The First Modern Automobile
The first decade of the Twentieth Century was one of great discovery and change for the still-emerging automobile industry.
Electric and steam-powered vehicles both enjoyed early success—more so in America than in Europe—but gasoline-powered vehicles firmly established dominance between 1900-1910.
Both Daimler and Benz used competition to improve and establish awareness of their vehicles. The 1900 Benz 14 hp Rennwagen was powered by a 166 cu. in. horizontally-opposed two-cylinder engine good for 40 mph. This early Benz had an open cooling system, with water flowing through pipes fitted with cooling plates and partially vaporized in a condenser behind the seat.
The 1900 Daimler Phoenix racing car was a 23 hp vehicle powered by a 336 cu. in. inline 4-cylinder engine that produced 27 hp and a top speed of 50 mph. The engine alone weighed 660 lbs. Together with the high center of gravity and short wheelbase, these automobiles were very difficult to control. Following a serious accident in the 1900 Nice-La Turbie race, this led to the development of the first “modern” automobile.
The 1901 35hp Mercedes is considered to be the first modern automobile. The car combined a front mounted radiator and a lightweight engine mounted low in the chassis with rear wheel drive. The car was designed by Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, together with Daimler’s son Paul, and represented a major advance on the 1900 Daimler Phoenix Rennwagen.
Although it was developed initially as a race car, the 35 hp also entered production as the Mercedes-Simplex. “Mercedes” was the name Jellinek gave to the new car, after his daughter. “Simplex” described the relative ease of driving the vehicle in comparison with anything else on the road.
A 1902 Mercedes-Simplex 40 hp exhibited by the Mercedes-Benz Museum is the oldest Mercedes in existence. The car is powered by a 414 cu. in. inline-4, providing 40 hp at 1,100 rpm with a top speed of 50 mph.
Wilhelm Maybach was critical to the early success of Daimler and Mercedes. “In many ways he played a more important role than Daimler himself,” wrote one historian. It was Maybach who was responsible for invention of the spray nozzle carburetor, the modern honeycomb radiator and the four-speed gearbox.
Choosing a Direction
At this point visitors to the museum are given a choice of directions in which to proceed. Both are excellent choices. The first route leads visitors through a chronological history of Mercedes/Daimler and Benz history, culminating with a very special exhibit of racing cars.
The second direction leads through five galleries that exhibit a portfolio of the companies’ work over 125 years and now more.
The Mercedes-Benz Museum’s unique “double-helix” design—representing the dna of the automobile—enables visitors to cross over between one direction and the other at each level.
The museum displays 80 automobiles and 40 commercial vehicles, demonstrating the importance commercial vehicles have also represented in Mercedes-Benz history. The gallery structure makes it possible to observe an overview of the entire museum and spend additional time in areas of individual interest, all in one—very full—day.