimler received a German patent for supercharging an internal combustion engine as early as 1885.  Still, it wasn't until 1921 that Daimler built a supercharged car.  These supercharged Mercedes were marketed as Kompressor models.  For decades, Mercedes cars carried the K designation in their model names to indicate the use of a supercharger.  Daimler was also the first automaker to produce a series of supercharged cars. 

The Merger and WWII

In 1924, Daimler and Benz & Company signed an "agreement of mutual interest" but continued to manufacture separate lines of automobiles.  Two years later, the two companies officially merged to form Daimler-Benz Autogroup, and agreed that all Daimler-Benz automobiles would use the brand name Mercedes-Benz.  This period was a difficult one for Mercedes.  The German currency had collapsed, former armament companies were entering the automotive field and it was harder to sell German products in export markets in the wake of World War I.  Mercedes responded by simplifying its line to only four models by 1928. 

The showcase model of these was the sporting, supercharged S (Sport), and its SS (Super Sport), and SSK (Super Sport Kurz - Kurz meaning short, referring to a short wheel base) variants, which achieved Motorsports success and lead to success in export markets.  The SSK saw victory in the 1929 and 1930 Cordoba Grand Prix, the 1931 Argentine Grand Prix, and the 1931 German Grand Prix, among other races.  It was one of the nominees for the Car of the Century Award, selected by a panel of automotive journalists in 1999. 

In 1930, Mercedes started one of its most important relationships when they furnished a Nurburg 460 to Pope Pius XI.  This became the first of many so-called "Popemobiles" built by Mercedes.  While other car companies had furnished cars for earlier Popes, those Pontiffs had been uninterested in automotive technology. 

Rather than resting on their laurels, Mercedes kept developing new technologies.  In 1931, they built the Mercedes 170, the first car to feature fully independent suspension.  It also featured hydraulic brakes.  Five years later, Mercedes unveiled a diesel passenger car, the 260D at the Berlin Motor Show.  The Hanomag Rekord, another diesel, was introduced at the same show.  These were the first two diesel-powered passenger cars to be mass produced. From this time period until the 1990s, Mercedes models bore alphanumeric titles.  The number indicated the engine displacement in liters multiplied by 100.  The letters indicated any special features of the vehicle:  K for Kompressor (or supercharger) as mentioned above, D for diesel or C for a coupe body style, for example.  The 260D, therefore, was powered by a 2.6L diesel engine. 

In the late 1930s, the technological advancement of Mercedes attracted the interest of Germany's new Nazi government.  The luxury 770 model, sometimes known simply as the "large Mercedes" (with a supercharged 7.7L inline eight-cylinder engine), was favored by high-ranking Nazi officials.  Most Mercedes production during this time period, though, were trucks for the war effort.  The company had already introduced the first diesel truck without a supercharger in 1927.  It continued to develop more trucks and fewer passenger cars throughout the war years.  By 1942, there was almost no passenger car production.  Following the war, the company admitted its Nazi ties and worked to provide humanitarian aid for those used as forced labor in German industry. 

Newfound Success Overseas

Reduced to only four southern German factories, Mercedes set about rebuilding.  Despite Germany's chaotic postwar situation, Mercedes' recovery process was phenomenally swift.  By 1949, the company was already showing a profit.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, the company produced some of its most important models and exported to new markets, including the United States.  The 300, first produced in 1951, became a symbol of both its owners' personal financial success and Germany's overall economic recovery, known as the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle.  Germany's first post-war Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, used several different 300s during his tenure, and so 300s became popularly known as Adenauers.  A modified Adenauer was eventually given to Pope John XXIII in 1960. 

The 300 eventually gave rise to a racing model, the 300SL ("sport light").  The 300SL saw victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at the Nurburgring, and in the Carrera Panamericana races in 1952.  American auto-importer Max Hoffman thought affluent Americans (living, like the Germans, in a period of rapid economic growth), would be interested in a production version of the model.  The 1954 300SL was the first fuel-injection car available to the public.  In its time, it was the world's fastest production car.  It was also very eye-catching with its trademark gull-wing doors.  The 300SL became the first in a line of SL models that continues to this day.  Today, the 300SL is highly sought after by collectors with prices as high as $1,000,000.  Sports Car International named it the fifth best sports car of all time.  Mercedes also developed the smaller 190SL released in 1955.  When Daimler-Benz of North America was established the same year, the 190SL and 300SL were a major part of Mercedes' early American success. 

From Sport to Luxury

Although Mercedes broke into the US market with sporting models, it was the full size luxury models that really helped the brand.  The 220S "fintail," released in 1959, featured a host of new safety features, including:  a padded dash and steering wheel, improved headrests, a first aid kit, and industry-first front and rear crumple zones.   1961's 300SE (Sport Einspritzmotor, Sport Fuel Injection Engine) was the replacement for the 300 Adenauer.  It featured air suspension, power steering and fuel injection. 

