Eric Boucher - 2011-04-27
Open since 2006, this temple devoted to Mercedes is the world’s largest automobile museum. The 160 vehicles displayed in its 16 000 m² are veritable relics of the history of the marque.
First-time visitors to Stuttgart are usually struck by the provincial character of the capital of Baden-Württemberg. When arriving from the airport via the Neue Weinsteige, which heads down steeply into the Neckar valley nestling the Swabian town, one discovers in the surrounding area wooded hills and vine-covered slopes. Stuttgart is home to 440 hectares of vineyards, making it one of Germany’s largest wine-producing areas but not necessarily making it the obvious choice for the production HQ of that most luxurious motor car, the Mercedes.
On consulting tourist brochures, one nevertheless learns that it was in Stuttgart that the steam plough, airship, drill, pretzel, bra and, incidentally, the first automobile, were invented, the latter by Messrs Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz. It is also the 6th largest city in Germany, with 590,000 inhabitants, 2 universities, 6 colleges of higher education, 14 polytechnics and 140,000 companies, which employ nearly 1.4 million people. Naturally, Stuttgart has its football team. And since football and cars are often good chums, the Mercedes-Benz Museum is located just opposite the football club’s stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Arena, formerly called the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion. On 19 May 2006, just before the FIFA World Cup, it was inaugurated by the chairman and managing director of the Dieter Zetsche group.
The marque’s DNA
Designed by Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio – who were notably responsible for Rotterdam’s superb Erasmus bridge – the new museum is an ode to the automobile as much in its design as in the technical qualities of its construction.
All rounded forms and curves, the building has no right angles, as if it had to satisfy the laws of aerodynamics. The museum’s façades are clad in aluminium and glass borrowed from the automobile, and the general architecture in the shape of a clover leaf is supposed to evoke the nearby road junction linking the B14 and B10 highways… Indeed, since the museum is, as it were, attached to the B10, motorists heading to the Neckar valley along this road have the impression of “literally penetrating the building”, emphasises the architect. The architectonics of the museum also use certain technical characteristics from the construction of motorway bridges: the exhibition rooms must be capable of bearing the weight of 10 trucks, in the knowledge that there are 33 metres (108 ft) between ceiling and floor, with no pillars to support the structure.
An audio guide is available in eight languages, with adaptations for children.
The museum is linked by a gallery to the Mercedes-Benz Center, an area set aside for events and for the display and sale of the most recent models. Here you can have something to eat and purchase Mercedes accessories, from key rings to caps via the latest SLR MacLaren.
The building’s internal design, for its part, is an expression of genetics, with two spiral tour routes inspired by the structure of a DNA molecule, a double helix symbolising the marque’s heritage. For our part, we are inclined to see therein a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright, the spiral tour route, as much as the external shape of the building, being strikingly reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
You will need around 2 hours to take in the 9 levels, 160 vehicles and 1,500 exhibits. The tour starts in a spectacular 42-metre-high (138 ft) patio area where you take luxurious capsule-shaped lifts straight to the top floor. This is where the exhibition begins, resembling a slow descent to the heart of 120 years of automobile history. The double spiral enables a chronological tour on one hand, and a thematic tour on the other. The first spiral tour route is divided into legendary periods: The Invention of the Automobile (1886-1900); The Birth of the Brand (1900-1914); Diesels and Superchargers, (1914-1945); Form and Diversity (1945-1960), etc. The second spiral is classified according to great themes: heavy transport, racing drivers, long-haul expeditions...
For many car lovers, the tour will reach its climax with the years 1930-1950, which represent the golden age of the automobile. The highlight of the tour is a face-to-face encounter with the impressive Mercedes-Benz 500 K cabriolet from 1936 – “K” for Kompressor. Only 354 units of this sublime 5-metre-long torpedo, equipped with an 8-cylinder engine capable of propelling it to 160 kph (99.4 mph), were produced. More thrills lie in store on the floor of the 300 SLs, among them Rudolf Uhlenhaut’s famous 300 SLR. Uhlenhaut – director of research at the time – used it on a daily basis as a company car. He had a lot of nerve, considering that this high-powered car was directly derived from Formula 1, with its 2,496 cc 8-cylinder in-line engine developing 257 hp. Only 8 SLRs were made, just two of them gullwing coupés.
One of the most spectacular display areas, completing the tour, is the one devoted to automobile records. A vast curved track, covered in asphalt like a racing circuit, presents all the marque’s celebrated racing cars. One can, for example, admire the legendary W 25s in which Rudolf Caracciola became champion of Europe and Manfred von Brauchitsch was timed at a top speed of 380 kph (236 mph) on the Avus track, in Berlin (in 1935 and 1936).
Mercedes that marked their era
Kaiser Wilhelm II – The case of good old Wilhelm speaks volumes for the capacity of certain statesmen to anticipate society’s great changes. “I believe in the horse. The automobile is nothing more than a passing phenomenon.” And again: “As long as I have warm horses, I will never sit in these stinking carts”… Until he saw American millionaire Clarence Gray Dinsmore’s Mercedes and immediately ordered one himself. The museum showcases his Mercedes-Benz 770 "Grosser Mercedes" cabriolet from 1932.
Hirohito – Apparently the emperors had a soft spot for the "Grosser Mercedes", since Hirohito’s 770 Pullman-Limousine from 1935 occupies a place of honour next to that of Wilhelm II.
John-Paul II – The most famous Mercedes may not be the limousine, but rather the M-Class Popemobile. Bullet-proof Mercedes have been used since John-Paul II was the intended victim of an assassination attempt in 1981.
Ringo Starr and Lady Di – The ex-Beatle and the princess had the privilege of owning a Mercedes, but not with the same good fortune. In 1992, Lady Di was the first member of the royal family to buy a foreign car, a Mercedes 500 SL. National pride suffered a blow and the English press flew into a rage. In September of the same year Diana had to part with her superb red coupé, which now occupies a prominent position in the museum.
From 10 May to 25 September, the museum will hold the Art & Stars & Cars exhibit. It will present 160 pieces from 80 world famous artists. All belong to the Daimler art collection, such as Andy Warhol’s legendary Cars series.