Exterior view
Exterior view. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Stuttgart, Germany – Well, I guess it’s fitting that the company that built the first car has a great deal of respect for its history.

Look at the new Mercedes-Benz Museum, a six-storey, 16,500-square-metre, 50-million-Euro palace of shimmering steel and undulating concrete, and you understand just how serious Mercedes-Benz thinks its history is. Constructed in a double helix that connects six exhibition halls ful
l of historically significant Benzes to a separate “thread” of six halls of automotive curiosities, the Museum opens to the public on May 19, and will likely host upward of 500,000 visitors a year..

Designed by UN Studio, a Dutch company that won an international design competition held by DaimlerChrysler, the Museum sits on a concrete plinth at the entrance to Stuttgart, within full view of the highway. At night, it’s as if the cars in the exhibits are floating in midair.


Early Benz and Daimler vehicles (pre-1904)
Early Benz and Daimler vehicles (pre-1904). Click image to enlarge


While the major “legend” exhibitions are something to behold – everything from Karl Benz’s first engine to the first Mercedes Simplex, a spectacular 500K, a trio of 1950s 300SLs, and a room full of safety test vehicles – it’s actually the “collection” halls which contain the most interesting finds. One room is filled with “helper” vehicles, from ambulances to snowplows to the Formula 1

Early Benz bicycles
Early Benz bicycles. Click image to enlarge


safety car, and a C55 AMG wagon. Another contains cars owned by celebrities, including a bus used to transport the 1976 German world cup soccer team, Ringo Starr’s beaten-up 190E AMG, Princess Diana’s 1991 SL, and the Popemobile G-Class, complete with gold wheels, gold badges, and bulletproof canopy on the back.

The two threads both lead to a massive display featuring race cars lined up along a banked curve

First cars: Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz
First cars: Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Click image to enlarge

that contains everything from a “Blitzen Benz” which broke land speed records in the 1930s, to cab-over racing trucks running 1,500-horsepower turbo-diesels, to Gary Pafett’s modern-day C-Class DTM and Kimi Raikkonnen’s Formula 1 car. Stirling Moss’ Mille
Miglia-winning 300SLR is here, along with the Mercedes-powered race car that won the Indy 500. Mounted on the wall of the technology exhibit next door are a 190E race car, and a 1970s aerodynamic test bed with a central dorsal fin.


Porsche designed, 3,000 horsepower, world record car
Porsche designed, 3,000 horsepower, world record car. Click image to enlarge


My favourite of the entire collection is a 1939 record-breaking T80 world record car. With a body hand-beaten out of raw aluminum, this six-wheeled monster was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, and its 44-litre engine produced 3,000 horsepower. In 1940, it reached a top speed of over 600 km/h, not on some racetrack but on the autobahn near Dessau.


Bus exhibit
Bus exhibit. Click image to enlarge


But the 170 cars featured in the new museum building are just the tip of the iceberg of a corporate collection that numbers 450. A few minutes away in another, innocuous-looking building, resides Mercedes’ Classic department. Behind it are two warehouses packed to the gills with tasty Benzes, everything from several replicas of the original three-wheeled Benz to several of David Coulthard’s Formula 1 cars.


Cars from the 1920s and 1930s
Cars from the 1920s and 1930s. Click image to enlarge

It’s hard to describe the depth and breadth of the collection. In the first building are several 600 limousines, with armouring, lowered suspensions, and stretched wheelbases. There are original AMG race cars, and a 1950s sedan – capped with plastic cow statuettes – that was rallied across Australia. There are more 300SL gullwings than I’ve ever seen in the same place at once, a styling model of the Maybach show car from a few years ago, two C111 experimental sports cars powered by rotary engines, and S-class limousines belonging to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and South African president Nelson Mandela share space with old SLs in various states of restoration.