It was the 600, though, that cemented Mercedes' reputation as a luxury brand due to its frequent use as a limousine.  The 600 was available in short wheel base bodies, meant to be driven by the owner; and long wheel base bodies, meant to be driven by a chauffeur.  Some of these long wheel base models were in the landaulet style, with a hard top over the driver and a convertible top over the passenger compartment.  The 600 collected a number of famous and infamous owners over the years.  These included celebrities like Hugh Hefner, John Lennon, Karen Carpenter, Elvis Presley, and Aristotle Onassis; heads of state like Queen Elizabeth II, China's Deng Xiaoping and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who was a major Mercedes shareholder); dictators like Kim Il-Sung , Kim Jong-Il, and Pol Pot; and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.  Pope Paul VI also used a 600 laundulet. 

The Shah of Iran's fondness for (and large financial stake in) Mercedes led to the development of one of the company's most important models, the Gelandeagen or G-Wagen.  The Shah recommended that Mercedes build a four-wheel drive sport utility vehicle for military use.  Mercedes teamed with military equipment manufacturer Steyr-Daimler-Puch to develop the Gelandewagen or "cross-country vehicle."  The G-Wagen was released in 1979.  By that point, the Shah had already been overthrown.  Fortunately for Mercedes, many other buyers, both military and civilian were interested.  The G-Wagen has been used by more than sixty different armies, and NATO has requested that Mercedes continue to build some version of the G-Wagen until 2025. 

In 1982, Pope John Paul II was presented with a modified G-Wagen.  It was painted in pearl and gold, the Papal colors, and had a glass structure, through which the Pope could be seen by the public, affixed to the back.  This might be the vehicle most visually associated with the idea of the Popemobile. 

 

In the 1990s

In the 1990s, Mercedes changed the way it named its vehicles.  It still uses alphanumeric designations, but today the letter refers to a model line.  The number is still generally an indicator of engine size (or occasionally an indicator of overall engine performance).  This began with the E-Class.  Recall that E in a model's designation had previously indicated a fuel injection engine.  Once this feature had become de rigueur, it was no longer necessary to note it.  Instead, E came to stand for Executive.  Other 1990's Mercedes models bore class titles.  The G-Wagen became the G-Class, for example.  The C-Class (C for compact), introduced in 1993, was Mercedes smallest car until the introduction of the A-Class in 1997. 

The A-Class was a small, sleek hatchback which won its designer Autocar magazine's Designer of the Year Award.  It wasn't without its problems, though.  In a turn of events that could only have happened in Sweden, the A-Class was shown to roll over during a test by a Swedish automotive magazine which purported to measure a cars maneuverability when faced with an elk springing into the road.  Mercedes, believe it or not, took the elk test seriously and recalled every A-Class sold up to that point.  It eventually fixed the problem through an improved suspension and electronic stability control. 

Around this same time, Mercedes introduced its midsize SUV, the M-Class.  The company had just begun manufacturing in the United States, and the SUV seemed like a good fit for the US market.  It formed Mercedes-Benz US International and established factories in Tuscaloosa, Oklahoma, and Vance, Alabama.  The M-Class was first built at the Vance plant.  It proved to be a huge sales success in the US.

Hoping to strengthen its foothold in the US market, Daimler-Benz merged with the Chrysler Corporation in 1998.  The merged company was referred to as Daimler-Chrysler.  The merger was billed as a "merger of equals," but many Chrysler investors felt that it was really Daimler-Benz taking over Chrysler.  As though to prove these investors correct, Daimler-Chrysler eventually changed its name to Daimler Auto Group (Daimler AG) and sold about 80% of its stake in Chrysler to a capital management fund. 

In the 1990s, Mercedes recalled its racing past by moving decidedly into the high-performance market.  First, in 1990, it signed a cooperation agreement with the Mercedes customization firm AMG Motorenbau und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH (AMG Engine Production and Development, Ltd.), or AMG.  AMG, founded by two former Mercedes engineers, had been modifying Mercedes cars since 1967.  In 1999, Daimler Chrysler purchased a 51% stake in AMG and began officially selling AMG models.  In 2005, Daimler AG took on AMG as a wholly owned subsidiary.  At AMG, each engine is hand built by one engineer who stamps the engine with a nameplate bearing that engineer's signature.  In 2010, AMG made its ties to Mercedes' racing past explicit by developing the SLS AMG inspired by the 300SL and even possessing the classic racer's gull-wing doors.  

Mercedes Today

Mercedes had perhaps earned the right to look backwards in self-congratulation, after its decades of looking forward.  From the very first automobile to the earliest supercharged engines, on to success on the track and offroad, Mercedes has developed an admirable legacy of engineering that continues even today.  Recently, Mercedes has released the F 015 prototype, which is an attempt at an autonomous car featuring swivel seats to turn the interior into a lounge-like room or, if need be, a drivable car; touch screens embedded to the side that reveal information such as navigation and general vehicle information; and a phone-tracking app to locate the car after it has parked itself. Their B-Class car with electric drive is another attempt at technological advancement with zero emissions and a home charging station. Models like these show how Mercedes not only plans to keep up the innovation, but also plans to do it with the style and class it's always been known to have.

Mercedes Benz is a registered trademark of Daimler AG. 1A Auto is not affiliated with or sponsored by Mercedes Benz or Daimler AG. See all trademarks.
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