Considered the virtual father of the automobile, Mercedes-Benz has a longer heritage than any rival, and one of the most distinguished. No model personifies the distinctiveness of Mercedes-Benz more than the classic 300SL gullwing-door coupe of the mid-1950s. But Mercedes-Benz has led the way in one technology after another, in addition to establishing a powerful reputation for reliable upscale automobiles–and for performance-packed AMG editions.
In 1886, Karl Benz obtained a patent for a three-wheeled vehicle with a 984-cc single-cylinder engine. Around the same time, Gottlieb Daimler built a four-wheeled carriage with a 469-cc engine, which he’d patented in 1883. Finally, in 1926, the two merged to form Daimler-Benz AG.
Daimler had apprenticed as a gunsmith then turned to engineering. In 1872, he became technical director of Deutz Gas Engine Works. Wilhelm Maybach was head designer at Deutz, and Daimler worked under Gustav Otto, who created his own engine. By 1881, Daimler and Maybach had established their own shop. A Daimler gasoline engine had powered a motorcycle and motorboat, before going into a four-wheeled vehicle late in 1886.
In 1889, Daimler and Maybach issued a full-fledged automobile, with a vee-type two-cylinder engine. Called Stahlradwagen (steel-wheeled car), it appeared at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.
Over at Benz, what may have been the world’s first “production” automobile, the Benz Velo, came in 1894. In 1903, Karl Benz built a four-cylinder engine, produced until 1914 when World War I began.
Mercedes was the name of a daughter of Emil Jellinek, Austro-Hungarian Consul in France. Jellinek was also an agent for Daimler, and called his racecar Mercedes. By 1900, he suggested that Daimler build a more modern car, lower and faster, and name it for his daughter. Thus, the 1901 Mercedes. By 1902, the Mercedes name was registered as a trademark, used on all cars (but not trucks).
Early in the 1920s, Daimler-Benz was the first manufacturer to supercharge a production model. Negotiations for the Daimler-Benz merger finished in 1926. A Type S debuted in 1928, with 120 or 180 (supercharged) horsepower. In 1928-34, Mercedes made the 7.1-liter SS and SSK, featuring long hoods and three exhaust pipes passing out the side.
At the 1930 Paris Motor Show, Daimler-Benz had a 7.7-liter straight-eight “Grosser,” along with a modest-size Type 170 with a 1.7-liter engine. Daimler-Benz issued the world’s first diesel production car in 1936. Late in the 1930s came the dramatic 540K, with a supercharged straight-eight under its massive hood.
Most of the Daimler-Benz factory was destroyed during World War II, but by February 1946 they had a handmade prototype of a forthcoming 170V sedan. In 1951, models 220 and 300 displayed a more modern look. In 1952, three 300SL racing cars with alloy bodies on multi-tubular space frames finished 1-2-3 at the LeMans race. With its gullwing doors, the 300SL became one of the most distinctive sports cars ever–and the fastest car in the world at that time.
Gullwings lasted only into 1957, replaced by a 300SL roadster with conventional doors. Its more modest 190SL companion sold far better. By the late 1950s, Daimler-Benz had an association with Studebaker-Packard to distribute Mercedes-Benzes.
A 230SL roadster replaced the 190SL/300SL in 1963. Also new was a massive, luxurious Type 600 sedan on a 126-inch wheelbase. Pullman limousines measured 246 inches overall–the world’s longest car.
Sedans and roadsters evolved through the 1960s, and “New Generation” bodies went on the smaller models in 1968. A new, sizable S-Class sedan debuted in 1972. Two years later, Mercedes-Benz had its first five-cylinder diesel, in the 300D. Smaller models were reworked into a new W123 series in 1976. Late in the 1980s, engineers developed 4Matic four-wheel drive for the 300 series.
A compact C-Class debuted for 1994, capturing substantial numbers of U.S. customers. In 1998, Mercedes-Benz launched the larger, fashionable CLK-Class coupe and convertible. Also that year, a smaller SLK-Class roadster joined the familiar SL-Class two-seater.
Mercedes-Benz turned to SUVs in 1998 with the M-Class. Other SUVs and crossovers followed in the 2000s, including the GL-, GLK-, and R-Class. For three decades, Mercedes-Benz also has offered the rugged, military-look G-Class, suggesting a super-upscale Jeep or a Land Rover. Full-size CL-Class coupes joined their S-Class sedan cousins in 2007. Mercedes-Benz has remained among the few automakers to sell appreciable numbers of diesel-engine automobiles in the U.S. Mercedes-Benz also is widely known for issuing higher-powered, tighter-tuned AMG versions of most models.