Mercedes-Benz 500K
Mercedes-Benz 500K. Click image to enlarge

Next door, there’s an entire fleet of Le Mans-winning Sauber-Mercedes Group C racers, examples of all of the recent McLaren-Mercedes F1 cars, the 1953 SL that won the Carrera Panamericana, and numerous priceless prototypes. Retired styling chief Bruno Sacco’s daily-driver CL500 – complete with dealer stickers from Italy – is here, too. A series of storage containers hold everything from an old S-Class sedan to vintage “silver arrows” Grand Prix cars to last year’s DTM (German Touring Car) entries.


Mercedes Simplex, 1906 - Oldest complete Mercedes in existence
Mercedes Simplex, 1906 – Oldest complete Mercedes in existence. Click image to enlarge

What’s amazing about this collection is that the vast majority of it is in driveable condition. Mercedes-Benz Classic oversees a list of over 4,000 separate types of replacement parts, a stockpile that’s worth upwards of 250 million Euros. Whether you drive an 1886 Benz or a 25-year-old SL (it’s at age 25 where stewardship of a model passes from Mercedes’ main division to the Classic team), there will always be parts and knowledge available to keep it running. Since about 50% of the world’s classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles reside in the U.S. – and most of them in California – Mercedes is opening a new Classic facility in Irvine, near Los Angeles, to serve the North American market.

Popemobile
Popemobile. Click image to enlarge


always be parts and knowledge available to keep it running. Since about 50% of the world’s classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles reside in the U.S. – and most of them in California – Mercedes is opening a new Classic facility in Irvine, near Los Angeles, to serve the North American market.

Owners of old Mercedes also have the option of having the Classic department perform full assessments and restorations of their vehicles. An inspection o

German soccer team bus
German soccer team bus. Click image to enlarge


f a classic car takes several days, and involves some vaguely “CSI”-style procedures, including precise dating of the metal used in a car’s chassis, to accurately determine its age and value. Uwe Neugebauer, the centre’s manager of parts and logistics, says that minute differences can mean a drastically different value; an authentic SSK is worth over 6 million Euro, but one whose chassis has been shortened from a derivative model might be worth less than half that.
One of the most interesting projects on the go is at the

Trio of SLs: 300SLR, Roadster, Gullwing
Trio of SLs: 300SLR, Roadster, Gullwing. Click image to enlarge


back of the restoration shop, a vintage Mercedes convertible that once belonged to the king of Jordan. It had already gone through a full restoration once, but was parked in the wrong place – Baghdad – and was severely damaged during a bombing raid. It’s been stripped down to its bare metal again, and is being carefully rebuilt over what will probably be a two-year process.


Sir Stirling Moss car from 1955 Mille Miglia
Sir Stirling Moss car from 1955 Mille Miglia. Click image to enlarge

The Classic department sells cars, too, about 45 of them a year. To a one, they’re impeccably restored and mechanically sound, and command a slight price premium over other cars in the market of similar age and condition. But they come with the peace of mind that only the backing of Mercedes’ entire Classic organization can provide: access to a huge >supply of spare parts and to the combined knowledge contained in all of the company’s archives. Buy a restored Gullwing and it comes with a two-year warranty just like any other Mercedes sold in Europe.


CLK, DTM, and other race cars
CLK, DTM, and other race cars. Click image to enlarge

This month, much of the Classic department’s workshop is filled with old race cars which are being prepared to run in the Mille Miglia road rally across Italy. Since Stirling Moss’ #722 SLR is now ensconced in the museum, Mercedes will be running Juan-Manuel Fangio’s old SLR instead, alongside a vintage Mercedes sedan which has been rally-prepped, and the aforementioned 6-million-Euro SSK, whose V8 engine still has a savage bark.

1970 C111 Prototype, and 2001 F400 carving concept car
1970 C111 Prototype, and 2001 F400 carving concept car. Click image to enlarge

The cars in the museum, too, are mostly in running order, and the central atrium has doors into the exhibit areas where cars can be inserted into and removed from the displays. “We think the best way to preserve the heritage of these cars,” says Neugebauer, “is not to just park them. It is to see them in action.”

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