Mercedes-Benz can legitimately claim to be the oldest car manufacturer. In 1886 Karl Benz filed a patent for his ‘motor-wagen’ while, separately, Gottleib Daimler, with his collaborator Wilhelm Maybach, was working on making the internal combustion engine more powerful and reliable and installing it in a ‘horseless carriage’. Both went on to make some of the most successful early cars as well as supplying engines to many other pioneers.
Both the Benz and Daimler companies become major manufacturers in their own rights, the latter producing cars under the Mercedes name – taken from the daughter of its most influential customer, Emil Jellinek. The British Daimler company was initially an offshoot of the German firm, but became independent soon after its establishment.
Benz cars tended to be more conservative and, although with models such as the ‘Blitzen’ Benz they did achieve some early race and record-setting success, it was Mercedes that became the most prominent in early Grand Prix and the famous Gordon Bennett races.
By the 1920s the prevailing economic conditions made business hard for both companies, despite their cars earning strong reputations for quality and, in the case of Mercedes with the S, SS and SSK models (designed by Ferdinand Porsche), in competition. In 1926 they merged to form Daimler-Benz with the new company’s cars badged Mercedes-Benz.
Superchargers and silver arrows
During the 1930s the unforgettable 500K and 540K supercharged cars were produced, alongside a range of less dramatic but important cars and commercial vehicles – with innovations including the first diesel production car, independent suspension and a host of others. On the race tracks the immortal ‘Silver Arrows’ came to dominate Grand Prix racing.
Gullwings, quality and safety
The Second World War laid waste to much of the company’s facilities but production was soon resumed, initially of the pre-war 170 model, but by 1954 Mercedes-Benz was back winning Grand Prix and sports car races with Fangio and Moss and had created the iconic 300SL Gullwing.
Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s Mercedes-Benz road cars became the industry’s benchmark for quality and led the move for greater safety with the introduction of the safety passenger cell, crumple zones, seat belts, ABS and airbags.
In the 1960s and 70s Mercedes-Benz took part in rallies but returned to frontline competition with the Sauber Group C cars in the 1980s and to formula one in the 90s with McLaren.