, father of the motorcar, carried out some experiments in a shed and was suspected by his neighbours of counterfeiting money, so he quit his job. He quit, too, because the stationery-engine manufacturer who employed him thought there was no future in any other possible use for the internal-combustion engine
. Thanks to Daimler's inventive perseverance, however, one of the greatest breeds of automobiles was born and nurtured. Many persons consider the 60-hp chain-drive Mercedes of 1903 to be the world's first real sports car. Just after it was produced, the Canstatt factory was razed by a catastrophic fire. Today, the descendant company (Daimler merged with Benz in 1926) occupies spacious quarters in Untertiirkheim, a suburb of Stuttgart not far from the site of the original factory.
The name of Daimler, however, is no longer used to indicate an automobile
, since a separate company in England branched off and retained the name (this confusion is something like the French Talbot and British Sunbeam-Talbot affair). Daimler-Benz products are known as Mercedes-Benz cars, the name Mercedes having been chosen in honor of the daughter of one of the company's "angels." Fans of Mercedes cars in the old days were a little disappointed when the fast chain-drive series gave way to a more sedate shaft-drive job. Shortly before World War 2, there appeared the company's trade-mark ... a pointed radiator, with which one inevitably associates the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star.
A variety of town carriages, touring cars, roadsters and a few sports cars were produced, but not until the Roaring Twenties did Mercedes wholeheartedly clamber aboard the sports-car bandwagon. The supercharged 4.5-litre "K" was an impressive performer, and its successors - the "S" series of 1927 were even more so. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, Daimler-Benz built the finest and most exciting cars of its career, the 7-litre, supercharged "SS" models and their modified counterparts, the short-chassis "SSK
" and specially lightened "SSKL." These cars would really travel, and there are few thrills today that can equal a ride in one of them.
The crankshaft-driven Roots-type supercharger
, designed to force air into the carburettors rather than to force mixture into the combustion chambers, added about 50 horsepower to the 170 already available. This supercharger
was used for extra acceleration in standing starts, hill climbing and emergencies; it was "cut in" by flooring the accelerator pedal, and remained out of operation during normal driving. The sound of the blower, added to a car that was already very noisy and had brutally hard suspension, massive size, and he-man controls, made for an unforgettably invigorating driving experience. In its most modified form, the "SSKL" version had a drilled, lightened short chassis and an oversized supercharger raising power output to 300. Well suited for racing, it could approach 150 mph.
During the Thirties, with Herr Schickelgruber in power, Germany's automotive picture changed drastically - as indeed it did everywhere in the world, the depression having virtually killed off luxury sports cars. Suitable for an episode in Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," professionalism in Grand Prix racing culminated in a tense, face-saving contest between Hitler and Mussolini. Despite the excellence of Italy's racing cars, Germany had better ones; the government-financed Auto Union took advantage of the leading talents from every German motor company, building specialized racing cars that will probably never be surpassed. In a canny attempt to assure his country's victory, II Duce had Alfa-Romeo
prepare some 2.5-litre cars in secret; then at the last minute he changed the official race formula, only to be soundly trounced by Mercedes who had a 1.5-litre car ready and waiting. Finally Mussolini decided he wouldn't play any more, and cancelled motor racing because it was "unsafe."
All this preoccupation with Grand Prix racing had a deadening effect on German sports cars. The Mercedes-Benz 5-litre Type 500-K and 5.5-litre Type 540-K
are the best-known models of this era, but they were luxurious touring cars rather than real sports machines, and mechanically they were not always to be trusted. The usual body style of this period was a massive convertible with sweeping fenders and heavy, large-hubbed wheels. The two-stage-supercharged engines were straight eights. In addition to these expensive models, Daimler-Benz produced a variety of well-engineered smaller cars, and employed the popular central-spine type of chassis construction.
The rear-engined 170-V
passenger model, particularly, was worth remembering. A couple of experimental sports-competition cars in the smaller displacement range were tried out, but nothing seems to have come ol them. During this period, Daimler-Benz also had the dubious honor of manufacturing staff cars, parade cars and general limousines for the use of Nazi Party leaders. The most spectacular of these truck-like conveyances had five-speed gearboxes, split De Dion rear axles, and 7.7-litre engines; the ponderous bodies were fitted with sirens, red lights, bulletproof glass, and the other usual acoutrements of good living. In their class, however, these cars offered no competition to the Bugatti Royale
After the war Daimler-Benz didn't immediately introduce a new model like some European manufacturers, but pursued instead the usual conservative policy dictated by requirements of thorough research. The solid, unexciting series 170
, a 1.7-litre family car roughly paralleling the Rover
, was put back into production at a retail price of $1,890. An identical chassis and body were also made available, for $250 extra, with a four-cylinder diesel engine
that, in its unobtrusive way, set a major landmark in the history of transportation. The diesel
offered twice the mileage per gallon of many gasoline engines. Add to this the far lower cost of diesel fuel and you had a five-passenger car that cost no more to run than a motorcycle.
In the quality class, Daimler-Benz introduced two postwar series of great interest. One was the 2.2-litre six-cylinder single-overhead-camshaft Series 220
, delivering 80 horsepower at the clutch at 4,600 rpm. This was a medium-sized car ranking among the four or five best-finished in the world, engineered and built to last. Weighing less than 3,000 pounds, it offered good acceleration in its class and a top speed just under 90 mph. The other new Mercedes-Benz used a 5-litre version of the same engine with higher compression ratio, developing 147 horsepower at 5,200 rpm in standard form. A longer chassis and heavier coachwork are fitted to this car, placing it in the large luxury class. It was available either as a cloth-upholstered sedan or as a leather-upholstered four-door convertible.
After testing the Mercedes 300
sedan, The Motor was moved to write as follows: "The impression of solidity, although definite, is hard to define. But whether one looks upon or touches an instrument, a door handle, or a control lever, one realizes that they have been designed to work well for decades, and one has only to regard the massive door hinges and the deep carpeting to perceive that throughout the whole car prewar standards of material and finish have been considered not good enough for the post-war market." The Motor criticized only the car's brakes
, which were found insufficient for a car capable of 103 mph. As on all Mercedes-Benz cars, there's a profusion of engineering details to delight the perceptive connoisseur.
The extremely easy steering
, for example, retained its positive accuracy but included a hydraulic damper to stop the transfer of road shock to the steering
wheel. Four-wheel coil suspension
included a front anti-roll bar
and a driver-controlled servo mechanism that stiffens the rear suspension
by one-third if necessary. The heating and defrosting system was unusually well laid out, the headlights were safe for traveling at 80 mph, and the engine's quietness was matched with a low level of wind noise at high speeds. The engine, of course, showed the results of painstaking development. It had a seven-bearing crankshaft, chromium-plated top piston rings, an oil-cooling system, and lead-bronze bearings with hardened surfaces.
Three distinct series of cars made use of the 300 engine
. In addition to the one just described, there was a shorter chassis called the 300-S, which came equipped with triple carburettors and a coupe body (either convertible or hardtop) . Then the 300-SL
, a pure-blooded 150-mph sports car with tubular chassis, aerodynamic body, and modified 172-horsepower engine
, is the model that appeared cold at Le Mans in 1952
and methodically proceeded to take first, second, and fourth places in the 24-hour race. An observer remarked at the time, "Mercedes never enters a race unless sure in advance of winning it."
He was referring to the superbly thorough preparation of team cars and drivers that has always distinguished this company. Later in 1952
, when drivers Kling and Lang produced another double victory in the gruelling Mexican road race, an American enthusiastically described Mercedes' team manager Alfred Neubauer
as a coaching and coordinating genius never before equalled in his field.